Therapeutic Toolbox is a series that explores novel, often physical practices which support us on our journey toward better mental health. From cold immersion to forest bathing or the private, reflective exercise of therapeutic writing; we present an experiential toolbox for self-care. Repeatedly when we open this toolbox, we find that practices we already enjoy are being affirmed for their health benefits. These are achievable, often cost-free prescriptions for healthier lives.
So many children keep a diary for a time. They confide their feelings about the day, or flex their imaginations and record their stories. The regular time and exercise of writing doesn't often endure into adulthood. Not many of us clear a space in our busy days, reflect closely on our moment in life, and assign words to our feelings. That's our loss, because writing has therapeutic value. Here, we explore the process and the benefit of writing therapy.
We are told that talking about our problems will help. We may seek out counselling, a profession based on this concept. But what happens when you can't access or afford professional counselling? Are there other ways to engage with your feelings and thoughts, to understand yourself and your experience?
Writing therapy is a cost-free, private way to become aware of more of the meaning in our lives. Writing integrates reflection and expression. The process of putting experience into words can promote a holistic well-being, wherein we learn to better tell our stories and articulate our own feelings.
Therapeutic writing includes any act of intentional writing for the purpose of reflection, insight and health. Therapeutic writing pioneer Kay Adams comments that writing therapy, like other expressive arts therapies, "uses the art and science of creativity, imagination and expression to bring about healing and change." Like more conventional psychotherapies, expressive therapies are based on the paradigm that bottling up emotions leads to distress, while releasing these feelings can promote wellness.
Long practised but scarcely studied
The therapeutic value of writing goes back as far as Ancient Greece, whose poet-philosophers believed that words held healing power. The modern notion of writing therapy started as a specialist niche in librarianship. In the 1920s, librarians prescribed books to library members as a kind of 'narrative medicine.' By the 1950s, the practice of writing down feelings had entered mainstream psychotherapy. Psychoanalysts regularly encouraged expressive writing practices, such as diary writing, as ways to gain direct insight into their patients' everyday lives.
As its value became more widely appreciated, therapeutic writing spread beyond the analysts' offices. These days, you are just as likely to find people writing independently—including people who want to do something positive during their long wait for traditional mental health care.
Writing is becoming one of those practices that people adopt because they feel helpful, without waiting for science to substantiate the benefits.
Science is catching up. There have been numerous studies into the reasons why writing therapy works. However, not all of the research has been rigorously structured for scientific validity. We need more double-blind or other unbiased studies to provide hard evidence as to what works, and lead to theories as to why. While research so far shows evidence that writing can be therapeutic, the reasons for its effect are less clear.
Research studies not only provide validation in scientific circles, they also provide direction for clinical practitioners to work more effectively with a wide range of clients. The use of targeted scientific studies can help to measure outcomes and propose best practices. Neither the practice nor the outcome of writing therapy is standard: different demographics, and people with different needs and aims. need to be understood separately. Healthy people seeking personal development might benefit from straightforward, self-directed journal writing. However, for those experiencing mental distress, guided writing exercises facilitated by a trained professional are considered to be better practice.
Writing therapy has been called a 'biopsychosocial approach to wellness.' It works at the connections between body, mind, and the social world. Start with the body: a regular journalling practice, prompted by the five senses, can serve as an excellent grounding exercise and become almost meditative. What do you see, hear, touch at this moment? Intentional writing like this encourages self-awareness—a state of mind which is also good for the body in that it relaxes and releases tension. As for the social element, what we feel in our minds and bodies also affects our interpersonal interactions. By writing, we can become more grounded in who we know ourselves to be. We can learn to bring our more grounded selves into interactions with our social worlds.
Body and emotions overlap. Distress is an example of the embodied experience of an emotional state. When we sit down with the intention of writing therapeutically, we focus. We redirect our thoughts inward and let them flow onto the page. Reflecting and expressing, we articulate what we feel, and that helps to relieve the stress of emotional upset that we are holding within our bodies. The act of writing is cathartic: it recognises, explores, and helps to release emotional obstructions. Through written reflection, we can be more present in both our physical and emotional selves.
Are there writing practices that tend to help express our growing awareness? Writing therapy works best when it makes use of story structures. Therapeutic writing practitioner Kay Adams emphasises this idea, saying that therapeutic writing includes developing "the capacity to tell a coherent story about a life event." Storytelling has always been about meaning-making, its patterns and symbols, and by telling stories about our lives we tap into those deep structures to make sense of ourselves.
Expressive writing exercises the brain as a narrative organ—as the place where humans make sense of the world through storytelling. Our narrative faculty is also an area of interest for researchers. American social scientist James W. Pennebaker refers to the 'disclosure phenomenon' to describe how narrating (or writing) the story of our problems promotes therapeutic self-awareness and sense making. The more we exercise our narrative brains, the more mindful we become of ourselves as multifaceted beings.
Choosing words—and methods—to make meaning
In a world where more and more people are seeking support for their mental health, writing therapy provides a cost-effective and flexible mode for self-care, individually or with the support of a therapist. Victoria Field, a poetry therapist working in the UK, comments that "writing is paradoxically very accessible and also profoundly meaningful. That's its power." The fact that we choose words as our medium of personal exploration has meaning. Words can convey who we are. By choosing words, we are affirming our place in the world through the marks we make on the page.
The power of writing out ideas can be especially helpful for people who might not wish to commit to traditional talking therapies. Therapy can focus on problems or it can problematise feelings, while expressive arts therapies focus on exploring—rather than fixing—the way we feel and think. It's a misconception to think that you have to be a great writer to carry out this exploration: the act of writing is the point. Imagination and intention are the only requirements. Such an accessible medium could surely be benefiting more people than are using it now. All you need is pen and paper.
Articulate your world
Therapeutic writing uses words on the page or screen to explore your thoughts, your way of being in the world, your life and what you might want to change. Perhaps you are motivated by various emotional states, life transitions, illness or relationship changes. Words constantly thread through the ups and downs of life. Words both inform and record your evolving world view.
The intentional act of writing therapeutically can support the changes you want to make. Committing to take time out of a busy life to write, you create a conscious space where you are fully present. By carving out time for yourself and walking away from the distractions, you enact a different way of being in the world—one where you speak to yourself, answer yourself, and pause to write down your answers. In this space, you can be free to explore who you are now as well as entertaining ideas of who you might want to become.
Approaches to writing therapy vary as widely as individuals and circumstances. As with any therapeutic exercise, it's helpful to set goals and work in a format appropriate to the intensity of the subject, whether that's a current life situation or a past trauma.
You might find therapeutic benefits from writing out a log of activities (especially when you're trying to change some habits), filling out a thought-provoking questionnaire if you feel less comfortable writing freely, keeping a handwritten or computerised journal, scribbling a poem, even reading a story consciously. These and other expressive writing forms, such as creative writing and poetry, all combine imagination with memory. As your practice yields insight into life events and their significance, as you expand your self-knowledge through words, you may find that your writing practice becomes more reflective.
Reaching back and looking forward, writing can help to assess past feelings or to contemplate personal development goals. It's that holistic combination of release and exploring meaning which makes writing therapy so effective.
Prompt your writing
How do you choose a writing therapy approach that will work for you and enhance your health? The answer: trial and error. Pinterest, with its picture perfect prompts, can be a good place to start. Type 'writing therapy' into the search bar and you will see a plethora of ideas, presented in a pretty way. Choose from letter-writing prompts, shadow work suggestions—to examine your darker side—brain-dump inspirations and ideas for writing that supports self-care.
Gratitude journalling is a favourite within the wellness movement. Write down the positive things in your life every day, as a way to turn your attention toward all those wonderful things.
Whatever method and theme you choose, writing therapy can act as a way to tell your life story to yourself. It can deepen your understanding of who you are, clarify your place in the world, and enhance your peace of mind, heart and spirit. These positive feelings can have ripple effects: expressive writing really can change your outlook.
When you begin to write, think about the ideas you want to focus on but also try to be conscious of the words that you choose, because those words have power. Poets and philosophers have known that for a long time, and healing professionals are realising it, too. Writing can be good for your physical and emotional health.
All it takes is one word at a time.