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How Expressive Writing Can Improve Your Mental Health

by Nicole Garrison(more info)

listed in anxiety, originally published in issue 278 - May 2022

Self-expression, no matter what form it may take, is liberating. It takes us away from the demands and stressors of our daily grinds and moves us into a more positive mental state. When that self-expression is in the form of writing, it helps us process our challenges and the triggers that undermine our mental health.

 

Fig 1 Expressive Writing

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Expressive writing as therapy was first introduced by Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas. His research found that when people hold in their deep issues and secrets, they become both mentally and physically sick. His solution for this was for such people to write – write down their deep thoughts and feelings about tough events that have had a deep emotional impact.

Since Pennebaker’s early work in the 1980s, other researchers have built on it, confirming that expressive writing really can help those dealing with depression, PTSD, anxiety/stress, and even insomnia.

Let’s unpack how and what types of expressive writing work for each of these conditions.

 

Fig 2 Expressive Writing

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Expressive Writing for Depression

If you experience mild to moderate depression or periodic episodes of depression, it’s hard to identify exactly what the triggers are. Engaging in unstructured, free-writing with no specific topic or goal may reveal emotions and emotional responses to events, circumstances, or people in your life that you have not realized or that have been held in. The “rules” for this type of unstructured writing are this:

  • You must write for a minimum of 10 minutes, ideally 20
  • “Unstructured” means that you give no thought to any sequence or logic in your writing, and you do not worry about sentences or grammar. Simply let your mind wander and write down whatever pops up.
  • There should be no self-judgment in anything you write about. You have a right to the feelings and emotions you are experiencing.

The thing about unstructured writing is that you might begin with an event of that day and wind up with a “hurt” that occurred years ago. And this is the whole point. Getting that “garbage” out, thinking about it, and writing it down

Expressive Writing for PTSD

This is a more structured type of expressive writing, specifically related to the trauma you have experienced that is impacting your mental health.

While most think of war, abuse, and such as traumas that cause PTSD. But death, divorce, natural disasters, loss of a job, etc. can also be causes. This condition can impact the ability to function on a daily basis and include such symptoms as recurring memories with accompanying physical responses, nightmares, inappropriate behaviors, bottling up the memory and the negative emotions, inability to focus, and difficulty forming healthy relationships.

A 2018 study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that “written exposure therapy (WET) can be as effective as longer-lasting treatments in reducing the severity of PTSD.

Writing about the trauma can have positive effects, as follows:

  • For those who have “held it in,” getting it out can be liberating. They have “told” their story and described all the emotions they have been feeling, if only to a piece of paper;
  • Getting the trauma and its effects down on paper can help reduce the severity of the symptoms;

Those who had positive effects from structured expressive writing used the following “regime:”

  • They write at least five days a week for 20 minutes minimum;
  • They keep themselves in the present and write about the trauma by looking back on it, not re-living it;
  • They write about the details of the event and how they felt going through it;
  • They wrote about the same event multiple times.

Expressive Writing for Anxiety

We’ve all had the feeling – a sense of unease and not able to target its cause. At other times, we know the cause but are not certain how to deal with it – it just becomes a constant worry that consumes our thoughts and makes us less happy and productive.

A couple of studies on student test anxiety point to a good writing exercise that can be used for other types of anxieties as well. Before students took their tests, they were given 5 – 10 minutes to write down their thoughts and feelings about it. Once finished, they were told to wad up the paper and throw it away. They were psychologically throwing out their anxiety. 

This exercise can be used by adults with other anxieties. They can identify what is causing the worry, how they are feeling about it, and even how they might deal with it when the event or situation causing the worry becomes real. Throwing the paper away can “release” some of that worry.

Some people still have anxiety over past events. While that anxiety is not the same as PTSD, it results in what psychologists call “ruminating” – almost obsessive thinking about it. If someone has wronged you in the past, for example, you may be having a tough time getting over it. Writing a letter to that person expressing all of your feelings about what they did and then throwing that letter away, can help. By the way, if you have trouble expressing yourself clearly, the TrustMyPaper writing service may help you capture your feelings and put them into words properly.

 

Expressive Writing for Insomnia

It’s a common experience. We go to bed at a normal time, hoping to get a good night’s sleep. But we cannot shut our brains down. Usually, this is the result of concern for things that must be done, anxiety that we may forget something, or being upset about something that happened during the day.

Writing can provide a “release” of these things. Making a list of all that must get done tomorrow will ease the worry about forgetting something. Writing about the upsetting event and your feelings “gets it out.” Once you do get it out, make a positive statement, like, “There, I’ve said it!” and you will probably feel much more peaceful and at ease.

Add Positives to Your Expressive Writing

Writing about your negative feelings and emotions is certainly a good form of therapy. But another aspect of becoming more mentally healthy is to be able to use expressive writing positively. At the end of each of your writing exercises, come up with three things you are grateful for. Do you have emotional support from a friend or family member? Do you have a job you like? Do you have children and/or grandchildren that are a joy to icolehealth? These thoughts can both start or end your day on a positive note.

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About Nicole Garrison

Nicole Garrison is a professional writer, editor with many years of experience. Currently, she works at TrustMyPaper, a company that specializes in writing high-quality dissertation papers for students. In her spare time, Nicole enjoys studying psychology to improve her ability to deal with life's challenges. Nicole may be contacted via nicole@liveinspiredmag.com 

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