James Pennebaker got married right out of college in the early 1970s. Three years after his marriage, he and his wife started to question their relationship, and Pennebaker sank into a depression. Embarrassed by what he saw as emotional weakness, he became more and more isolated.
One morning about a month into this decline, Pennebaker climbed out of bed and sat down at a typewriter. He stared at the machine for a moment, then started writing freely and frankly about his marriage, his parents, his sexuality, his career, and even death.
As he wrote, and continued to write in the days that followed, something happened. His depression lifted and he felt liberated. He began to reconnect with his deep love for his wife. But the writing had an even farther-reaching impact. For the first time, according to this piece in New York Magazine, he started to see the purpose in his life.
Pennebaker’s own experience getting through this rocky period sparked 40 years of research about the links between writing and mental health and emotional processing. Over and over again Pennebaker did studies in which he divided people into two groups and asked people to write about emotionally significant experiences, and the others to write about common things: their shoes, or maybe the cars passing on the street. Both groups wrote for the same span—about 20-minutes a day, three days in a row.
In Pennebaker’s experiments, some participants wrote about sexual abuse by once-trusted family members; some about catastrophic failures; others about the devastating losses of their deepest relationships through breakups, illness, and death. One woman described unfathomable guilt stemming from an incident that had happened when she was 10. She’d left a toy on the floor on which her grandmother had slipped and fallen, ultimately leading to the grandmother’s death.
In each study, Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced marked improvement in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed and less anxious. In the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work.
Some rules to follow. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Open up your notebook (or begin a document on your computer). When the timer starts, begin writing about your emotional experiences from the past week, month and year. Don’t worry about punctuation, sloppiness or coherence. Simply go wherever your mind takes you, curiously and without judgment. Write just for yourself, and not for some eventual reader. Do this for a few days. Then, close the document without saving it, or throw the paper away. Or stick it in a bottle and cast it out to sea. Or if you’re ready, start a blog or find a literary agent.
It doesn’t matter. The point is that those thoughts are now out of you and on the page. You have begun the process of stepping out from your experience to gain perspective on it.