What Is Therapeutic Writing And Its Effects On Mental Health


Paul Auster said: “For me, writing is not a matter of free will, it is an act of survival.” We all write, whether for work, studies, pleasure or necessity; Whether with good spelling or with errors, organizing ourselves or among chaos. But also, sometimes, we write because the chaos is not found on our desk but in our internal world.

When we put that tangle of thoughts and emotions that haunt our minds on paper, we are able to order and concatenate the ideas, break them down into sentences, add commas and periods. There will come a time when everything we experienced has permeated the words on paper and we feel light, relieved, as if we had just emptied a glass of water that was one millimeter away from overflowing.

Writing has that: it can become a healthy way of dealing with our most intense emotional states; It can serve as a resource to know ourselves better, to give free rein to our thoughts until we find the one that conflicts us in the depths or to limit mental embarrassment to a minimum, to a short and precise sentence. Writing has everything that makes it therapeutic.

Many of us can relate from our own experiences how writing or journaling helped us to evoke our emotions and thoughts or to have a record of them to know ourselves in more detail. Also, how it helped us make difficult decisions. Sometimes, we are so fused with the thoughts that start in our lives that capturing them on a material surface allows us to distance ourselves from them. Human experiences with writing almost consistently describe how beneficial this practice can be for mental health. Over the last decades, various investigations have been carried out with the aim of specifically knowing what the effects of therapeutic writing are on mental health.

What is therapeutic writing?

Therapeutic writing involves the use of writing as a means to achieve reflection on an emotion, thought or personal conflict and, ultimately, increase the well-being of an individual. In general terms, therapeutic writing exercises aim to enable the person to deliberately evoke certain emotional states to facilitate their processing – for example, writing letters to people they would like to forgive or to their childhood self; as well as proposals that encourage automatic writing, by beginning to write “pulling by a thread” that is a priori problematic, without a fixed direction and without stopping to evaluate the literary quality of what is written.

We say that writing is therapeutic not only because it brings with it a series of psychological benefits that will be explained below, but also because the act of writing is a fundamental pillar of many psychotherapeutic treatments that have solid scientific evidence. Many therapists suggest that their patients keep a record of the thoughts that appear in their minds every time a problematic situation occurs, as well as the behaviors they carry out after the triggering event and thought. They can also be used in exposure therapies, asking the patient to write down how they felt before, during and after performing a challenging task. Scientific research shows that completing records is an extremely useful tool to advance treatment.

The health effects of therapeutic writing

Therapeutic writing has the most interesting effects on health that come from the experimental field. On the one hand, in certain experiments, researchers came to the conclusion that participants who wrote about highly emotionally charged experiences made fewer medical consultations—for both physiological and psychological reasons—than controls, who wrote about superficial topics. Additionally, writing about our emotions has been found to have positive effects on the immune system.

The antibodies of some research participants who wrote about their emotions had a more effective response to hepatitis B vaccinations, for example.

Writing is beneficial, but it forces us to camp next to the pain

If we focus on the strictly psychological level, the results are even more substantial. Writing about experiences that make us feel angry produces, in the long term, a significant improvement in mood and well-being indicators. However, it is interesting to note that, in these investigations, participants while writing about their most difficult emotions did not instantly feel better, but rather reported experiencing high levels of stress during the moment of writing.

Therapeutic writing, even though it brings great benefits, requires allowing yourself to experience that pain with openness, without resistance. Many psychological therapies are based on the premise that avoiding experiencing the emotional pain that some thoughts and emotions bring only adds suffering to the problem. Therapeutic writing appears as an alternative to escape; a different option to the ineffective strategy of escaping pain with intense activities, ecstatic substances or stimulating flavors. Therapeutic writing, on the other hand, invites you to give yourself the permission and right to feel the discomfort in your body instead of denying it. Writing is camping next to pain.

The benefits of giving yourself the space to process the most difficult experiences through writing are noticeable in the medium and long term. When we write, our stress decreases because we have been able to navigate that difficult emotion or thought instead of escaping from it. Also, in the long term, people who have the habit of writing daily about their emotions have a lower risk of suffering from mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety.

It allows us to take perspective of our thoughts

Furthermore, by having the potential to increase the knowledge we have about ourselves, writing can be a key strategy to clarify the values ​​or purposes by which we want to guide our lives and determine what small steps, what concrete actions, we can take to get closer to the life we ​​want to live. Writing helps us make wiser decisions, more aligned with building a meaningful life.

We can notice that writing is useful for questioning ourselves, the world around us and the beliefs—often distorted—we have about it. Writing allows us to change the perspective we have regarding our own thoughts, which on many occasions can be disguised as absolute truths. Our thoughts are not necessarily true. Nor are they strictly consistent with who we are. On the contrary, we can strongly disagree with our own thoughts, since they maintain a certain degree of automatism with respect to ourselves. For example, because of our personal stories, we may think that we are “a failure” or “a bad person,” when in fact we do not have the factual evidence to determine this.

Writing down our most painful ideas is a key exercise to gain perspective and notice that we are not our thoughts, but that we are more than them and that we should not always act based on what they demand of us. Sometimes, it is as if our thoughts are an expanded photo on our “mental screen”, being the only thing we can see. For its part, therapeutic writing allows us to observe other aspects of reality, notice a reality beyond that painful thought, as if it allowed us to zoom out of the photo. A useful exercise is to take the paper on which we have written what we feel about a difficult thought and move it away, noticing that there is a setting, a landscape, a background beyond it, be it a table, a desk or a sofa.

Get 4 Free Sample Chapters of the Key To Study Book

Get access to advanced training, and a selection of free apps to train your reading speed and visual memory

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.