What Is Expressive Writing Therapy?

A therapeutic practice used to overcome trauma

Man writing in a notebook
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Many psychologists and therapists encourage their clients to use writing and journaling as part of the healing process. For some people, writing is a quicker and more effective way of sharing emotions and experiences than by verbal communication alone. It allows people to tailor words at their own pace rather than stumbling for the right word during a counseling session.

In recent years, writing therapy has become a subspecialty embraced by many mental health professionals, some of whom pursue certification as a registered expressive arts therapist.


Writing is something that comes naturally for some people and less so for others. For some, it is the preferred method of communication. In an age where many people limit their communications to 280 characters, there are still those who use words to explore the deepest recesses of the human experience.

Writing often comes easier for younger people who are used to writing in school or journaling their preteen and teen experiences. The daily practice of writing not only serves as a time capsule of one's life but also helps make sense of emotions that are still largely a jumble.

As adolescence gives way to adulthood, the ability to abstract thought allows people to paint a richer portrait of feelings in words that is otherwise attainable in talk.

While art therapy is sometimes open to interpretation, writing therapy provide clearer insights into one's psychological state and beliefs. Even the style in which people write (grandiose, spare, dark, ironic) provides glimpses into how they see themselves and others.


Scientific evidence supports the use of writing to improve mood and working memory. A 2011 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders concluded people with mood disorders experienced an improvement in their physical and emotional symptoms for at least four months after completing in four 20-minute writing sessions.

One of the key measures for improvement was an evaluative questionnaire known as the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS).

According to the researchers, the style in which people wrote provided clues into how well they would respond to therapy. For example, those who wrote expressively (sharing feelings) or positively (expressing optimism) tended to have the best results.

Even people who engaged in control writing (writing with an eye toward structure rather than expressiveness) achieved a reduction in stress, depression, and anxiety.

However, those who wrote expressively and positively had significantly lower DASS scores. What the researchers found was that writers who shared these traits tended to express emotions excessively, which they referred to as "emotional writing."

Insights like these have allowed therapists to engage people with other forms of emotional trauma. Among the examples:

  • A 2016 study in Cancer Nursing reported that four episodes of expressive writing provided with women with breast cancer a "release of cognitive and emotional strains" and, by doing so, improved their quality of life, fatigue, and post-traumatic stress.
  • A 2012 study in Traumatology found that three 15- minute writing sessions helped people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) improve their coping skills compared to a matched set of individuals who did not write. With that said, neither group experienced improvement in the intrusive thoughts or avoidance behaviors characteristic of PTSD.

Pursuing a Career

If you have a postgraduate degree in psychology or social work and are good at helping people tell a story, then you will probably make a great expressive therapist.

An expressive therapist is someone who helps others work through complex issues and construct a personal narrative that provides greater clarity and self-awareness as a means of self-healing.

To become a registered expressive arts therapist (REAT), you can apply for certification through the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA). Certification is offered to those with a master’s degree in psychology, educational psychology, counseling, social work, or a related mental health discipline. In addition, you must complete IEATA-approved coursework.

IEATA certification requires 500 hours of supervised clinical work if you attend an institution that does not offer an expressive arts degree. Alternatively, you can complete 200 hours of supervised clinical work in the field.

Among the schools that offer an expressive arts degree are Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusettes and the Calfornia Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

Other options include a graduate certificate in expressive arts therapy, such as that offered by Appalachian State University in Boone, North Dakota. For this program, you would need a graduate degree and to complete 18 hours of classroom study.

You are not required to obtain IEEAT certification, but it can certainly lend credibility to your practice and the means by which to regularly update your counseling skills.

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Article Sources

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  2. Baikie K, Geerligs L, Kay W. Expressive writing and positive writing for participants with mood disorders: An online randomized controlled trial. J Affect Disorders. 2011;136:310-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2011.11.032.

  3. Gripsrud B, Brassil, K, Summers, B, et al. Capturing the experience: reflections of women with breast cancer engaged in an expressive writing intervention. Cancer Nurs. 2016;9(4):51-60. doi: 10.1097/NCC.0000000000000300.

  4. Stockton H, Joseph S, Hunt, N. Expressive writing and posttraumatic growth: An Internet-based studyTraumatology: An International Journal. 2014;20(2):75-83. doi:10.1037/h0099377