Writing has been found to have a positive impact on mental health, providing a therapeutic outlet for expressing thoughts and emotions. Whether you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, or anything in between, this article will help you discover how incorporating writing into your daily routine can be an effective way to manage your emotions, cultivate mindfulness, and improve your mental well-being.
The Science Behind Writing and Mental Health
How writing can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression
Research has shown that writing can have a profound effect on mental health. Studies indicate that expressive writing, or writing about emotionally significant experiences or topics, can help reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. By writing about difficult experiences, you may be able to process your emotions more effectively and gain a sense of control over your thoughts.
In a study conducted by Cambridge University, they found that writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events resulted in improvements in both physical and psychological health. Participants who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings reported significant benefits in both objectively assessed and self-reported physical health four months later, with less frequent visits to a health professional and a trend towards fewer days ‘out of role’ owing to illness.
The role of expressive writing in promoting emotional regulation and self-awareness
Expressive writing can also help promote emotional regulation and self-awareness. By exploring one’s emotions through writing, you can better understand your thought patterns and identify triggers that may contribute to negative feelings. This self-awareness can lead to more effective coping strategies and a greater sense of emotional balance. When you write about these personal events, you will likely find that you reveal a considerable range and depth of emotional trauma.
Although many people report being upset by the writing experience, they also find it valuable and meaningful (Pennebaker, 1997b).
The Art of Mindful Writing
Writing as a tool for mindfulness and present-moment awareness
Journaling, creative writing, and other forms of writing can be used as a therapeutic tool to promote mental health. Journaling helps to develop a regular writing practice and gain insight into various emotional states. Creative writing, such as poetry or fiction, can offer a creative outlet for emotional expression and exploration.
When I started writing, I’d set aside an hour each morning. The lovely coffee shop (yes, cliché, I know) across the road from where I worked was the perfect place to set up my laptop or notepad. I knew that because I would be at work five days a week, I’d have this dedicated time to put pen to paper. I quickly discovered that I could use customers in the shop as characters, but unload my own traumas onto these newly created fictional people. It felt like less of a burden, giving someone else the weight I was carrying.
Exercises and techniques for incorporating mindfulness into your writing practice If you want to start a writing practice for mental health purposes, it’s important to establish a routine (as I mentioned above). To begin with, consider setting aside a few minutes each day to write, whether it be in a journal or creatively. Use prompts or exercises to help you get started and stay focused.
When you’ve established a routine, you can increase the amount of time you spend writing. As you start to process complex, and sometimes hidden emotions or traumas, you will be able to apply these to characters you’ve created. By fictionalising your own core feelings, it is sometimes easier to spot the effects it has on your mental state.
Personally, and I know it’s the case for many people — I’d rather give someone advice than take my own. Looking at the characters you’ve created, you will be able to offer them ‘advice’. Instead of shouting at the words on the page, take a step back and you’ll realise that it is you that needs to listen to the advice you’re giving. These are your emotions and trauma after all. It can be much more beneficial to view your emotions in this way than trying to navigate the depths of your own consciousness.
Writing as a Tool for Personal Growth
How to cultivate mindfulness and present-moment awareness
Writing can also be used to cultivate mindfulness and present-moment awareness. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment, observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment. By incorporating mindfulness techniques into your writing practice, you can learn to be more present and aware in your everyday life.
To put it in more simple terms — just write. Don’t take the time to start going over what you’ve put down and examining what it may mean, that comes in the self-discovery stage. When you’re able to write without interruption, you will start to feel at one with the words. They’ll start to cascade from your mind like an out-of-control river. This is being ‘in the moment’. There’s a reason behind the phrase in the flow.
If you take away the lessons from this present moment awareness, you can apply them to many situations in your life. Live in the moment. Carpe Diem — Seize the day.
Tips for using writing to explore your identity, values, and goals
I keep mentioning writing prompts and exercises, and for good reason. Not only are they excellent tools to stay focused, but they can help you incorporate mindfulness into your writing practice. Consider writing about your sensory experiences or using stream-of-consciousness writing to explore your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Here are a couple of prompts that I’ve had great success with:
Grab a book, any book. Go to page 42 (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reference had to be thrown in there for good measure) and copy the first full line on the page. Make it the first line of your story. Now, go to the first page and find the first sentence. Make this your last line. You now have a beginning and an end: write the story.
This is a great one for stream-of-consciousness and sensory feelings, combined in one prompt:
Personify the walls of your house or apartment. What do they think? What do they see and observe about the comings and goings of the day? What is their opinion of what they observe? Do they have a name?
After reading the next section, you’ll understand how these prompts — or at least the words you’ve written — can be used to process experiences and emotions.
Writing for Self-Discovery and Healing
How writing can help you process difficult emotions and experiences
Writing can be a powerful tool for promoting self-discovery and healing. By engaging in creative writing projects and writing about difficult experiences or emotions, you can gain a greater sense of self-awareness and process your emotions more effectively.
By combining all the above techniques, you can begin to process the stories or journal entries you’ve written. Putting difficult emotions or experiences onto paper allows you to externalise your internal experiences and make them more tangible. This can help with gaining a sense of clarity and perspective, making it easier to identify patterns of behaviour or thought that may be contributing to negative emotions.
During a writing challenge I took part in a few years ago, I was given a new prompt each day, and I could interpret these in whichever way I wished. Although each day provided a unique starting point, I found my stories would always follow a similar theme. At the time, I was unaware that I was processing personal trauma and experiences. Only by looking back at what I’d written did I see the pattern. By focusing on the prevailing themes and motifs, I was able to recognise that I was going through a tough battle with my own depression and inner demons. I sought professional help at this stage, and to this day, my writing still explores similar ideas, but I’m able to process and understand why I’m writing these stories.
Writing as a Supportive Practice
How fiction, poetry, and other forms of creative writing can be used to express and process emotions and complement traditional therapy modalities.
Writing can also be used in a group setting or with a therapist to enhance other mental health treatments, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). Group writing sessions can provide a sense of community and support while writing with a therapist can help you explore difficult emotions and gain insights into your thought patterns.
In a group setting, writing can create a sense of connection and support among participants. They can provide a safe space for you to share your experiences and emotions with others who may be going through similar struggles. This can create a sense of community and validation, which can be particularly beneficial if you feel isolated or alone in your struggles. Writing in a group setting can also help you gain different perspectives on your experiences, and may lead to insights or new ideas for coping with difficult emotions.
Given the current economic climate, I understand that therapy sessions aren’t going to be an option for everyone. But, if they are viable, you can use them to explore difficult emotions and gain insights into thought patterns. Working with a therapist to use writing as a tool for self-discovery and emotional healing can provide a sense of guidance and support. A therapist can help with identifying patterns in your writing and offer insights and feedback on your thoughts and emotions. This can help you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and your experiences. The therapist can provide guidance on how to move forward and develop new coping strategies.
In conclusion, writing can be a powerful tool for promoting mental health and well-being. Whether you are looking to reduce stress, process difficult emotions, or cultivate mindfulness, incorporating writing into your self-care routine can have a positive impact on your mental health.
So, grab a pen and paper, and start exploring the healing power of words today.