Write Yourself to Sleep

Sleep better with expressive writing

It takes just a few minutes

Patients with insomnia frequently report they’re unable to fall asleep due to unwanted thoughts and worries. Mind chatter may arise from the incomplete processing of daytime stress and hassles. Previous research showed that writing about emotional experiences helps process stressful emotions.

James Pennebaker and Sandy Beall at the University of Texas developed the expressive writing technique in 1986. It’s really simple to do. For 15 minutes, write about your deepest feelings and concerns, especially those that you’re fretting over. It’s important to express your heart-felt feelings as you write. Something about expressive writing seems to help us come to terms with a troubling event and to put the event into a perspective that no longer elicits shame or anxiety. You may find it helpful to repeat the short writing exercise for several consecutive days. For a more complete account, I recommend reading Opening Up by Writing It Down, Second Edition by James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth.

One study asked if writing about worries and concerns, especially expressing and processing emotions, could reduce the time of sleep onset for poor sleepers. Forty-two subjects were randomly assigned to one of 3 groups for 3 nights. The instructions for the "problems" writing group emphasized expressing and processing worries and concerns. The instructions for the "hobbies" writing group emphasized distracting from worries and concerns by writing about hobbies and interests. The "no writing" group was not given a writing task. The "problems" writing group reported shorter sleep onset compared to the "no writing" group. This study highlights the potential of Pennebaker-style expressive writing to process worries and concerns and improve your sleep.

A recent study extended the benefit of expressive writing to 111 female college students recruited from an undergraduate psychology class. The students were randomly assigned to either an expressive writing group or a control group. Students in the writing group were instructed to write about their deepest feelings and concerns regarding body image and eating concerns. Students in the control group were instructed to write about their plans over the previous week in a time-management context. Eight weeks later, students in the expressive writing group reported significantly less difficulty sleeping compared to students in the control group. This effect occurred even though the expressive writing didn’t concern sleep. Body image concerns presumably acted as a source of stress for the students. Expressive writing appeared to diminish the effects of the stress.

Expressing, evaluating, and synthesizing your thoughts and feelings in writing about a highly personal topic may improve your sleep.

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