Any type of open and truthful disclosure reduces stress and helps individuals come to terms with their behavior. It is not coincidental that some of the most powerful people or institutions in many cultures encourage people to confess their transgressions. And there is very strong evidence that writing about upsetting experiences or dark secrets can benefit your mental and physical well-being.

Similar to religious confession, expressive writing encourages individuals to explore their deepest thoughts and feelings about upsetting experiences. For such emotional purges to work, people must be completely honest with themselves. Across hundreds of studies, we are now beginning to appreciate just how expressive writing works.

First, simply putting emotional turmoil into words changes how we think about it. Giving concrete form to secret experiences can help categorize them in new ways. For instance, when we translate emotional experiences into words and stories, we start to think about them in a simpler, less menacing context. There is no solid evidence to explain this phenomenon, but it most likely occurs because talking or writing about a disturbing event helps us understand it better. And things we do not understand cause greater anxiety.

Another possible explanation is that once we write about our upheavals, we tend to ruminate about them less, freeing us up to focus on other things. My colleagues and I have shown that people become more socially engaged in the weeks immediately following expressive writing exercises.

Dozens of studies have also shown that expressive writing is linked to less stress and improved sleep and cardiovascular function. We know that better sleep is associated with enhanced immune function and better general health—which correlate with better mental health, too.

Expressive writing and religious confession are not panaceas, but these forms of release can help us get through difficult times. The beauty is that you do not have to be religious to benefit from confession. The underlying mechanisms are available to anyone for the price of a pencil and paper.

Question submitted by Christine Blint via e-mail