Autobiographical therapy, or writing about personally distressing experiences, can be very therapeutic. It is one of the most accessible mental health interventions as it is available to all of us at any time and doesn’t cost anything. It involves writing in some detail about painful or challenging experiences and can be highly beneficial in processing the emotions associated with them. This includes deeply personal experiences such as the loss of a loved one, an upsetting failure, past experience of abuse, a relationship break-up, or workplace conflict. This can have a wide range of emotional and physical health benefits. However, to more fully draw on its potential healing power it helps to have some useful guidelines as to how to proceed, such as a simple structure described below.
Benefits of Autobiographical Writing
A number of researchers, including James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, have reported a range of benefits from expressive writing including psychological, social and physical health benefits. Writing about upsetting experiences can lead to reduced distress and longer-term improvements in mood. It can enhance our physical health through better immunity and improved autonomic system regulation, such as lower heart rate and reduced muscle tension. Other research has shown it can lower blood pressure and lead to improvements in such symptoms as migraines and irritable bowel syndrome. It can even help us perform better in student and work roles, including better grades and lower absenteeism. It can be a more powerful intervention than meets the eye, partly be helping free us up further from weighty memories or current worries. It can help us take distance from upsetting events and to reflect on them, containing them on a page whilst allowing us a different perspective.
How to proceed
It can help to set aside 20 minutes or so on several consecutive days, or once a week for several weeks to write about a distressing situation that has had a significant impact on your life. However, you can choose to write about anything that remains upsetting to you. There is a lot of flexibility with this format, including what you write about and the time you set aside to write. However, writing for between ten to thirty minutes at a time is a useful guide. There’s no need to put any pressure on yourself to write particularly well, as the point of the exercise is to express yourself and process your feelings further.
If you find thinking about a particular situation to be overwhelming, it may be best to write about events or situations you feel you can currently handle. Then you might progress to writing about even more challenging events.
It would help to find a quiet space where you feel comfortable and won’t be disturbed. The idea is to let go of inhibitions and write continuously about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the situation itself and how it affected you. You might also consider any things you have gained from the experience. You could perhaps describe how you would aim to manage such a situation if it arose again. You can write about the same topic or different topics on each occasion. There’s no need to show your work to anyone. It helps to write freely and to see where it takes you in the spirit of exploration.
What you might notice
When you do this, you might find that over time that you can give a more organized or coherent account of the situation, have less need to try to suppress thoughts or feelings about it, and have gained further insight into it. We generally manage with distressing events better if we can think or talk about them rather than suppressing them or avoiding thinking about them altogether. You can tell that you have especially gained from this exercise if you are able to tell a more integrated and coherent story about the event. You will likely gain more from the exercise if you find some redemptive meaning in having gone through the painful experience, and if you identify some sense of agency in how you responded to the adversity.
The range of benefits may vary from person to person, but will often include a reduction in emotional distress when you think of the topic. One way of monitoring any changes in your emotions is to start each exercise by rating your SUDS level, which means your level of distress on a 0 to 10 scale (Subjective Units of Distress Scale), whereby a 10/10 is the most distress you have ever felt, 0/10 is no distress at all, and 5/10 is a moderate level of distress. If you eventually reduce your distress level by half or even more, then you are likely to experience long-lasting benefits from this exercise. Whatever happens, you will also know that you have taken an active step to improve your wellbeing, which promotes confidence and is helpful in itself.
Further practical tips
• Choose a situation to write about that still causes you some distress
• Set aside time to write for around 20 minutes on each occasion
• Perhaps write on two or three different days about it during the first week, and weekly for three more weeks. If your reactions to the first topic have settled (especially if your distress reduces to a SUDS level of 2/10 or less), perhaps choose an additional situation to write about.
• Reflect on what you have written on each occasion, including noticing whether your feelings have changed in any way, such as whether your distress has reduced somewhat. Consider what you have learnt from the experience of writing. Have you gained a greater sense of agency or meaning from doing the exercise?
• Apply some self-compassion. Think of how you would support or show care to a friend who had a similar experience.
If your distress about the situation or topic has reduced across the writing sessions, consider applying this technique in future, including keeping a journal.
If your distress persists at a similar level, or you find the exercise overwhelming, or the distressing situation continues to significantly interfere with your life in some way, it may be helpful to meet with a therapist to have more support and guidance in dealing with it.
To consider the benefits of autobiographical writing more fully, listen to our Psych Spiels podcast on this topic at https://www.chrismackey.com.au/a-rewarding-release-biographical-writing/.