In 1985, psychologist James W. Pennebaker theorized that the effort it takes to hold back our thoughts and feelings serves as a stressor on our bodies. By confronting these thoughts and acknowledging our emotions, we can reduce the stress and negative impact on our bodies. The result? We feel better.
One of the best ways to confront our feelings is through writing. Decades of research have suggested that expressive writing can help improve mood, increase psychological well-being, reduce depressive symptoms, decrease PTSD avoidance symptoms, reduce days spent in a hospital and improve immune system functioning (to name a few).
Writing a letter or journaling is not a new concept; in fact, for many, it’s a fading art form. With all the recent technological advancements, individuals are no longer opting for the standard pen-and-paper means to express feelings, ideas and thoughts. Instead, it’s become much more common to use social media to express “tip-of-the-iceberg” feelings.
For someone with mental illness, taking time beyond a social media post to write expressively can be very helpful to your well-being. Below are a few ways you can use expressive writing practices to reduce mental health symptoms and improve overall well-being.
Focus on a Specific Subject
A study conducted by the University of Los Angeles found that participants who wrote in detail about a particular stressor showed the most improvement versus writing about general facts of a stressful event. Participants who did not just recount events but rather wrote about how they felt about the event had marked improvement in their health.
This means: You should write about a specific experience and all its features—how it made you feel, and any thoughts or ideas you had as result. Don’t just rehash what happened.
Give Yourself Time
By dedicating a set amount of time to write, you can dive deeper into your feelings and experiences rather than just brush the surface. Studies have reported that short writing sessions have less impact on improved feelings/emotions in the long run. Giving yourself a focused time, day and schedule to write improves the ability for your mind to dive deeper into processing your feelings.
This means: Try to set aside at least 15–20 minutes a day to write, and try to do it consistently for two to three days in a row. Allow time after writing to collect yourself before moving on to other tasks.
Don’t Worry About Grammar or Spelling
When writing a research paper or dissertation, spelling and grammar are crucial. However, this isn’t the case for expressive writing exercises. Worrying about grammar and spelling tends to pull an individual’s mind out of the free, conscious “space” they are trying to experience.
This means: Ignore the rules and write without stopping to re-read or edit what you have so far.
Use Positive Words
Using words like “because,” “realize” and “understand” helps increase the positive effects of the exercise. Studies found that writing that included “positive-emotion” words had higher rates of improved health. Words such as hope, love, anticipation and awe are also good words to consider using.
This means: The words you use matter. After writing, identify the number of positive words in your writing. You can also visit www.liwc.wpengine.com and paste your text into their system and see how your writing is translated in a positive or negative sense.
While extensive studies have been conducted, there is still much to learn about the implications of writing about emotional topics such as PTSD, anxiety or depression. Therefore, if possible, seek support from a mental health professional to help you through any challenges that may arise during these exercises. It’s important to have resources available while you uncover feelings and emotions through the writing process.
The art of expressive writing has been researched and studied for decades, and the findings demonstrate that it has a positive impact on symptom reduction and overall well-being for participants who use the process as it was intended. Consider the above five tips when beginning your “writing to wellness” journey.
Steven Swink has his Master’s degree in counseling psychology and has been working in the field of mental health since 2009. He has provided direct counseling services and provides supervisory-level work in the mental health field overseeing various programs and service delivery to consumers. In addition to his mental health experience, Steven is co-founder and CEO of www.Letyr.com, a platform for people to anonymously share their ideas, beliefs and feelings in a safe and confidential way.
Note: This piece is a reprint from the Fall 2017 Advocate.