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Use of expressive writing to combat mental and physical health problems

James Pennebaker

1 Feb 2024


Putting upsetting experiences into words is a centrepiece of most mental health interventions, whether in CBT and other therapies, prayer, or talking to friends. Since the mid-1980s, over 2,000 studies have been conducted using expressive writing to help people deal with stress, illness, anxiety, and variety of major and minor upheavals in their lives.

The purpose of this workshop is to explore how and why expressive writing works – both for mental health clients as well as for the professionals who treat them. Unlike other more formal therapies, expressive writing is a simple technique that simply involves writing about painful or anxiety-provoking topics for as little as a few minutes a day for 3-4 days. No formal training, no licensing, no trademark or copyright, no non-disclosure agreements, no standardized method, and no cost.

The event will be equivalent to 1.1/2hrs of CPD.


The workshop will cover:
I. A brief history of expressive writing: how it was discovered and the early findings.
II. A broad overview of the domains where expressive writing has been found to be effective, including improvements in objective markers of mental and physical health, changes in immune and autonomic functioning, and better sleep. Other studies have found writing results in expanded working memory and executive functioning, better work and school performance, and improvements in social connections.
III. A theoretical explanation of the findings. There is no magic bullet. Rather expressive writing results in a cascade of cognitive, biological, and social changes.
IV. A discussion of potential adverse effects and a true awareness that the effects are modest but consistent.
V. Tips on what writing techniques might work best for you or your clients. But most important, is for the writer to draw on their “inner scientist.” See what works best for you. There is no one true way(!).

In addition to question and answer interludes, there will likely be 2-3 brief expressive writing exercises.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this workshop you should:
1. Understand the basic logic of expressive writing
2. Be able to do expressive writing for yourself and to provide guidance for others to try it
3. Approach expressive writing with an open mind while thinking both scientifically and creatively to figure out what does and does not work for you and your clients.

Training Modalities

Mostly didactic, Q&A, brief experiential training with writing.

Key References

Pavlacic, J. M., Buchanan, E. M., Maxwell, N. P., Hopke, T. G., & Schulenberg, S. E. (2019). A meta-analysis of expressive writing on posttraumatic stress, posttraumatic growth, and quality of life. Review of General Psychology, 23(2), 230-250.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down: How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. Guilford Publications.
Qian, J., Zhou, X., Sun, X., Wu, M., Sun, S., & Yu, X. (2020). Effects of expressive writing intervention for women's PTSD, depression, anxiety and stress related to pregnancy: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Psychiatry Research, 288, 112933.
Reinhold, M., Bürkner, P. C., & Holling, H. (2018). Effects of expressive writing on depressive symptoms—A meta‐analysis. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25, e12224.
Sayer, N. A., Noorbaloochi, S., Frazier, P. A., Pennebaker, J. W., Orazem, R. J., Schnurr, P. P., ... & Litz, B. T. (2015). Randomized controlled trial of online expressive writing to address readjustment difficulties among US Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 28, 381-390.
Travagin, G., Margola, D., & Revenson, T. A. (2015). How effective are expressive writing interventions for adolescents? A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 36, 42-55.

About the presenter

Jamie Pennebaker is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. His early research dealt with physical symptoms and health which eventually merged into the discovery of expressive writing. He and his students found that when people were asked to write about emotional upheavals for 3-4 days for 15-20 minutes a day, their physical and mental health improved compared to controls. Over 2,000 studies on expressive writing from labs around the world continue to show the value of this method. For the last 25 years, he has focused on computerized text analysis as a way of understanding and measuring people’s social behaviors and psychological states. His text analysis program, LIWC, is well known in psychology, business, and computer science.

Since receiving his Ph.D. in 1997 from the University of Texas, he has published over 300 articles and written or edited 12 books. He has received many awards and honors for research and teaching. He is among the most cited psychologists in the world. His most recent books are The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (Bloomsbury, 2011) and Opening Up by Writing it Down (Guilford, 2016).

Who should attend

This event is appropriate for anyone who has found themselves worrying or thinking too much about something or is harbouring painful secrets or feelings that are difficult to express to others. Should you not be one of these people, you might have a client who has.

Low Intensity clinical contact hours survey - BABCP Low Intensity Special Interest Group

Please click below if you are interested in contributing to the survey.


The BACP Low Intensity SIG are interested in the impact of clinical contact hours on Low Intensity/Wellbeing Practitioner wellbeing. This questionnaire contains six multi-choice questions and a free text box for you to share your experiences. The answers to these questions will help the BABCP SIG plan how to meet CPD topics and other developments within the SIG.  The SIG hope to produce a write up of the answers to this questionnaire to be shared with SIG members and to be used in training.

View Survey

This FREE conference is for Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners working in Talking Therapies for Anxiety and Depression services and is brought to you by Bespoke Mental Health in collaboration with the NHS England Talking Therapies National PWP Leads Network

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