I’ve always been a bit of a worrier.
As a child, I certainly had an active imagination, while my teenage years were filled with all the usual acne-filled angst.
And as an adult, I have the depressing tendency to overthink and inevitably worry about things like money, work and relationships.
Writing has always been an outlet.
It’s a way of getting all those pesky demons out of my head and down on paper.
And it’s also a way of working through these issues in a logical and analytical way.
Over the years, I’ve used writing therapy (aka journaling) to gain some mastery over an otherwise messy mind.
And I can say without a doubt that it’s helped me to stay (semi!) sane during some very challenging times.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your thoughts, we’ll explore the technique in this here little article.
Hopefully, if you’re anything like me, it provides you with a little peace of mind.
“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I write and I understand” – Chinese Proverb
What Is Writing Therapy?
It’s no secret that writing can be therapeutic.
Just think about all the times you’ve vented your frustrations by scribbling in a journal or composing an angry letter you never intended to send.
But did you know that writing in itself is a treatment for such psychological woes?
Writing therapy, also known as journal therapy or expressive writing, is a form of therapy in which someone (that’s you!) uses their creation to process and cope with difficult emotions, thoughts and experiences.
It’s not about grammar or spelling or even making sense.
Instead, it’s about letting the words flow freely and getting those emotions out in a productive way.
Writing therapy can be used as a stand-alone therapy or in conjunction with traditional face-to-face treatment.
The Benefits of Journaling
There are numerous benefits to putting pen to paper, whether it’s in a spare notebook or formal reading journal.
Here are just some factors it can help address:
- Personal growth
What the Science Says
It’s not just anecdotal evidence that supports the use of this technique.
Serious white-coat-wearing scientists have even endorsed its use!
Research has shown that writing about traumatic or stressful experiences can improve physical and psychological well-being, helping with immune functioning and reduced blood pressure.
In one study, participants who wrote about their emotions and thoughts surrounding a traumatic experience for 15-20 minutes, three times over the course of four days, had improved physical and psychological symptoms compared to those who wrote about neutral topics.
Other studies have shown similar results for those dealing with chronic illnesses while additional research demonstrates that it can be just as effective as traditional talk therapy for treating certain mental health issues.
How it Works
The exact mechanism of why writing therapy is such an effective treatment agent remains unknown, although various theories have been proposed:
“One theory is that of emotional catharsis whereby the mere act of disclosure, essentially ‘getting it off your chest’ is a powerful therapeutic agent in itself. Writing may facilitate cognitive processing of traumatic memories, resulting in more adaptive, integrated representations about the writer themselves, their world, and others. It is also possible that development of a coherent narrative over time results in ongoing processing and finding meaning in the traumatic experience.”
Types of Writing Therapy
There are several different ways to approach writing therapy.
- One is free writing, where you simply let your thoughts and emotions flow onto the page without any specific structure or topic in mind.
- Another approach is to use prompts, such as writing about a particular event or experience, or simply listing things you’re grateful for.
- You can also use writing therapy to set and achieve personal goals, exploring your fears and how to overcome them, or even writing letters that you may or may not ever send.
Obviously, the above methods can be mixed and matched to your heart’s content.
One approach that has gained immense popularity is stream-of-consciousness journaling, popularised by Julia Cameron in her bestselling book, The Artists’ Way, in which she recommends the use of morning pages for creative expression and inner calm.
I highly recommend checking out the book.
How to Practice
To begin, find a quiet and comfortable space where you can get in the zone.
Set a timer for anywhere from five to fifteen minutes and start writing, letting your thoughts and emotions flow freely without stopping or censoring yourself.
“The worst thing you can do is censor yourself as the pencil hits the paper. You must not edit until you get it all on paper. If you can put everything down, stream-of-consciousness, you’ll do yourself a service” – Stephen Sondheim
Don’t worry about spelling or grammar – the only person who will be reading this is you (although having said that, a study investigating emotional disclosure did demonstrate the benefits of sharing your work).
As you continue to practice, try to do it on a regular basis, whether that’s daily or several times a week.
Keep in mind that writing therapy is not a quick fix, but rather a way to work through and process your emotions in a healthy way.
And remember – if you find that writing therapy isn’t helping, don’t hesitate to seek help from a professional therapist or counselor.
Writing Therapy Exercises
- Gratitude journaling
- Documenting a difficult experience or emotion
- Writing to your future self
- Setting and exploring personal goals
- Writing letters (to yourself or others)
- Writing out a conversation with someone you admire
- Challenging negative thoughts and beliefs
- Writing about positive experiences and moments of joy
- Reminiscing over childhood experiences
- Brain-dumping to-do lists
- Naming each thought that comes into your head
- Keeping a commonplace book
Remember, there is no right or wrong way to do writing therapy.
Playful experimentation is key.
Writing therapy is often paired with bibliotherapy, which is a specific focus on this humble little website.
Bibliotherapy involves using literature, poetry and other written works to aid in healing and understanding emotions.
This could be as simple as keeping a list of books that have helped you during difficult times, or finding quotes and passages to reflect on during your writing therapy sessions.
You could also try incorporating art therapy or doodling, using colors and images to express your emotions.
These different techniques can enhance the effects of writing therapy and provide additional outlets for processing emotions.
Giving yourself the space and time to explore these different approaches can enhance this already beneficial activity.
Writing therapy, also known as journaling, can have numerous benefits for mental and physical health.
It involves expressing one’s emotions and thoughts on paper, using techniques such as free writing or prompts.
It’s an amazing tool and even though some days I fall from the old writing wagon, whenever I return to the practice, I can notice the immediate benefits.
I feel more calm, centered and controlled.
So if you’re struggling with runaway emotions or spiraling thoughts, I highly recommend unleashing your inner muse.