Most people have, at some point or another, put pen to paper and recorded their innermost thoughts and feelings.
This is often referred to as Expressive Writing or journalling.
Evidence shows that Expressive Writing helps us to process emotions, reflect on our feelings and gain new insights. This leads to decreased stress levels, and a range of improvements in our physical and emotional health.
However, before you pick up a pen and paper or head to your keyboard, there are some potential risks to be aware of. Expressive Writing is a sword that cuts both ways: it may be gentle but it is also extremely powerful.
Being aware and conscious of the risks will help you to write in a productive, valuable and safe way.

Key risk 1: Writing can promote rumination and self-absorption
Writing is a great way to release all your thoughts and feelings. You may find that you express a more balanced view when writing than when you are thinking or talking about the same topic. However, this is not always the case.
Rumination is the process of thinking deeply about something, often for a long time. Ruminating on negative experiences and expressing this through writing can ultimately lead to an even bleaker outlook, leaving you feeling more victimised and powerless, and preventing you from taking steps towards making positive decisions and changes.
How can you avoid this?
Don’t be afraid to grumble! Let it all out initially. However, if you start to feel as though your writing is becoming repetitive, or that it’s turning into a ‘whine’ journal of endless complaints, try building in some time for reflection.
Ask yourself the following questions, which will help to guide you towards a more action-oriented outcome:
• What could I have done differently to lead to an alternate outcome?
• What can I do now to change the situation?
• What about this situation was difficult and what have I learnt?
• What is one interesting point that came out in my writing?
• What steps will I be taking to reduce the impact of this problem in my life?
You could also try keeping a log of how often you are writing about a particular topic. You’ll know it is excessive when it begins to get in the way of other important things in your life – this is the time to cut back.

Key risk 2: Writing too soon after trauma can bring up overwhelming memories and emotions
A traumatic event is one that temporarily overpowers an individual’s capacity to cope. When you experience trauma, it takes time for the mind and the body to return to its normal state. Writing too soon after trauma can lead you to re-experience the event (bringing back vivid and distressing memories), rather than enabling you to process it.
How can you avoid this?
Listen to yourself and trust your instincts. Sometimes it is just too soon to write about something that has been emotionally overwhelming. Whilst studies show that the most effective change is achieved through writing about challenging, emotional and traumatic experiences, it is also essential to ensure that you do not push yourself too soon.
A good rule of thumb is to wait at least 24-48 hours after a traumatic experience. However, it may be a lot longer than this before you feel ready to re-visit a difficult experience.
If you are unsure whether you are ready to write about a painful experience, take some time to stop and practice mindfulness before writing. Try this simple exercise:
• Sit down, somewhere quiet and peaceful
• Close your eyes
• Ask yourself, out loud or in your mind, “Would you like to write about this now?”
• Listen to the response; there is no right or wrong answer. The purpose is to take a gentle, respectful approach to ourselves, just as we would do with others.
• If the answer is ‘no’, then do not write. You may want to repeat the exercise another day.

Key risk 3: Writing can lead to a temporary increase in stress
Can you remember a time when you were reluctant to talk about a difficult topic, yet you were able to release your thoughts and feelings onto paper without any of the same reservations?
It’s often easier to write something than to say it. There is no interruption, and you do not need to be concerned about other people’s reactions. So there is a tendency to ‘let everything out’ and admit things that you are unable to say out loud.
This can be a powerful and significant process, however it may also bring up painful and deeply buried memories and emotions. This might be associated with an immediate increase in stress levels. For example, you may feel your heart rate increase, have ‘butterflies’ in your stomach, or feel anxious or upset. However, this short-term stress will pass, almost always within the hour. Think of it as going for a run and having wobbly legs afterwards. The immediate result may be unpleasant, but it is well worth the long-term gain.
How can you manage this?
Be kind to yourself after an Expressive Writing session.
If you intend to write about something that is emotionally significant for you, plan to have at least an hour to yourself afterwards.
If you feel vulnerable, upset or dejected after writing, be extra gentle to yourself. Have a cup of tea, go for a walk or do something that you enjoy. You’ve worked hard, so enjoy a break.
Remind yourself that the uncomfortable physical and emotional feelings will pass. Your body needs some time to return to its natural level of arousal. Remind yourself that this feeling is normal and that it will pass soon.

You should now have a clear understanding of the potential risks of Expressive Writing.
So, equipped with this new knowledge and awareness, go forth with your pen and paper and reap the benefits of this simple yet wonderful tool.

Author's Bio: 

I studied psychology in the UK before moving to Australia and completing my qualifications to become a registered psychologist. I am a member of the British Psychological Society. I have experience working with a variety of client groups in both the UK and Australia, including children and young people living in residential and foster care, people with disabilities, individuals with a history of complex trauma and those experiencing mental health problems. I have worked as an individual and group therapist, as well as delivering behaviour support services, assessment, clinical support and training. I have always been enthusiastic about writing and have personally enjoyed the personal benefits of writing and journalling for over 20 years. Write As Rain, our recently launched therapy service, combines my two passions - psychology and writing.