For many of us, writing is a hobby. For some, it’s an income. But as a student of psychology, my first question is, what is this doing to my brain?
It might seem like a stupid question, but looking back over my writing experience, there’s no doubt that writing has improved my mental health. When I put an anecdote on paper, I am forced to order my thoughts, and comb out the logic from the conclusion-jumping. When I present the story for an audience, I have to explain my reactions, evaluate my choices, and re-frame experiences positively, so that both me and the reader are left with an overarching lesson. Writing has helped me explore my identity, both as a writer and as a person, and increased my self-esteem. I’ve grown so much in the past year, and I have writing to thank for a lot of that.
So, my next question is, can this be used to help other people?
The short answer: Yes. For years, psychologists have recognised the value of writing as a creative outlet and a therapeutic tool.
In psychological literature, writing is more than an engine of communication; it’s a way of shaping meaning for ourselves. When we write, we control the narrative. When we control it, we can change it — hopefully, for the better. As the researcher Elbow (1975) put it;
“Writing [is] more than a transmission of meaning; it [is] a construction of meaning.”
Psychologists have even developed a therapeutic form of writing, called expressive writing. Expressive writing — extremely personal writing about your feelings during stressful or emotional events — allows patients to make sense of negative experiences, find positives in them, and desensitise themselves to them, all in a safe environment.
The results of this kind of writing are remarkable. Smyth and colleagues’ review suggests that, in healthy participants, expressive writing is as beneficial as therapy. In an experiment by Burton and King (referenced here), participants only needed to be writing for two minutes to kick-start the healing process, but the benefits could last for months; Baikie, Geerlings and Wilhelm (2012) showed that the improvement in psychological and physical health remained four months after the writing sessions had finished. In one startling study by Koschwanez and colleagues, those who practised expressive writing after a small-punch biopsy procedure healed significantly faster than those who didn’t.
Sounds perfect, right? Writing is straight-up awesome.
But not all writing is expressive writing. The studies zero-in on this form of expression for a reason; the wrong kind of writing won’t have the same positive effects, and you won’t come out of it feeling good. We’ve all had times when writing has been more of an uphill struggle than catharsis, and we’ve spent more time stressing over sentences than writing them. Needless to say, that’s not therapeutic.
If you want to try writing for health, here are some tips to get you started.
1. Write in a safe, private space
Find somewhere quiet, personal and private, free from distractions.
Most procedures recommend practising expressive writing for about twenty minutes a day, three or four days a week. (As a writer, I found this far too short, and regularly went over the time limit, but it’s okay to adapt the method to suit you.)
Give yourself ten minutes to collect your thoughts once you’ve finished writing — like cooling down after a workout. This will help you process everything you’ve just written and recover from any difficult emotions.
2. Don’t censor yourself
In expressive writing, the goal is to release your thoughts and feelings, so don’t worry too much about structure. If you like, you can polish it up for an audience later, but the main focus is writing for you, for your eyes only. Be honest, open and expressive. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. You don’t even have to bother with grammar or punctuation; just get it out.
3. Make sense of the event and find positives
Once you’ve chosen a personal event, moment or feeling to write about, address your own questions about what happened and why. How did you interpret the event at the time, and has that changed? Has this affected your sense of self or purpose?
Consider potential positives, too. Have you learnt any lessons? What mental resources did you draw on during or after the event to build resilience? What did you learn about others around you?
That might sound heavy, but it’s just like any other skill; it takes practise. You don’t need to use those questions, and you’re encouraged to go where your emotions take you, but they might give you a place to start. You may be writing about an event, a moment or a whole period, but remember to focus on the emotions and perceptions, rather than the story.
A study showed that those who benefited most from expressive writing used some negative words and lots of positive words, so try and find a balance with a bit more emphasis on the good.
4. Don’t ruminate or distract yourself from the event
Studies have shown that this method is good for people who are prone to rumination, possibly because it encourages you to do the exact opposite; instead of dwelling endlessly on something bad, you get it out on paper, process it and understand it. Expressive writing is about finding meaning in your experience, and people benefit more when they use, ahem, cognitive mechanism words, like “understand”, “because”, “realise” and “reason”. Don’t treat this as a passive outpouring, look water falling from a tap, but rather a filtering, analysing and restructuring exercise, like raw materials entering a factory and coming out the other side as completely different objects.
At the same time, you should still focus on the event/stress that you’re writing about. It’s easy to go on tangents and write around the thing that’s stressing you out, analysing one small part rather than addressing it directly — trust me, I’ve been there. Try to keep yourself on-task, even when it’s difficult.
5. It’s okay if you begin to feel upset
It’s common for people to feel a small amount of distress immediately after expressive writing. That makes sense; it’s hard, probing work that forces you to examine things you may find uncomfortable. It’s okay if you feel upset.
Soon, though, benefits should start to appear. They may not be obvious, but hopefully you will begin to recognise them after a while.
If you feel like the method is negatively impacting you, stop. If you feel like exploring the memory is getting too much for you, stop. Don’t do anything you aren’t happy with. No psychological tool is universally helpful (has anyone else found mindfulness to be a complete waste of time?) and there’s nothing wrong with stepping back.
Remember, I’m just an idiot on the internet, and my guide is not the same as real psychological help. If you think you might be depressed, anxious, or uncovering any kind of trauma, visit a mental health professional. They are the ones who are trained to guide you through this, so don’t go messing with this method if you think it might affect you badly.
But overall, I’ve enjoyed practising this method, and I definitely feel a sense of release after an expressive writing session. Not only that, I think it has helped my writing; the untethered, free expression has tapped into some new veins of creativity, and I’m able to steal some golden phrases for my more poetic works.
We all know how stressful writing can be, especially when you have money on the line. Take a time-out and let writing look after you for a while.