Category: Articles

Writing and Healing: Expressive Writing and Letting Go

Writing and Healing: Expressive Writing and Letting Go

Each of us carries stories of our past with us, even if they may not be consciously at the surface. Those stories often replay in our mind over and over, and the new stories that we write in our mind about our past can shape the future, even if we aren’t consciously aware of the process. What I’ve discovered in my own experience is that the process of putting the story down, whether on paper or in a computer, creates a moldable object that can be used to evaluate the past and used to shape the future.

My first formal exposure to expressive writing came in a class on writing memoir and personal essay. It was also my first graduate level course, which I took it as an elective because I had the idea to create a family history from my own perspective. Genealogy research is great for the forensic study of the past, who came from who and when, but it’s less helpful in understanding the individuality of those people. Memoir offers an opportunity to recreate some of those personalities in a similar way that writers create vivid characters in first-person fiction.

That journey of creating characters of family members inspired thoughts about my own past as a story and its relation to my own experience. Sometimes that story was positive and encouraging, but often it created limitations. It occurred to me my own story was a living organism that I wrote every day with each thought and action. Changing one action today can change tomorrow’s results, allowing me to reshape those stories in order to change the direction of the future.

Our lives unfold much like a story. In fiction, we follow from beginning to end, but our own life stories are often much more complicated and usually have fewer clearly marked events that obviously shift the future, especially when we’re so close to the story. Generally speaking, it’s usually easier to identify key turning points when we read about the life experience of others. Mary Karr, in the preface of The Art of Memoirsays of this genre, “These books are held together by happenstance, theme, and (most powerfully) the sheer, convincing poetry of a single person trying to make sense of the past.” (2016, preface) A memoir is a dedicated and long journey of expressive writing meant to share with the audience of the world. But what if we could break some of those big stories down into smaller segments and use them to direct the future? And what if memoir wasn’t the only option for examining one’s life experience?

The journey of exploration can be scary, and we worry about unearthing artifacts of memories better left buried below the surface. Karr validates this point, “At unexpected points in life, everyone gets waylaid by the colossal force of recollection. One minute, you’re a grown-ass woman, then a whiff of cumin conjures your dad’s curry, and whole door to the past blows open, ushering in uncanny detail.” (2016, 1) Whether we realize it or not, this fear may be what causes us to shy away from exploring the past in detail, much less writing about it. The past seems to be fixed back there where it belongs, but with the right frame of mind, we can observe it safely from a distance, much like exhibits in a museum or animals at the zoo. We can learn to see it honestly, understand it, and use it as a tool to understand current circumstances. We may also discover that it’s not as fixed as we thought. What we once thought as adversity, we might discover was actually the engine of determination that moved us forward through all difficult times.

Karr says “A psychological self-awareness and faith in the power of truth gives you courage to reveal whatever you unearth, whether you come out looking vain or conniving or hateful or not.” (2016, 151). Looking at yourself as you truly are, not as you wish you were, is the key to creating a resource to facilitate change. It’s the soft clay from which to mold the future story. If you try to change something that doesn’t actually exist, the results will be unexpected. Karr continues, “False choices based on who you wish you were will result in places where the voice goes awry or the details chosen ring false.” (2016, 151) As expressive writing is used as a way to heal past wounds and write the future, it’s critical to be honest and authentic, even if that is uncomfortable at times. Whether this creative work evolves into a bestselling memoir or not, it’s important to remember that there is no rule that expressive writing mustbe shared. Our intimate thoughts are just that – ours. While it might be a dream for some aspiring writers to have a published memoir, simply writing it all down can have its own healing properties. When exploring the nature of healing, Louise DeSalvo shares that “…the positive effects of writing did not depend upon getting any feedback on the writing or even upon anyone reading what was written.” (2006, 26) Sharing is always optional.

Some people may have experienced writing as a form of venting, or a way to deal with stressful situations. The unsent letter, the angry e-mail to the boss composed but never sent, the story about a nemesis falling off the edge of a cliff, all of these are forms of expressive writing, and just about everyone has probably done at least one of those. However, those forms of expressive writing are just the first step. DeSalvo advises that “We cannot simply use writing as a catharsis. Nor can we use it only as a record of what we’ve experienced. We must write in a way that links detailed descriptions of what happened with feelings – then and now – about what happened.” (2006, 25) While writing is cathartic in its own right, that’s only just scratching the surface of its true power. DeSalvo advises that “Both thinking and feeling are involved. Linking them is critical.” (2006, 25) Get the feelings out, but then understand what they mean in relation to a past experience, and then link them to present circumstances.

Some of that past experience may be grounded in fears or beliefs learned from family or culture. Whether that’s fear of water, flying, or having peacock feathers indoors, each of us carries some background information about things to be fearful of or to gravitate to. Family legends or preferences most assuredly can affect our behavior, whether we are aware of it or not. In my own experience, figuring out what beliefs were mine from personal experience, and which were mine from family legend, has helped understand beliefs about topics that I had not developed myself, freeing me to form my own judgements. In some cases, my personal experience didn’t match what I thought I knew, and it’s this analysis and linking that has provided an opportunity to change behavior.

World famous author and motivational speaker Anthony Robbins features the power of story as a key way of changing behavior. When speaking of the stories in our mind, Robbins says “Thus it’s critical that – on a daily basis – we stand guard at the door of our mind, that we know how we are consistently representing things to ourselves. We must daily weed our garden.” (1997, 45) Expressive writing provides just the tool to do the daily weeding of our garden that Robbins suggests. It’s how we can keep track of the thoughts that move through us and impact the decisions that we make on a daily basis, even if those decisions are made on auto-pilot. We discover them when we become aware of them.

However, weeding that garden requires that we get into the dirt and find each and every one. We may know there is a particularly sticky or thorny one that we need to remove, but we avoid it and work all around that one so that it doesn’t injure us. According to DeSalvo “A healing narrative renders our experience concretely, authentically, explicitly, and with a richness of detail.” (2006, 57) It’s important to be authentic and honest in our representation of just what exact weeds need attention. With the proper equipment, we can remove even the thorniest of weeds. DeSalvo continues, “Research has demonstrated that depressed and suicidal people are much less likely to report memories or happenings in an extremely specific way.” (2006, 57) This importance of detail seems to correspond to Karr’s assertion about its significance in teasing out feelings. We may discover that what we thought were thorns really aren’t that sharp after all.

Through the process of exploring feelings, difficult experiences are almost an inevitability. This can be an uncomfortable experience and many experts in the field of expressive writing as a form of therapy encourage writers to have access to professional counseling expertise available if they anticipate strong emotions from traumatic experiences in the past. Other techniques for managing stress that have been helpful for me, and will be explored in more detail later in this work.

According to DeSalvo, “Ultimately, then, writing about difficulties enables us to discover the wholeness of things, the connectedness of human experience.” (2006, 43) As anyone who struggles with wave after wave of thoughts understands, it’s often difficult to find the meaning in the chaos, and even more difficult understanding how those relate to our daily lives. If those thoughts can be put down on paper, even in a chaotic format as they come up, upon reflection, a writer can usually see patterns or some meaning. It may also provide some recognition of what’s really happening behind all the thoughts. Jacobs suggests “By turning language into a product, we create a vital partner to our own processing of reality.” (2018, xv) Capturing the recurring thoughts may also make them stop once they’ve been acknowledged and heard.

In my own experience, a structured approach has proven to be the most helpful in exploring expressive writing. DeSalvo says that “Whatever we choose to do in the way of writing, I believe that it shouldn’t be haphazard – that we should write according to a directed plan, though our plans may, of course, may change as we work.” (2006, 72-73) Having a loose form for the writing to work offers many writers the framework needed to show up every day, or at least on a regular basis, for expressive writing. It’s this consistent action that seems to be a key component in successful writing. DeSalvo adds that “When we begin to write regularly, letting the process be our guide, everything will take care of itself. Show up at the desk regularly and with commitment. That’s really all you have to do.” (2006, 79) Action is also at the heart of Anthony Robbins’ method of success, as he teaches “Action is what unites every great success. Action is what produces results. Knowledge is only potential power until it comes into the hands of someone who knows how to get himself to take effective action.” (1997, 7) In the context of expressive writing, actions don’t just speak louder than words; instead actions work in concert to set into motion the words that may lead to a breakthrough.

However, action can often be the point of most struggle for potential writers. For some, a systematic approach to writing of any kind might be helpful. It was for this reason that I searched for a method that would include some meditative practices with expressive writing. I discovered A Buddhist Journalby Beth Jacobs that was a practical handbook for combining mindful meditation techniques with a journal writing process. Jacobs begins the guided workbook with the insight that “Writing turns language into a quiet experience for the recipient, and the experience is different for each reader and each reading.” (2018, xv) That quiet experience may be the first step in getting out of a thought storm and into a way of appreciating our mind for the powerful problem-solving tool that it is.

Jacobs says that “These practices put our experience in context, instead of allowing us to feel like we are our experiences, and this loosens the strict divisions between subject and object. Both meditation and expressive writing are grounds for intent as opposed to attainment.” (2018, 4) Through a series of exercises, Jacobs first guides the writer through exercises to cultivate a practice of meditation as it relates to writing in a journal. She begins with a “free write” in two parts. In the first part, the writer is encouraged to just write whatever comes to mind, even if all the writer puts on paper is “I don’t know what I’m doing” over and over until something shows up. (2018, 5) She then guides the writer through a simple breathing meditation. After that exercise is when the second “free write” begins. The writer is encouraged to predict beforehand any differences, then exploring the writing afterward to see what knowledge can be gleaned from them. Jacobs says, “Both writing and sitting meditation have ways of clearing the dross from the surface mind and promoting a deepening and broadening of experience.” (2018, 9) The combination of writing and meditation are natural allies in healing, focus, and clarity.

Jacobs continues her book with four sections, each containing ten exercises that help the writer develop mindful practices, as well as cultivate a habitual writing practice. In the postscript, Jacobs shares that “The nature of the practice matters less than the intent to be authentic and open, receptive to whatever happens.” (2018, 143) Again, authenticity emerges as a vital element in the process. I would assert that authenticity is the cornerstone of honestly understanding ourselves and who we are, what we believe, and why. The challenge in this is that sometimes cracking the nut of authenticity means first getting through a shell of pain or trauma.

Still, the expressive writing and the creative process generally allows us to work through past traumatic experiences from a safe distance. Many times, we hold on to these memories of trauma or pain as all we know. After all, it’s from our direct experience, and what’s more authentic than that? We may even get comfort from their consistency, and to let go of these would mean letting go of a piece of our identity. It’s that symbolic death of part of our self that can be an obstacle to change. According to DeSalvo, “Through writing, we allow ourselves to move through the most important aspects of mourning, but at a safe and symbolic distance.” (2006, 56) Even though our story may be littered with pain or loss, it’s still our story, and we must let go of what no longer serves us in order to move forward.

The internal story may even present itself in physical ailments. This mind-body connection is beginning to be understood, and I can attest to its existence in my own experience. Dr. Joseph Mercola explains that “While the mechanics of these mind-body links are still being unraveled, what is known is that your brain, and consequently, your thoughts and emotions, do play a role in your experience of physical pain, and can play a significant role in the development of chronic disease.” (2014) Expressive writing can help channel these thoughts into a useful and healing resource. From this understanding, we can grow and mindful understanding of how our thoughts affect our physical body.

Robbins also uses a method of exploring pain as a tool for teaching. He says, “If pain is sending you important signals about something you need to change in your body, then unless you address that need, the pain will most likely come back because it is serving you in an important way.” (1997, 111) Our natural instinct is to avoid stress and pain. Dr. Joseph Mercola says “When you’re stressed, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol, which prepare your body to fight or flee the stressful event.” (2014) Stress is not just something that keeps you up at night, it generates an actual physical response in the body. Mercola continues that “When stress becomes chronic, your immune system becomes increasingly desensitized to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to run rampant.” (2014) Chronic stress can and does affect the physical body.

Emotional paralysis by this constant stress may be contributing factor that hinders even beginning to work in expressive writing, or it may be something that happens after an expressive writing experience. Unexpected feelings can be a blessing or a curse, much like the smell of curry that Karr mentioned.

Mercola confirms this, by saying “It’s interesting to note that certain emotions are known to be associated with pain in certain regions of your body, even though science cannot give an explanation why.” (2014) The act of creation can help reveal this connection, even though it’s something that may seem difficult to understand. Mercola addresses this by saying “Many in the primarily left-brained field of science are still reluctant to embrace the mind-body paradigm however, and one of the factors holding them back is the fact that you cannot see or measure emotions inside your body.” (2014) We know that our feelings affect us – powerfully at times – even though we can’t point to a spot on our body where fear, anger, sadness or stress originates.

Through a series of events connected to the writing of this paper, I discovered “tapping,” or, as it’s officially known, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). Mercola provides many guided sessions and introductions to EFT on his website at Mercola also wrote the introduction to the book Freedom at Your Fingertips: Get Rapid Physical and Emotional Relief with the Breakthrough System of Tapping, which is filled with methods from various EFT practitioners for dealing with all manner of emotional stress.In this introduction about the techniques discovered by Dr. Roger Callahan and developed by Gary Craig, he shares that “When one carefully analyzes the various healing models in a non-biased manner, it becomes clear that energy psychology tools are one of the most powerful healing modalities available.” (2011, Loc 109) EFT falls squarely in the realm of energy psychology, utilizing ancient points on the body called meridians. “Several thousand years ago, the Chinese discovered a complex system of energy circuits, called energy meridians, running throughout the body.” (Ball 2011, Loc 192) These meridians can be used to resolve issues surrounding writing itself, to help heal trauma, and to be another means of coping with stress related to feelings unearthed in the expressive writing process, or preventing a writer from the journey of expressive writing.

The tapping technique is simple and easy to learn, utilizing a map of meridians throughout the body. “There are 361 traditional Chinese acupressure points in the body. EFT uses meridian points.” (Ball 2011, Loc 314) These points are located at the crown of the head, the beginning of the eyebrows, sides of the eyes, under the eyes, under the nose, the chin, the beginning of the collarbone, under the breast point, under the arm, and at the underside of the hands, often called the karate chop. Tapping is done “…with one to three fingers, 7-10 times on each of the points in a way that’s most comfortable to you.” (Ball 2001, Loc 321) This process varies by method and practitioner, but “…the tapping points go down the body. Each tapping point is below the next one.” (Ball 2011, Loc 255) There are various “recipes” for tapping techniques, varying by time and subject, but each share similar processes. “Some practitioners do EFT differently because EFT is as much an art as a science.” (Ball 2011, Loc 321) This art form, like the mindful and meditative practices, is a natural complement to the art of expressive writing.

“Even though other cultures in the world have been working with energy meridians and similar techniques for centuries, the idea of tapping on acupressure points can seem illogical or absurd at first.” (Ball 2011, Loc 364) I have found in my own experience that tapping works both before writing and after writing. If I’m struggling with a problem, often the tapping sequence will allow it to become clear and the writing to come easier. On the other side of writing, if something shows up there that is stressful or that reveals some experience that I want healing from, tapping has provided calming and clarity.

For many years, writing has been a healing experience for me. Through the material discussed here, I have discovered ways to enhance this healing on a daily basis. Writing as a tool for exploration is ideal, “…when we deal with unassimilated events, when we tell our stories and describe our feelings and integrate them into our sense of self, we must no longer work at inhibition. (DeSalvo 2006, 24) The challenge with confronting our stories and associated feelings about them is that it can, at times, be quite uncomfortable. However, by avoiding that moment of uncomfortable analysis, some of our stories and feelings can become chains that keep us tethered to a story that’s no longer appropriate for growth. Using mindful techniques, expressive writing, and EFT, I believe that we truly can heal from any past experience and become the best possible version of our self.


Ball, Ron, ed. Freedom at Your Fingertips: Get Rapid Physical and Emotional Relief with the Breakthrough System of Tapping: The Ultimate Question and Answer Guidebook for Using Emotional Freedom Techniques to Feel More Energized and Alive. Fredericksburg, VA: Inroads Publishing, 2011.

DeSalvo, Louise A. 2006. Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jacobs, Beth. 2018. A Buddhist Journal: Guided Practices for Writers and Meditators. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Karr, Mary. 2016. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial.

Mercola, Joseph. “Mapping How Emotions Manifest in Your Body | EFT Benefits.” January 30, 2014. Accessed November 4, 2018.

Robbins, Anthony. 1997. Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mailing List

Get updates, writings and other useful information delivered right to your inbox.

* indicates required


© Erik Hilton, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Erik Hilton and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.