Applied to Stress,
which manifests as anger, anxiety or depression, or dysfunctional behaviour
By Dr Jim Byrne, copyright (2004-2011) - Updated in 2012, and in May 2013
Whether you are struggling with problems of anger, anxiety or depression, you could benefit from writing out your difficulties,
so you can see them on paper. Think on paper, as advised by Brian Tracy. Write about two or three pages each day,
as recommended by Julia Cameron.
At the very least, try to write for fifteen to twenty minutes each day, for three
or four consecutive days, as recommended by Dr James Pennebaker.
Try to make sense
of your problems: look for cause and effect; pros and cons; options and possibilities; try to identify possibilities
for change or improvement. Try to produce "an empowering narrative" rather than a "depowering
Develop your awareness: If you are ever going
to manage your stress level, then you have to become aware of the external sources of your stress, and your contribution
to it. One of the best ways to develop your awareness of the sources of stress in your life is to keep a stress
diary. The purpose of the stress diary is to track down the specific stress problem(s) you are confronting.
Get a large notebook to use as your stress diary. Set some quiet time aside, just for you to work on your stress diary.
(Since this activity will inevitably improve your productivity, it is legitimate to take this time out of your working day!)
Try to identify your problems in this order:
1. What happened, or what happens? What did I feel, and how did I behave?
2. Draw a picture
of your life, including the stressful elements; and label each element so you can begin to see how they each relate to the
3. Focus on a specific incident or experience of stress. Ask yourself: What was
I telling myself to make myself feel so bad about that incident? (This is the hardest part. Try to imagine
what anybody would have to tell themselves about the kind of problem you face, in order to make themselves
feel what you are feeling. This will become easier later, once you have learned about ‘rational' and ‘irrational'
4. About this problem, what can I control today? Can I change the situation?
Can I change my self-talk? (Then commit yourself to control what you can control, and to give up trying to control what
seems to be beyond your control).
5. Who could help me with this problem? To whom could
I talk about it? (Make any appointments that are necessary).
6. How can I relax and unwind,
to let go of my tension and stress? (Later you will learn about the importance of exercise and relaxation, including
some techniques for you to try).
Initially, write for between three and six minutes. Then
read what you've written, and mark all positive and negative words so you can distinguish between them. For example,
you could use different colours, or different types of lines. Then count up the negative and positive words in your
diary entry. If there are more negative than positive words, begin to rewrite your statements so that you reduce the
number of negative words, and increase the number of positive words. One way to do this is to ask yourself this question:
"In what way(s) is my problem less bad than it could have been?" Or: "What could I feel grateful
for in this situation?" No matter what you have lost, what threat you face, what frustrations assail you,
and so on, it could always be very much worse! So rewrite you diary entry to make it as positive and hopeful as possible
- without denying that you are facing a very real problem.
Later on, when you have completed
the programme outlined in this book***, there will be other activities you can undertake in your stress diary, in order to analyze your problem, and to come up with
The mere act of writing, on a daily basis, in your stress diary, will help you. Writing about problematical situations can
improve your immune system, and your health. Reflective narrative is best, with lots of ‘causal words' and explanations,
such as: How did it happen? Whydid it happen? Who did what? How? What are the connections here?
Which bit caused which result? And so on. Also use emotive words, as long as you do not indulge in awfulizing about
potential threats or dangers; self-pity; or condemning and damning of yourself, others or the world. (These ideas are based
on the findings of the research of Professor James Pennebaker, combined with the insights of REBT). And as mentioned above, it is important to rewrite your statement to make it maximally positive
in tone, and hopefulin expectation. Always end you diary episode by focusing on ‘coping strategies',
which are things you can do to calm yourself down, or solve practical aspects of your stress problem. (Bolton
et al, 2004). As you work on later sections of this book, you will become more skillful at using your diary as a
powerful tool for self-reflection and decision making.
have written a couple of pages of therapeutic writing, about some current or historic problem of your own, you could also
get professional support and feedback, direction, etc., from Dr Jim Byrne, via his Email Counselling service.
For a systematic
approach to the use of writing therapy - in this case applied to helping a man to overcome the trauma of a failed marriage
- please see my CENT paper No.20: The anatomy of a failed mariage: How to complete an undigested adult
relationship, using writing therapy.***
Postscript on Writing
Therapy - The Pennebaker tradition
an extract from my page on ‘Narrative Therapy and Writing Therapeutic Narratives'.***
According to Baikie and Wilhelm (2005), Pennebaker's expressive writing research approach "...involves participants writing about traumatic
or emotional experiences (...) for 3-5 sessions, often over consecutive days, for 15-20 minutes per session. Most studies
have been conducted in a laboratory, although more recently writing has been done at home or in a clinical setting.
Participants often reveal a considerable range and depth of emotional trauma in their writing. Although many (research
participants) report being upset by the writing experience, they also find it valuable and meaningful: (Pennebaker, 1997)." Pennebaker's research involves the use of ‘control groups' to see how much the real therapy
groups improve relative to an ‘untreated group'. "Control (group) participants are asked to write as objectively
and factually as possible about neutral topics such as a particular room or their plans for the day, without revealing their
emotions or opinions. No feedback is given on the writing". (Baikie and Wilhelm, 2005).
# Counselling and therapy all over the world.
... here is an example of how Pennebaker and his colleagues direct their research participants in the expressive writing tradition,
from Pennebaker (1997):
"For the next 3 days, I would like for you to write about your very
deepest thoughts and feeling about an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life. In your writing
I'd like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships
with others including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives; to your past, your present, or your future; or to who you have
been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days
of writing or on different topics each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential. Don't worry about spelling,
sentence structure, or grammar. The only rule is that once you begin writing, continue to do so until your time is up".
So writing therapy involves writing about emotional traumas, or troublesome emotional
stories from the past: in order to stop bottling them up; to begin to digest them; to begin to displace unhelpful dominant
narratives, and replace them with more helpful and less disturbing alternative narratives; to integrate conflicting narratives;
and so on.
But just how negative should we aim to be in our writing therapy work? And do
positive emotion words also play a part? Pennebaker (1997) has found some interesting patterns relative to these questions:
"Analyzing the experimental subjects' data from six writing studies", he says, "we found three linguistic factors
reliably predicted improved physical health. First, the more that individuals used positive emotion words,
the better their subsequent health. Second, a moderate number of negative emotion words predicted health.
Both very high and very low levels of negative emotion words correlated with poorer health. Third, and most important,
an increase in both causal and insight wordsover the course of writing was strongly associated with improved health.
... Indeed, this increase in cognitive words covaried with judges' evaluations of the construction of the narratives.
That is, people who benefited from writing began with poorly organized descriptions and progressed to coherent stories by
the last day of writing". (Page 165).
Therefore we can say that an individual who uses writing
therapy to clarify and refine a confused and unclear story from their past; who uses a moderate amount of negative words,
in order to express their trauma or distress, combined with a higher volume of positive words, to describe a reframing, or
alternative positive narrative; and who seek to understand who or what caused what effects in their past, resulting in new
insights about their past; that individual will most likely reap a good reward in terms of improved physical health and emotional
This is not a complex process, and many variations on the theme could be developed
to suit the various schools of thought in counselling and therapy. Despite all the apparent complexity of the cognitive/scientific
paradigm of writing therapy research, the process itself is quite simple. As Wright (2004: 12) says: "The simplicity
of the way in which writing therapy works, if not the precise mechanism, is expressed humbly, after a dense analysis of randomized
controlled trials, as follows: ‘Many people, perhaps most, are able to guide their own therapy. Writing itself
is a powerful therapeutic technique'. (Esterling et al. 1999: 94).
It can also, often, be very helpful to have a coach, counsellor or psychotherapist
to support the individual in their journey through their writing therapy challenges. If you need support, contact me
a systematic approach to the use of writing therapy - in this case applied to helping a man to overcome the trauma of a failed
marriage - please see my CENT paper No.20: The anatomy of a failed mariage: How to complete
an undigested adult relationship, using writing therapy.***
In his book on happiness - 'The Happiness Hypothesis' - Professor Jonathan Haidt makes some interesting points about
Dr Pennebaker's writing therapy research results: "Pennebaker discovered that (writing therapy success is) not about
(letting off) steam; it's about making sense. The people in his studies who used their writing time
to vent (anger or other emotions) got no benefit. The people who showed deep insight into the causes
and consequences of (their upset) on their first day of writing got no benefit either. They had already
made sense of things. It was the people who made progress across the four days, who showed
increasing insight; they were the ones whose health improved over the next year. In later studies,
Pennebaker asked people to dance and sing to express their emotions, but those emotionally expressive activities gave no health
benefits. You have to use words, and the words have to help you create a meaningful story.
If you can write such a story you can reap the benefits of reappraisal (or reframing - JB) ([which is] one of the two healthy
coping styles]) even years after an (emotionally disturbing) event (has occurred). You can close a chapter of your life that
was still open, still affecting your thoughts and preventing you from moving on with the larger narrative (of your life)".
If you want to take a closer
look at writing therapy, then please go to the ‘Writing Therapeutic Narratives' page: http://www.abc-counselling.com/id271.html.
 Cameron, J. (1994) The Artist's Way: a spiritual path to higher creativity. London: Souvenir
Pennebaker, J.W. (1997) ‘Writing about emotional experience as a therapeutic process'. Psychological
Science, 8(3): 162-166.
Bolton, Gillie, Stephanie Howlett, Colin Lago, and Jeannie K. Wright (Eds.) (2004) Writing Cures: An introductory
handbook of writing in counselling and therapy. Hove, East Sussex: Brunner-Routledge.
Recently I began to read Philippa Perry's
little book, 'How to Stay Sane' (Macmillan, 2012). Two elements struck me as being worthy of reporting here.
The first is on the benefits of writing therapy. (This subject is covered in my ‘Writing Therapeutic Narratives' page, but I also wanted to mention Perry's comments here:
"A study in which half the participants kept a diary and half did not, demonstrated
the positive effects of writing something down about yourself each day. Diarists reported better moods and fewer moments
of distress than non diarists. Those, in the same study, who kept a journal following trauma or bereavement, also reported
fewer flashbacks, nightmares and unexpected difficult memories. Writing can itself be an act of emotional processing
so it can help in many situations of danger, extremity and loss of control. People who keep diaries are admitted to
hospital less often and spend fewer days there than those who do not. Research shows that liver function and blood pressure
are improved in diarists. All personality types are shown to benefit from keeping a diary. I am particularly fascinated
by the way that diary-keeping has been shown to positively affect several aspects of the immune system - including T-cell
growth and certain antibody responses. Studies have also shown that people who regularly keep daily ‘gratitude'
diaries, in which they list things for which they are grateful, report increased satisfaction with their lives and relationships.
...". (Page 24).
And the second element of Perry's book
that I wanted to share with you is a practical exercise that you might find helpful. This involves improving your self
observation, so you can better manage your mind and your needs:
"To begin self-observing, ask yourself these questions:
What am I feeling
What am I thinking now?
What am I doing at this moment?
How am I breathing?"
The idea is to write these questions in your diary, and then write out your response to them, based upon
self-observation. You could also add a question or two about how tense you feel; how good/bad is your posture; the nature
of your environment; etc.
"These simple questions are important because when we have answered them, we are in a
better position to proceed to the next question:
What do I want for myself in this new moment?
may have made instantaneous changes just by reading these questions. For example, when we bring our attention to our
breathing we become aware of how we are inhibiting it, and while we remain aware of it we tend to breathe more slowly.
Change happens, if it needs to, when we become aware of what we are, not when we try to become what we are not".
call these questions the ‘Grounding Exercise'. If we do this, or something similar, at odd moments during the
day and get into the habit of doing so, we can create a space for self-observation. Then if we are going off course
we have the opportunity to re-direct ourselves". (Page 17).