Expressive Writing can Help
TRY THESE WRITING EXERCISES
What is Expressive Writing?
Expressive writing is easy. Just sit down and write about something that is bothering you. It’s simple and there is no right or wrong way to do it.
This website gives you some ways to try out expressive writing to help you deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. By writing about your thoughts and feelings for as little as 5-10 minutes, you may change the ways you are thinking, feeling, and even sleeping.
What are the Benefits of Expressive Writing?
Expressive writing has been around for over 30 years. Hundreds of experiments have demonstrated its effectiveness in improving people’s mental and physical health. By putting emotional upheavals into words, we start to understand them better. Once we have a better handle on our problems, we can move forward and get on with life.
These pages were designed as coping tools for people who are trying to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. In reality, expressive writing can work for any issues you may be thinking or worrying about – major or minor.
How to start writing
To start, plan to spend at least 5-10 minutes (or longer, if you want) writing about one of the topics below. The basic instructions are for you to write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about the topic without worrying about spelling, grammar, or sentence structure. Just write.
For most studies, people are encouraged to find a private place to write where you won’t be disturbed. Your writing is for you and only you. Although you will receive a copy at the end, what you do with it is your decision. Typically, people are encouraged to write about the same general topic 2-4 times, but that is up to you.
We recommend you start with the traditional prompt, one that asks you to explore your thoughts and feelings about COVID-19. After you have written, you will fill out a very brief survey and then a computer will analyze what you have written. You will then get feedback about your survey and the ways you have written. You can then either print your writing and feedback directly or we can email it to you.
Note: This project is intended as a learning experience about expressive writing. Although writing can be a powerful coping tool, it is not a substitute for psychotherapy. If you are currently highly distressed or depressed, expressive writing is not recommended. If, while you are writing, you become upset or agitated, simply stop writing. Although the writing samples will be computer analyzed, they will remain anonymous and confidential. This website is not monitored and most writing samples may not be read for months, if ever.
Below are examples of prompts. I encourage you to go to the website to write. The tools they have built in under each prompt support you and guide you through the writing process.
1. Thoughts and feelings about COVID-19
For the next 5-10 minutes (or longer if you like), really let go and explore your deepest thoughts and feelings about the COVID-19 outbreak. How is it affecting you and the people around you? How is it related to other significant experiences in your life? Or how are you dealing with feelings such as anxiety or isolation? Really try to address those issues most important and significant for you.
2. Social life
COVID-19 has changed the way most people interact with others around them. How is your social world changing? How are you handling the changes in physical and social distance? Does the COVID outbreak make you feel alone or isolated? This might also be an opportunity to write about your feelings concerning some of your friendships that may be changing.
3. Work and money
For a large number of people, the current situation is having a major impact on their work life and their financial situation. If these topics are important for you, this might be a good time to write about them. In your writing you might touch on your emotions and thoughts concerning money, changes in relationships with coworkers, clients, managers, or others, or the very nature of your job.
The spread of the COVID-19 virus is a threat to people’s physical and mental health. Many people are justifiably frightened about the disease because it can kill people of all ages. If you are fundamentally concerned about your own or others’ health or even the prospect of death, you might write about the nature of your thoughts and anxieties and analyze why you feel the way you do.
5. Feelings of uncertainty, fear, and the future
The COVID-19 is one of the most anxiety-provoking experiences that our culture has experienced in a generation. If you are feeling high levels of fear and uncertainty, use this time to look inward and ask yourself, why are you so anxious? What is the root of this uncertainty? What would be healthy ways to cope with it? In this exercise, really try to analyze your feelings of uncertainty about the future in order to better understand them.
6. Romantic and family relationships
Many romantic and other family relationships have been changing because of COVID-19. With shelter-in-place rules, your living arrangements have likely changed which may be affecting your feelings about privacy, loneliness, or the kinds of interactions you would like to have. For some this could be a positive experience, a negative experience, or even both. If this is something you would benefit writing about, use this opportunity to explore your thoughts and feelings about your current relationships with others.
7. Life path
Many people are thinking about some of the basic aspects of their lives. If this is true for you, please use this time to explore your thoughts and feelings about some of the basic directions or purpose in your life. How might you be thinking differently about your goals and the ways you are approaching work, family, spiritual issues, your life’s meaning, and related big questions. How might you take advantage of this time?
8. Education and Student life
Many people have seen their education and educational plans disrupted. Some things about school life may never be rescheduled or replaced. Write your deepest thoughts and feelings about how COVID-19 has changed your life as a student. You might think about how these school-related changes have affected your plans for the future, your interactions with teachers and classmates, the topics you are studying, and even your life at a real campus.
This information is information was created for the PANDEMIC PROJECT. Visit the website for additional resources, tools, and support.
The Research Team:
James W. Pennebaker is the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He has a long history of studying how people, groups, and entire societies approach, think about, and cope with personal and large-scale upheavals. In addition to studying major shared events such as 9/11 and The Texas A&M bonfire tragedy, he has the ways people deal with deeply personal experiences. In 1986, he and his students discovered that writing about an upsetting event for as little as 15 minutes a day for three consecutive days could improve people’s physical and mental health. Since then, over a thousand scientific studies on expressive writing have been published by labs around the world. Expressive writing is considered a reliable tool for helping people deal with both major and minor events in people’s lives. A former chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas, he is the recipient of multiple research and teaching awards. His research is funded, in part, by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Templeton Foundation, and other agencies.
Kate Blackburn is a post-doc research fellow in social psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She explores the perceptual and behavioral processes of language used in people’s stories and social interactions online. Twitter: @kategblackburn
Ashwini Ashokkumar is a senior graduate student in social psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She studies how people interact in social groups and communities and how such interactions are disrupted by threatening events and upheavals. Twitter: @Ashuashok
Laura Vergani is a PhD student in clinical psychology at SEMM – European School of Molecular Medicine, curriculum FOLSATEC – Foundations of the Life Sciences, Bioethics and Cognitive Sciences, at the University of Milan. She is specializing in oncology, doctor-patient relationships, and health psychology.
Sarah Seraj is a PhD student in social psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research looks at how people handle deeply emotional upheavals such as breakups, divorce and infidelity. Twitter: @SerajSarah