Writing for Mental and Emotional Well-Being

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Some of us enjoy writing. Some of us loathe it. Like any personal affinity or dislike, the process of writing may inspire and resonate with us or we may feel indifferent about it — a task with which we just don’t connect.

The reasons we write are different. All of us must do it at some point, like that dreaded book report in school on a book that was assigned, not something we chose. Some professional writers describe an inner drive to write, a true calling that moves them to compose some of the great literature or journalism of our times. Others may keep a diary or journal for writing every day, to record their lives, to express themselves, and to look back on their experiences in the future. Our pull to write and our reasons for it are as diverse as we are.

As a teenager, I remember writing a goodbye letter to my dog, Sandy, who passed away after 19 years. I still have it to this day, and I remember the feeling of closure and emotional release after writing it. As I progressed in my graduate studies and clinical work in psychology practice, I realized how valuable writing can be, not just for self-expression or creative purposes, but for psychological well-being.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a particularly skilled writer or haven’t tried writing for therapeutic reasons, you might try some writing exercises to help foster a more balanced, positive outlook. Writing might help us slow down our speedy thought process so that we can gain insight and clarity into our lives and current situation.

The following writing exercises are some of the more common ones I have found to be helpful to some of my clients. I’ve used some of them myself during more difficult times.

Gratitude Journal

Make a list each day of at least three to five things for which we are grateful or are positive aspects of our lives or ourselves. There is no limit, however, on the number of things we list each day. Furthermore, the modifications are many: They can be things that happened during the day, or things for which we are generally grateful. The idea is to refocus the mind on the positive aspects of our lives, especially when it seems like the negative aspects far outweigh the good.

I’ve seen this as especially helpful in depression, when the mind drags itself into the abyss with difficulty to even see the light above. By taking a few moments each day to consciously reflect on the simplest of joys or sources of gratitude in life, it can help replant the seeds of hope and happiness in the mind that may be lost in the life struggles in our path.

Activity Journal

At the end of each day, write down at least three tasks that you have completed during the day. Any task will do. Simple tasks such as getting out of bed, making a cup of tea, or taking a shower qualify as tasks for the list. Likewise, more complex tasks such as finally finishing that big work project or having that conversation with our partner that makes us feel better about our relationship.

For individuals struggling with depression, such list making can work wonders, especially when issues of lower self-esteem or lack of motivation are involved. In fact, research has shown that the very act of self-monitoring can reduce problematic behaviors and emotions.

Some individuals may find it helpful to use a weekly calendar that has time slots listed each day, wherein they write down the task that is completed during a given hour. The principle here is to provide evidence to the contrary of the automatic negative thoughts in the mind that may say something like “You haven’t done anything today” or “You aren’t able to do even the simplest task.” With continued practice, some individuals report feeling better about their self-worth and abilities. It can also enhance motivation and reduce depressed mood.

Positive Affirmations

Similar to the Gratitude Journal, Positive Affirmations is the practice of writing down positive aspects of ourselves or of our lives. The practice can be extended to include inspirational sayings or quotes, or positive aspects of ones self specifically designed to counter automatic negative thoughts — those thoughts we’ve noticed that tend to pop up and make us feel discouraged, sad, or even depressed about ourselves or our lives.

Some people find it helpful to keep a list of five or ten positive affirmations posted in a prominent area like their fridge, bathroom mirror, or another area in their living space. It is useful to post these affirmations in an area where we can see them in the morning as we start our day. This infuses our minds with positivity before we go about our daily routine.

Other people find it helpful to keep an item, like a notecard, in their pocket, wallet or purse, with their most powerful positive affirmation or a list of them, so they can glance at it to remind them of the positive things in themselves or their life, especially if they are struggling with depression or low self-esteem. For example, if someone is depressed and has a tendency to think they are “weak” or cannot cope effectively with their life, a notecard with something like “I am a strong person, and am seeking help and fighting my depression every day” may be helpful to carry with them and refer to it from time to time. This serves as a reminder that we are often stronger than we think, especially when facing adversity.

Free Journaling or Diary

This is a very common practice in which people independently engage. The possibilities are many. Some people write the events, thoughts, and feelings they have each day in a diary. Others focus more on the events of a given day. Yet others may write in their diary less frequently or “as needed.”

There is no standard on the length of the narrative: Some write short entries while others write more elaborate and lengthy entries. Three of the most common benefits, I hear from individuals in treatment, are: 1) it helps them let go of their feelings; 2) by writing things out, they have more insight into their lives and an awareness of themselves that they may not have realized; and 3) they can refer back to prior entries to explore their progress or reflect on milestone moments in their lives as part of personal growth and development.

A few caveats here:

  • If you are coping with particularly intense emotions or coping with Borderline Personality Disorder, unstructured journaling can sometimes make emotional intensity or discomfort worse, so please consult with your mental health provider before attempting this if you have not tried this before, or notice that the journaling makes you feel worse.
  • Also, while this writing exercise can be helpful for working through grief, it may also exacerbate emotional intensity or discomfort to the point of being overwhelmed. Again, it may be a good idea to consult with your mental health provider before trying this for the first time or you feel uncomfortable doing it. In either case, your clinician may recommend more structured exercises that can be more beneficial.

In closing, these are just a few examples of the many writing exercises that can be helpful for our mental health and healing. They may not resonate with everyone, which is fine! For example, some people find it more useful to listen to music, engage in expressive art, or practice physical exercises like yoga or running. Writing is not for everyone, but if you like to write or feel that it may be helpful for you, some of these techniques may be useful.

A myriad of excellent workbooks exist out there, written by mental health professionals for specific disorders such as chronic pain, PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Such workbooks incorporate structured writing exercises. Be aware that the content therein should not be considered a substitute for professional mental health services. Yet, if you feel writing is right for you or found it helpful in the past, I encourage you to write on!


Image: Jonathan Kim on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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