Writing the Heart: Expressive Writing Workshop Series

Writing…about traumatic experience …can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health, … can also affect people’s sleep habits, work efficiency and how they connect with others.                       – James W. Pennebaker, PhD


What is expressive writing? 

Expressive writing is the process of writing about thoughts and feelings that come from a stressful or traumatic life event. It’s writing without regard for form, spelling, punctuation, or verb agreement. It simply expresses what’s on your mind and in your heart. Studies show that expressive writing has many different health benefits.


What are the benefits of expressive writing? 

  • Improved quality of life  
  • Improved mental & physical health  
  • Lowered blood pressure/heart rate  
  • Improved immune system functioning  
  • Better quality of sleep, easing of pain  
  • Positive changes in feelings about one’s illness 
  • More engaged in self-care 

How can writing help you heal?

Expressive writing has similar benefits to therapy. They each can improve physical and psychological health, encourage self-reflection, help acknowledge and understand your emotions and improve coping skills. In groups, both involve shared experience & help build community. The most healing kind of writing occurs when you:  

  • Write deeply   
  • Find words for your feelings  
  • Use detail and description   
  • Look for connections   
  • Use a “balanced” narrative  
  • Imagine you are writing to a close friend  
  • Create a story from your experience. 

What is the Writing the Heart Workshop Series? 

Writing the Heart Logo The Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research invites people living with heart failure or heart disease and heart transplant recipients, to join our virtual expressive writing workshops.  

Being diagnosed with heart disease can make you feel as if your world has turned upside down. Powerful emotions come with the diagnosis: fear, anger, sadness, loss—often difficult to express. Writing has been shown to have emotional and physiological benefits to those dealing with life-threatening or chronic conditions, hardship, or trauma.

Facilitated by Sharon Bray, Ed.D., author, educator and heart failure patient, our virtual workshops allow you to learn how writing can be healing, practice your own writing and, if you wish, share your writing with others.   “As patients, I think we learn a lot from each other,” Sharon says. “The workshops build an extraordinary community through story. People realize they’re not alone.” 


Writing the Heart Introductory Video

Writing the Heart facilitator Sharon Bray (author, educator, and heart patient) knows better than anyone the benefits of expressive writing – she has written herself out of more than one difficult chapter in life. In this introductory video, Sharon explains what expressive writing is, leads us through prompts and reflections, and invites us to explore the deepest part of our experience to tell our story.


Stories from Previous Writing the Heart Participants

Examination of a Doctor by Brian T.

You’re inserting a stint up his groin.
It’s cold.
What you don’t know about him is his pain threshold is high.
You hit a snag.
He tells you something’s not okay. 
His body freezes. He’s in pain but you tell him it’s okay. 
But it’s not.
Where is the gentle hand?
Where is the reassuring voice? 
Where is the curiosity?
You’re invading his body. Do you realize that?
Rather than help him relax and open, you use your instruments to get the job done.
Thank you.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for your expertise, your cold precision, your ability to keep your emotions under wraps.
And yet, I can’t help but see a glaring blind spot:
This is a human being.
Have you forgotten?
I know, perhaps it’s not your fault, I’m not blaming you. The system churns us in and out as fast as it can because the truth is, we’re all suffering.
And so, as you push on, you help just as much as you hinder. A saved and injured patient, left weeks later alive, but with more complications, obvious to me, but not to him or other medical professionals.
Trauma isn’t just the pain, it’s our aloneness with the pain and you left him alone that day…
Eyes wide.
My dad.
Alone and surrounded by people.
A bid for connection, letting you know how he felt while you pressed on. 
Again, thank you.
And, I also want you to know the damage done.
Did you look him in the eyes?
Or did you just try and save his life?
I want to embrace you and I also want to get angry, because I know he won’t. He doesn’t have it in him.
Thank you.
I see you and the good you’re trying to do. My wish is that you see who it’s for and get to tap into your own humanity through the work. Maybe if you did, you wouldn’t be able to keep up, because the emotions you put to the side would take you over and we’d all come toppling down.

Three Poems by H.C. Kean


Ever present but out of reach 
The elusive nymph shows 
her rewards not often enough

Like a spring we would gulp
from her benefits 
Like an ocean we would drown
in her beauty 

Alas, we only get glimpses of her flesh
though the dancing shadows 
of our forest floor

Mantra for a broken heart 

I came into this world with a few holes in me 
and I plan to leave it with a few more 

There is nothing of life 
if there is nothing of love


In this photo I am realizing that life isn’t fair. 5 years old, laying on a small gurney with bars surrounding me – it was like I was in a cage. The girl laying in the bed beside me, looking at me. She reached her hand through the bars to touch me and she asked “are you afraid?” 

Then the nurses came and wheeled her away, into the operating room. I was alone in the holding area waiting to be next. I never found out who she was or what happened to her but from that brief encounter I knew she was my friend and that none of this was fair.   

I Walk the Line Inspired Poem by Nancy Cunliffe

I keep my fingers on this pulse of mine
To feel the rhythmic beating all the time
I hope my heart is happy and its fine
Because you’re now mine, I walk the line

I never thought I would need a brand new heart
But I was broken and needed a fresh start
We are good friends and cannot live apart
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

As each day dawns and then turns into night
I see another doctor visit in sight
I take my meds and try to eat what’s right
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

You’ve found a way to renew my lease on life
I hope no more going under the surgeon’s knife
And in my life, you give me no more strife
I am so glad you’re mine and for you I am happy to walk the line