Can expressive writing help treat substance use disorders and addiction?

Expressive writing has been used over the past 30 years to improve physical and mental health. How can writing be applied to addiction treatment? A review of a book that can teach you how to use expressive writing to overcome addiction here.

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By Lee Weber | Editor-in-Chief | Addiction Blog

Yes, expressive writing can help us cope with addiction.


Here, we’ll take a look at the recently published third edition of the book, “Opening Up by Writing it Down: How Expressive Writing improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain”…and explore just how writing works to help us heal ourselves.

What is expressive writing?

Expressive writing is the practice of writing about upsetting events in our lives in order to:

  • share or disclose our inner most thoughts
  • share or disclose our inner most feelings
  • gain understanding or insight about an event
  • achieve emotional acceptance of the event

Standards for writing duration range from 2-30 minutes long, over the course of one to a dozen sessions, with variations on intervals between writing. However, a general guide to expressive writing is to aim for 15 minutes a day for a minimum of 3-4 days.

Before we go into some of the benefits of therapeutic writing, we encourage you to discover the book for yourself. To learn the why-where-when-and-how of expressive writing, we suggest that you go out NOW and get yourself a copy of “Opening Up by Writing it Down“. The scholarly, practical book is aimed at any individual, academic, or clinician interested in learning the science and best practices of the method. …and is hands-down THE reference manual for expressive writing in the early 21st century.

The authors – Dr. Jamie Pennebaker and Dr. Josh Smyth – describe expressive writing as potentially transformative. Further, they have gone through the effort of explaining the motivation, science, and methods used to study its effectiveness. Given that the book is written by the originator of the method and one of the early researchers, its findings collect decades of work in one authoritative tome.

Why do we like this book?

“Opening Up by Writing it Down” combines scientific storytelling with suggested practices in a way that is easy-to-read. It helpful, thorough, and convincing! In fact, it’s got us thinking about expressive writing as a therapy tool in the treatment of substance abuse disorders. From an effiency and low-cost perspective. In short, expressive writing has the potential to heal both our bodies and our minds from the debilitation brain disease of addiction.

How does expressive writing work?

Self-help therapies such as expressive writing can help us process events in our lives and make sense of seeming negative experiences. However, conclusions about the reasons behind the efficacy of expressive writing are only theorirized at this point. Why does it work? Scientists don’t really know. The authors posit that writing expressively about our deepest thoughts and emotions helps us:

  1. Make sense of events through labeling and organization.
  2. Move past denial.
  3. Explore possible cause and effects of past events, bringing structure to upsetting times.
  4. Bring context and/or complexity to events through associations.
  5. Understand events by putting together a more coherent narrative of the past.
  6. Free up working memory by resolving past pain and processing/integrating events.

What is known about the benefits of expressive writing? Writing helps us:

  • clear the mind
  • free the mind of obsessions, or thinking of past trauma
  • sleep better
  • reduce biological and psychologial indicators of stress
  • improve physical health
  • improve mental health
  • find solutions to problems
  • recall or remember information
  • take in new perspectives
  • integrate information or events
  • organize or understand events

In these ways, expressive writing can be directly applies to addiction treatment. In dealing with the past, telling our stories, or revealing secrets…expressive writing is in line with current evidence-based science of addiction therapies. To apply the practice to addiction treatment, you might:

  1. Dig into the REASONS we use drugs or alcohol
  2. Process/integrate/accept the past
  3. Imagine a better future

In fact, expressive writing becomes a wonderful vehicle for getting to the heart of addiction. Simply, writing therapeutically has the potential to affect psycho-emotional, behavioral, and biological proccesses that lead to good health in mind and body.

We’d LOVE to see studies on expressive writing implemented in treatment centers. Savvy rehabs will take this process and go with it! Expressive writing is amenable to both inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment, easily implemented, and low cost. Perhaps the method could even become certified for addiction treatment? At any rate, we see the true potential for helping people in addition recovery:

  • Get through traumatic experiences from the past
  • Resolve current bothersome issues in addiction recovery (ie. anger management, resentment, relationship issues, coping, guilt, etc.)
  • Help us effectively cope with stress
  • Assess our life direction
  • Quiet the mind

Want to learn more about expressive writing?

This book takes it a step further, looking at research behind how confronting personal thoughts, feelings, or beliefs have positive short and long term effects. Combined with practical exercises and a “How-To” guide in the closing chapter, “Opening Up by Writing It Down” is the go-to manual for people in recovery who want to put the model into practice AND understand the science behind the method.

While the book could benefit from a few editing changes – put all the exercises in one addendum at the end, outline a typical expressive writing program in a workbook, or include a tracking tool template for tracking health/behavior/sleep/life changes when writing – we still feel that expressive writing has the potential to changes lives…for the better!

To get yourself a copy of “Opening Up by Writing It Down”, check out

About the Authors: James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D. is the originator of expressive writing and Proffesor of Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. Dr. Joshua M. Smyth, Ph.D. is Professor of Biobehavioral Health and Medicine at Pennsylvania State University. Both have conducted research on expressive writing and its relationship to physical and mental health.
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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