Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain

Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain

by James W. Pennebaker PhD, Joshua M. Smyth PhD

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Expressing painful emotions is hard—yet it can actually improve our mental and physical health. This lucid, compassionate book has introduced tens of thousands of readers to expressive writing, a simple yet powerful self-help technique grounded in scientific research. Leading experts James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth describe how taking just a few minutes to write about deeply felt personal experiences or problems may help you:

*Heal old emotional wounds
*Feel a greater sense of well-being
*Decrease stress
*Improve relationships
*Boost your immune system

Vivid stories and examples yield compelling insights into secrets, self-disclosure, and the hidden price of silence. The third edition incorporates findings from hundreds of recent studies and includes practical exercises to help you try expressive writing for yourself. It features extensive new information on specific health benefits, as well as when the approach may not be helpful.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462524921
Publisher: Guilford Publications, Inc.
Publication date: 07/15/2016
Edition description: Third Edition
Pages: 210
Sales rank: 287,499
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

James W. Pennebaker, PhD, the originator of expressive writing, is Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Pennebaker conducts award-winning research and has published numerous books on the links between expressive writing and physical and mental health.

Joshua M. Smyth, PhD, is Professor of Biobehavioral Health and of Medicine at The Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Smyth has conducted extensive research on expressive writing and other innovative methods for promoting health and well-being and coping with stress.

Read an Excerpt

Opening Up by Writing It Down

How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain

By James W. Pennebaker, Joshua M. Smyth

The Guilford Press

Copyright © 2016 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4625-2663-5


"Shh ... It's a Secret"


Why do people around the world tell their stories? Is there some kind of urge to confess? Is it healthy for us to divulge our deepest thoughts and feelings? Or, conversely, is it unhealthy not to share the private sides of our lives with others? Questions such as these have captivated psychologists, anthropologists, journalists, and others for generations. This book tells the story about the nature of secrets, self-disclosure, and health. It started with a number of personal twists and turns in our own lives; yet, as we explored these topics, family, friends, students, and colleagues joined in. Their stories, too, are woven throughout this book.

Major secrets can be stressful. Like other stressors, keeping secrets from those close to us can affect our health, including our immune function, the action of our heart and vascular systems, and even the biochemical workings of our brain and nervous systems. In short, keeping back thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can place us at risk for both major and minor diseases.

Whereas harboring secrets is potentially harmful, confronting our personal thoughts and feelings can have remarkable short- and long-term health benefits. Confession, whether by writing or talking (or many other forms of emotional expression or disclosure, as we will see throughout the book), can neutralize many of the problems of secrets. Talking or writing about upsetting things can influence our basic values, our daily thinking patterns, and our feelings about ourselves. In fact, there appears to be a basic need to reveal ourselves to others. Not disclosing our thoughts and feelings can be risky for our mental and physical health. Divulging them can be healthy.

These are the most basic ideas of the book. But, there is much more to the story. Before detailing the nature of revealing secrets, it's helpful to explain how we got into this business.


You will notice that there are two authors of this book: Jamie Pennebaker and Josh Smyth. We have each taken our own journey as it relates to this work. Our stories are quite a bit different, but they both point to the ways almost-random experiences can set up lifelong career paths. Both of us were originally trained as social psychologists — people who study, among other things, attitudes, behaviors, and everyday social relationships. A strong and persistent interest for both of us is how people choose to share their personal experiences with others.

The Joy of Talking

Early in his career, Jamie became fascinated by three seemingly unrelated phenomena: the joy of talking, the nature of lie detection, and the role of self- understanding in influencing the mind–body link (particularly as it related to health and well-being). Piecing together these observations laid the groundwork of an intriguing model that would help map out the nature and consequences of holding secrets and confronting emotional experiences. After graduate school, Jamie found himself teaching a class of 300 freshmen about basic psychology. One day, as part of a class demonstration, he split the students into small groups of people who didn't know one another. Once in their assigned groups, the students were told just to talk for 15 minutes about anything they wanted. As you would expect, they talked about their hometowns, why they had come to college, what dormitory they lived in, friends they had in common, the weather, and related topics — the usual cocktail party fare.

At the end of 15 minutes, everyone returned to their regular seats and estimated how much of the time every person in the group had talked, how much they liked the group, and how much they had learned from the group. Two rather surprising findings emerged:

The more people talked, the more they liked the group.

The more they themselves talked, the more they claimed to have learned from the group.

In other words, as a group member, the more you dominate the conversation, the more you claim that you have learned about the others. In general, it seems we would rather talk than listen. Most of us find that communicating our thoughts is a supremely enjoyable learning experience.

The Polygraph Confession Effect

As you'll see later in the book, both of us have long been fascinated by the links between people's emotions and their physiological activity. An important formative experience occurred when one of us was introduced to the world of lie detection — in particular, the use of biological clues to determine when people were not being truthful.

There is something frighteningly magical about the idea of lie detection. Machines that can accurately read others' private thoughts have been the basis of dreams by police officers, poker players, and parents. A crude approximation of this magical lie detector is the polygraph — an instrument that continuously measures several physiological indicators such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and perspiration on the hand.

In law enforcement, polygraph exams and related lie detection methods assume that when suspects try to deceive their interrogators, their biological stress levels will increase relative to when they tell the truth. In other words, telling a lie should be stressful, and we should be able to reliably detect this response. Although polygraph techniques do better than chance at catching truly guilty suspects, they are far from perfect.

The real value of the polygraph is in bringing about confessions. A particularly skilled polygrapher uses a suspect's biological responses to various questions as an indicator of what topics provoke the most anxiety. Once the "hot" questions are isolated, the polygrapher may note, "Gee, I really believe what you have told me, but my machine shows a huge reaction when you answered that question. Why do you think this is happening?" In more cases than not, deceptive suspects try to rationalize their physiological responses. In so doing, they often contradict their earlier stories. The more they are confronted with these contradictions, the more likely they are to ultimately break down and confess to the crime.

In the early 1980s, Jamie was invited to give a series of talks on emotion and health to some of the top-level polygraphers of the FBI, CIA, and other secret agencies. He spent several late evenings talking with the polygraphers about their jobs. As a group, these people were unusually bright and insightful. Most impressive was a remarkably similar experience that many of the polygraphers reported in interrogating some of their suspects — something we call the polygraph confession effect.

A San Francisco–based polygrapher gave an unforgettable account of the polygraph confession effect. He was called in to give a polygraph exam to a 45-year-old bank vice president who was a suspect in an embezzlement investigation. When initially run through the polygraph exam, the bank vice president's heart rate, blood pressure, and other physiological levels were quite high. This is normal for both innocent and guilty people because such an exam is almost always threatening. Nevertheless, the polygrapher suspected that the bank vice president was lying or holding back information because his physiological levels went even higher when the vice president was asked about some of the details of the embezzlement. With repeated questions and prodding, the vice president finally broke down and confessed to embezzling $74,000 over a six-month period.

In line with standard procedures, after the bank vice president had signed a written confession, he was polygraphed again to be certain that his confession was itself not deceptive. When tested the second time, his overall physiological levels were extremely low. His hands were no longer sweaty. His heart rate and blood pressure were extraordinarily low. His breathing was slow and relaxed.

You can appreciate the irony of this situation. This man had come into the polygrapher's office a free man, safe in the knowledge that polygraph evidence was not allowed in court. Nevertheless, he confessed. Now, his professional, financial, and personal life was on the brink of ruin. He was virtually assured of a prison term. Despite these realities, he was relaxed and at ease with himself. Later, when a policeman came to handcuff and escort him to jail, he warmly shook the polygrapher's hand and thanked him for all he had done. Several months later, the polygrapher received a warm Christmas card written by the former bank vice president with the federal penitentiary as the return address.

Even when the costs are high, the confession of painful secrets can reduce anxiety and physiological stress. Whereas being the center of the conversation in a group may be fun, revealing pent-up thoughts and feelings can be liberating — even if they end up sending you to prison.

Psychosomatics, Self-Knowledge, and Healing

Here's a little tip about researchers in psychology: Many of them study topics that are most troublesome or relevant for them personally. It is possible that Jamie was interested in emotion and health issues because of family issues earlier in his life. He was probably drawn to the area of psychosomatics by virtue of having had asthma as a child. He grew up in West Texas, a very dry and flat part of the world. During his adolescence, asthma attacks became a routine feature of the windy part of winter (as opposed to the windy parts of spring, summer, and fall). At the time, he reasoned that pollen and dust that had blown in from New Mexico and Nevada were to blame.

In college, he never had any wheezing bouts except when he went home for the Christmas holidays. The pollen and dust again. During his last year in college, however, his parents came to visit him in Florida in late November. The day they arrived, he developed asthma. All of a sudden, the profound realization hit him that there was more to asthma than pollen. We don't want to be judgmental here, but one could reasonably argue that long-standing conflicts with his parents were linked to his upper respiratory system. Interestingly, once he saw the parent–asthma connection, he never wheezed again. It was far too embarrassing.

For Josh it was a bit different. He was an independent and autonomous child. He had a highly active fantasy life, largely fueled by a great love of reading. In particular, he loved more fantastical books — fairy tales, superheroes, mythology, that kind of stuff. This fascination persisted for years and curiously matched up with some college studies years later. During college, Josh took a course that covered, among other things, mind–body processes. That is, how the mind could exert influence over the body — think mind over matter, resisting pain, controlling heart rate and other automatic biological functions, and so forth. This was tantamount to the paranormal themes that had always been so captivating for him. It almost sounds like a superpower, doesn't it? But it raised thorny issues: How could the mind influence our physical bodies? How could some cells, some particularly important bits in our brains presumably, control all the other squishy bits in our bodies? From this point on, Josh was hooked — he had to figure out how our minds could influence our bodies.

You can already see the beginnings of what will be part of the larger story — personal experiences, insights, sometimes even formal research, can each lead to observations on how things work. These observations lead to careful exploration using scientific methods, and this cycle continues over time as understanding grows. In many ways, this is the essence of science in general, and certainly has been a central theme in exploring the links between psychological experiences and our health and well-being.


Asthma, wheezing, congestion, and other respiratory changes have long been known to be related to psychological conflict. In fact, in the mid-20th century Harold G. Wolff and Stewart Wolf, two pioneers in the emerging field known as psychosomatic medicine, explored the links between people's psychological conflicts and health problems in books with intriguing titles such as The Nose (together and separately, they also published books entitled Headache, The Colon, and, of course, The Stomach). In landmark studies spanning three decades, Wolff, Wolf, and their collaborators developed the stress interview, whereby volunteers would be asked a series of psychologically threatening questions while, at the same time, relevant bodily changes were monitored.

The stress interview serves as a medical version of a lie detector exam. For most people, there are a limited number of psychological issues that account for most psychosomatic problems. Current stress interviews, for example, routinely touch on issues of loss, rejection, sexuality, parental problems, uncontrollable trauma, and failure. Depending on the person's health problem, the interviewer might measure muscle tension in the neck (for tension headache sufferers), blood pressure and heart rate (for people with hypertension), breathing rate or oxygen consumption (for those with respiratory problems or panic attacks), or one of a few dozen other biological indices.

As Wolff, Wolf, and a generation of psychosomatic researchers asserted, psychological conflicts are sometimes linked to specific changes in our bodies. One person's blood pressure may increase when he is forced to discuss the death of his parents, whereas another might respond to the same topic with the beginnings of a migraine headache. A third person may not show any biological changes in response to the death topic but may react selectively to issues surrounding sexuality.

That many, perhaps most, illnesses have a psychosomatic component is not surprising. More peculiar is that we rarely see the relationship between psychological events and illness in ourselves. When we do, however, the course of the illness often changes for the better.

Why are we blind to many of the psychological precursors to illness? One problem lies in our abilities to perceive cause–effect relationships. When we see something happen, we naturally look for something that preceded the event by no more than a few seconds or, at most, hours. If our car doesn't start because of a dead battery, we might blame the battery's demise on last night's cold weather or our failure to turn off the headlights. It makes no sense to think back to the way we drove the car two weeks ago. Our body is a different story. If we come down with a cold, it probably has nothing to do with last night's weather or what we had for breakfast. It could be that our immune system was compromised by the breakup of a significant relationship a week or two earlier.

Another reason for our inability to see the links between our own psychological issues and illness concerns denial. Virtually all of us have actively avoided thinking about unpleasant experiences. Some issues are so painful that we deceive ourselves into thinking that they don't exist. Sigmund Freud persuasively argued that we employ an arsenal of defense mechanisms, such as denial, compulsive behaviors, and even dwelling on physical symptoms to screen out anxiety and psychological pain. Wheezing when around parents or headaches in sexual situations can safely be attributed to purely physical causes (e.g., pollen or caffeine). Admitting to personal struggles concerning one's autonomy or feelings of sexual anxiety is a far less pleasant strategy when less threatening alternative explanations are available.

Fortunately, once we become aware of the psychological causes of a recurring health problem such as headaches, back pain, or asthma, the problems often subside to some degree. There are several reasons for this. Once we see the psychological basis for a particular health problem, we can use the health problem as a signal of distress. By focusing our energy on reducing the cause of the distress, we more quickly resolve the underlying psychological issues that we may not have known were issues in the first place. Another reason that seeing the cause–effect relationship is beneficial is that it makes the health problems more predictable and, hence, controllable. Perceptions of control and predictability over our worlds are essential to good psychological health.

A recurring debate among researchers interested in psychosomatics and emotion concerns whether specific emotions or situations can bring about specific biological changes. Our bias is that many emotions do, in fact, have necessary and potentially unique biological substrates. However, particularly powerful situations can "fool" people into thinking that they are feeling an emotion that is not biologically present.


Excerpted from Opening Up by Writing It Down by James W. Pennebaker, Joshua M. Smyth. Copyright © 2016 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. “Shh … It's a Secret”: Beginning to Explore the Connection between Confession and Health
2. The Invention of the Expressive Writing Approach
3. What's on Your Mind?: Health Benefits of Verbal and Written Disclosure
4. Dealing with Chronic Health Problems Using Expressive Writing
5. Writing to Clear the Mind: Expressive Writing in Learning and Education
6. “Get These Thoughts Out of My Head!”: Getting Past Obsessions, Insomnia, and Bouts of Stupidity
7. To Speed Up or Slow Down?: How People Differ in Coping with Trauma
8. “I'm Here for You … or Am I?”: The Audience on the Other End of Our Words
9. How Does Writing Help Us Secure a Healthier and Happier Future?
10. Pulling It All Together: Recommendations for Your Use of Expressive Writing


Anyone interested in easy-to-use, science-based self-help strategies for enhancing health and well-being; also of interest to students and practitioners in psychology and other helping professions.

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