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Processing Tough Emotions Using Expressive Writing

By Caitlyn Rogers, Intern & Lisa Schainker, Extension Assistant Professorwoman writing in journal

Have you ever found yourself ruminating about a negative interaction or a tough situation and can’t figure out how to stop thinking about it? This type of thinking can keep us up at night, distract us from our work or family life, and cause us to be in a constant state of stress. Instead of holding it in and letting frustration, disappointment, anger, or any other emotion build up, many people find that writing in a journal can help them deal with and process their emotions. 

Although there are many ways to journal, research has shown that a specific type of journaling, called expressive writing, can have a variety of benefits to our personal well-being and our relationships (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005). The practice of expressive writing generally involves spending 15-20 minutes a day for 3-5 consecutive days writing about one’s deepest feelings and emotions related to an event or interaction they have had. Individuals may write about the same issue or focus on a different topic each day. 


When it comes to enhancing well-being, expressive writing has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improve immune functioning, reduce physical stress, and enhance cognitive functioning (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006; Schroder et al., 2018; Alparone et al., 2015). It has also been suggested that expressive writing can help reduce fear and anxiety through the process of labeling and identifying our feelings and thoughts. Importantly, it can help us gain a new perspective on a difficult situation (Niles et al., 2016). 

Expressive writing can have positive effects on our relationships as well. In couple relationships, when one or both partners write expressively about their relationship, they are more likely to use positive emotion words in their interactions with each other, which in turn increases the positive interactions they have with each other (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006). Expressive writing can also offer us an opportunity to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and learn to understand and empathize with them, leading to stronger relationships (Romero, 2008). Writing in this way allows us to organize our thoughts and create a story about what happened, which helps us process and find meaning in our interactions with others.


If you are ready to give expressive writing a try, set aside some time and have a set topic in mind. Do your best to relax, don’t judge what you write, and keep writing for the entire 20 minutes without thinking about spelling, grammar, or writing in complete sentences. Do your best to stay focused on the experience, issue, or topic you have chosen to write about and concentrate on describing the emotions connected to it as opposed to describing the actual event.

Here are some additional tips to keep in mind:

  • Identify and write about the benefits of the experience in addition to what was hard about it. For example, describe what you learned from or are grateful for after having this experience.
  • Explore how the experience may affect your decisions moving forward.
  • If you are writing about an interaction you had with someone else, try writing about the experience from their perspective. 
  • Remember not to put yourself down for how you might have handled a situation. While it is important to identify areas where you can grow and improve, you should also recognize your strengths.

The next time you find yourself stuck thinking or worrying about the same experience or event, consider using expressive writing as a way to help you process your emotions around it and gain insight into what is at the heart of the issue.


  • Alparone, F. R., Pagliaro, S., & Rizzo, I. (2015). The Words to Tell their Own Pain: Linguistic Markers of Cognitive Reappraisal in Mediating Benefits of Expressive Writing. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 34(6), 495–507. https://doi-org.dist.lib.usu.edu/10.1521/jscp.2015.34.6.495
  • Baikie, K., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338–346. doi:10.1192/apt.11.5.338
  • Niles, A. N., Byrne Haltom, K. E., Lieberman, M. D., Hur, C., & Stanton, A. L. (2016). Writing content predicts benefit from written expressive disclosure: Evidence for repeated exposure and self-affirmation. Cognition & Emotion, 30(2), 258–274. https://doi-org.dist.lib.usu.edu/10.1080/02699931.2014.995598
  • Romero, C. (2008). Writing wrongs: Promoting forgiveness through expressive writing. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, 25(4), 625–642. https://doi-org.dist.lib.usu.edu/10.1177/0265407508093788
  • Saldanha, M. F., & Barclay, L. J. (2021). Finding meaning in unfair experiences: Using expressive writing to foster resilience and positive outcomes. Applied Psychology: Health & Well-Being, 1. https://doi-org.dist.lib.usu.edu/10.1111/aphw.12277
  • Slatcher, R. B., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words: The Social Effects of Expressive Writing. Psychological Science (0956-7976), 17(8), 660–664. https://doi-org.dist.lib.usu.edu/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01762.x