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Expressive Writing

021When thinking about people who are emotionally sensitive, you might be most likely to think of the individual who cries easily and who shows her emotions openly. But there are many different types of emotionally sensitive people.

Type C Person

In the book The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotions, Michael Jawer discusses the Type C person. A Type C individual is a stoic, a denier of strong feelings and has a calm, unemotional demeanor.

This person has a tendency to people please, is not assertive, and tends to feel helpless and hopeless. He is at risk for autoimmune disorders from asthma to lupus. Type C people tend to say they aren’t upset but experience strong sensations in their bodies that indicate otherwise. They don’t say no or defend their personal integrity. Their emotions have no outlet. For the Type C person who is emotionally sensitive, finding a way to cope with emotions is critical.

Different coping strategies work for different people. For some who struggle with intense feelings about events that have happened, but have difficulty expressing themselves, expressive writing might be particularly effective. Finding a way to label and express emotions is a part of coping.

Writing and Trauma

In the 1970’s and early 1980’s James Pennebaker, a social psychologist in Austin, investigated the effects of a writing technique for people who had experienced traumatic experiences such as divorce, abuse, deaths of spouses and the Holocaust. He confirmed that following a difficult emotional event people are more likely to become depressed or ill, experience changes in body weight and sleeping habits, and even die of heart disease and cancer at higher rates than those not traumatized. People who suffered a traumatic experience and kept it secret experienced more severe consequences than those who did not keep it secret.

Dr. Pennebaker discovered that most people who write in a certain way about upsetting events in their past gain an improved mood and health. The writing technique is not about reliving the event, but about gaining a better understanding or finding meaning in the event. Sometimes the meaning is very difficult to find.

A Special Place and A Ritual for Writing

In his book, Writing to Heal, Dr. Pennebaker suggests that people who try expressive writing create a special place to write. A calming, nurturing environment, separate from where you work or do other activities, is advised.  You’ll want a place where you can be alone for a while. Set up the room in the same way each time you write and try to write at the same time each day. Create your own ritual. You may want to meditate before or after.

A Few Don’ts

What not to do?  Don’t write about anything that you cannot handle. In addition, don’t write about a recent event. The technique is usually not helpful immediately after an event has occurred. You need to manage your immediate reactions and be able to use your logical mind first. If you are in therapy, discuss this option with your therapist. If you are not coping well in general, don’t use expressive writing.

Guidelines for Writing

Pennebaker’s  instructions are to write for about twenty minutes on four consecutive days. You can write about the same topic each day or different topics. Write continuously and don’t correct your grammar or spelling. Write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about an event that happened that has been influencing your life. Let go and explore the event in a deep and thoughtful way. Write what happened (the facts), how you felt about it at the time it occurred and how you feel about it now. You might write about how the event has affected your relationships with those you love and others you know personally as well as your working relationships.

On the second writing day, go even deeper into your emotions and thoughts. You might want to write more about how it has affected your relationships with those you love and your life in general.

On the third writing day continue to focus on the current emotions and thoughts that you have about the event that are affecting your life the most. Don’t repeat what you have already written. Explore the event from different perspectives and different points of view. Write about what you are feeling as you explore this. How has this shaped you as a person?  What makes you feel the most vulnerable?

Write from your wise mind, using observe and describe. State the facts as you know them and separate writing about facts from writing about emotions and thoughts.

On the last writing day, continue writing about your emotions and thoughts. Try to cover any aspects you haven’t written about yet. What have you learned, gained and lost as a result of this experience you are writing about? Try to create a meaningful story that you can take with you into the future.

For more specific information about expressive writing, and instructions, Dr. Pennebaker’s website is at


photo credit: eklarkinsCreative Commons License

Expressive Writing

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Senior Clinician and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach. She is the author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2017). Expressive Writing. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 21, 2018, from


Last updated: 30 Nov 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Nov 2017
Published on All rights reserved.