Expressive writing


Writing that is used to release emotions, work through a difficult event or gain an understanding of what someone is feeling is often called expressive writing. Expressive writing can be part of talk therapy with a licensed therapist, an activity you do with a formal writing group or something you do on your own.

Many people say they feel more at peace with their situation when they take time to write about it for a few minutes every morning or night. Others use journaling to work through decisions or worries step-by-step.

How expressive writing works

Expressive writing research suggests that you can feel more positive by writing about your thoughts and feelings about cancer in three to four 20-minute sessions. Putting your experience into words may help you to take a step back and understand it more clearly.

Here is some advice for those interested in trying expressive writing at home:

  • Set aside at least 20 minutes alone to write for each session.
  • Write without worrying about how the writing turns out. Grammar, spelling, and logic don’t matter. The goal is to get your feelings out.
  • Try writing once a day for 3 to 4 days, but limit your time to 20 minutes, especially at the beginning. Some research suggests that writing every day for a longer period of time makes you dwell on negative feelings instead of releasing them.

Expressive writing isn’t the same as keeping a journal. When writing in a journal, you write your deepest thoughts and feelings. Expressive writing makes you focus on telling the story of your experience. In an expressive writing session, you create the full story with as much detail as possible, explaining emotions by describing how the scene looks and feels. Instead of your inner thoughts, it reads as if you’re telling your story to someone else, even if you are the only person to read it.

What you write may be very personal. You don’t have to share it with anyone. You could even throw the writing away or delete it or tear it up when you are done.

If you want the support of others in a similar situation, you might consider joining a writing therapy group available through some cancer and community centers or online. In a formal group, you get the guidance of an experienced leader who can help you write in a supportive, safe and private place. You also may enjoy writing in the presence of other people.

Many groups meet in small, 8- to 10-person sessions for an hour or two a week over the course of several weeks. An experienced writing coach leads the class to help you write about your cancer experience.

The format of group sessions is largely up to the writing coach. You might

  • open by reading and discussing a piece of writing by a published author with cancer
  • begin by writing something of your own
  • be asked to read your writing aloud or respond to the writing of others

Joining a group gives you the opportunity to meet others who are going through the same things as you, share your feelings in a way that is unique to you and have the support of a trained professional.

What expressive writing costs

The cost of formal writing therapy will vary based on rates set by the writing coach. It is rarely covered by insurance.