Enhancing your mental health with expressive writing

A woman writes in her magazine while sitting in an office surrounded by greenery.George felt weighed as he arrived in another motel room. This was his ninth journey in a month. He was not used to traveling so much. Sure, he gets tiring, but he also felt irritable, disappointed and down. He loosened his tie and collapsed in bed.

Lifting his head, he noticed a notebook and a pen on the bedside table. He sat there and began to chant, writing about everything and everything – everything that came to mind without analysis or self-censorship. Just leave the words to the page. After about 20 minutes he came back with a sense of satisfaction. He felt lighter in his body and clearer in his mind.

He decided to resume this activity the day before his first meeting. He lived for a few minutes in the end, reflecting some of the things that went well in his life. As he left his room to go to work, he was happy to feel the bounce on his return.

Whether in motion, singing, dancing, art, music or words, there is something natural and liberating to self-expression. Not surprisingly, it can be a useful tool for dealing with difficult moments and accumulated stress. It can also promote self-reliance and acceptance.

I often invite my clients to try the magazine. They usually ask me if there is a specific way to get started. As it turns out, researchers have been studying for a long time expressive writing, seeking to determine which form works best for different themes. The following are some of the results.

Unstructured expressive writing

The classic writing instruction as a healing practice was introduced by Pennebaker and colleagues in the 1980s. It proceeds as follows:

  1. Write your "very deep thoughts and feelings about an extremely difficult or emotional event that has affected you and your life …" (Baum & Rude, 2013, p. 37).
  2. Keep the flow of writing for 20 minutes without interruption.
  3. Do not worry about spelling or grammar.

Gratitude of gratitude

The researchers also found maintaining one gratitude magazine can have a significant positive effect on mental health. It can create a greater sense of optimism and satisfaction from life (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons 2008). A simple daily or weekly gratitude magazine takes a few minutes to bring to mind the things that please you. The items in the list can be large or mundane: "I am grateful that my child is healthy" and "I am grateful for my toothpaste" are both acceptable.

Then there are letters of gratitude. The researchers compared the difference between psychotherapy on its own, expressive writing psychotherapy and psychotherapy with letters of gratitude. They found that gratitude had the greatest beneficial effect. Here's the essence of their approach (Wong, Owen, Gabana, Brown, McInnis, Toth, & Gilman (2018)):

  1. Choose a specific person to address your letter of gratitude. The purpose is not to send the letter, although you can if you want.
  2. Reflect and write about what is what you are grateful for in this person.
  3. Repeat this exercise for a long time. You can choose the same person as your consignee or a different person.

Expressive writing about depression

In 2013, Baum & Rude embodied the benefits of animation and concentration in classical expressive written practice. They discovered "expressive writing plus emotional acceptance" had a better effect on relieving the mild symptoms of depression than the classical approach of expressive writing. Both types of expressive writing have contributed to mild depression more than normal writing. However, expressive writing was found not to be useful for those who have severe depression symptoms.

So if your depression symptoms are on the milder side, consider the following tips (Baum & Rude, 2013):

  1. Be careful when writing, following the attitude of an observer. Witnesses of those difficult emotions come without judging them.
  2. Include a paragraph that normalizes frustrated answers in the face of difficulty and stops self-return.

Expressive writing for PTSD

This year, the researchers published the findings that expressive writing could help reduce the severity of Post Traumatic Stress Symptoms (PTSD). Consider the following structure (Sloan & Marx, 2018):

  1. Write for 30 minutes each day and commit for at least 5 days.
  2. Write from this moment looking back, as opposed to imagining the trauma as it was now. write while you feel anchored in the present-and-now, present and safe.
  3. Go to the details of the events as you remember them, including thoughts and emotions.
  4. Be a non-observer of writing.
  5. Review the same event in the next writing sessions instead of going to other incidents.

If you find yourself stuck, think about asking some of these questions that we adopted from different approaches to physical psychotherapy – including Somatic Experience and EMDR – that work with trauma:

  1. "What happened next?"
  2. "Who was there to help you?"
  3. "When did you know you were safe?"

Expressive writing for anxiety test

Studies have found that expressive writing helps students with high stress tests to perform better. So, if you are a teacher, consider the following activity for your students (Doherty & Wenderoth, 2017, Ramirez & Beilock, 2011):

  1. Leave aside 10 minutes to write before the test. (If time does not allow, 5 minutes can also be effective).
  2. Let your pupils know the purpose of this written activity.
  3. Keep writing anonymous.
  4. Let's be an optional activity.
  5. Give your students the opportunity to write "as openly as possible" about their thoughts and feelings about the examination they are going to follow.
  6. When they are over or when time is over, give them instructions to clear the paper and throw it away.

If you are a student with anxiety test, see if your teacher will give you time to do this before the examination. You can also try it yourself. Find a quiet place near the exam room about 15 minutes before the exam. Use 10 minutes to do the expressive writing exercise and the rest 5 to get to your examination on time and settle.

Writing for Sleep Disorder

In some cases, written exercises can also help with sleeping issues. The 5-minute spend for writing a simple task list for tomorrow can help you sleep faster. Conversely, writing about the work you have already completed may delay your ability to sleep (Scullin, Krueger, Ballard, Pruett, & Bliwise, 2018). So if you want to sleep quickly, you can use writing before bedtime to clarify tomorrow's activities and unblock your head.

Designing your own written practice

If you decide to try to write your way to mental health, let yourself be weird and find out which is the best approach for you. If you already have a writing practice, great! If you are modifying based on the above tips, think of a combined power punch that incorporates a gratitude section into any writing practice you have.

If you are thinking of using expressive writing to edit a traumatic event or manage depression, it may be helpful and indeed it is recommended that you do it with the additional support of a trained mental health professional.

Bibliographical references:

  1. Baum, E. S. & Rude, S.S (2013). Expressional acceptance-supported expression helps prevent symptoms in participants with low initial depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 37(1), 35-42. two: 10.1007 / s10608-012-9435-x
  2. Doherty, J. H. & Wenderoth, M. P. (2017, August 11). Applying an expressive writing intervention for anxiety test on a long course of college. Journal of Microbiology & Biology, 18 (2), 39. doi: 1128 / jmbe.v18i2.1307
  3. Froh, J.J., Sefick, W.J. & Emmons, R.A. (2008). Counting blessings on the first teenagers: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46(2), 213-233. doi: 10.1016 / j.jsp.2007.03.005
  4. Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S.L. (2011). By writing about exam questions, the performance of classroom examinations increases. Science, 331(6014), 211-213. doi: 1126 / science.1199427
  5. Rude, S. & Haner, M. L. (2018, February 13). Individual differences are important: Comment on the "Effects of expressive writing on depressive symptoms-A meta-analysis". Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25 (1), e12230. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cpsp.12230
  6. Scullin, M. K., Krueger, M. L., Ballard, H. K., Pruett, N., & Bliwise, D. L. (2018). The Sleep Impact of Sleep During Sleep: A multidimensional study comparing duty schedules and integrated activity lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Generally, 147(1), 139-146. two: 1037 / xge0000374
  7. Sloan, D.M. & Marx, B.P. (2018). Maximizing the results associated with expressive writing. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25 (1), e12231. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cpsp.12231
  8. Wong, Y.J., Owen, J., Gabana, N.T., Brown, J.W., McInnis, S., Toth, P. & Gilman, L. (2018). Does gratitude of gratitude improve the mental health of clients of psychotherapy? Data from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapeutic Research: Journal of the Psychotherapy Company, 28(2), 192-202. doi: 10.1080 / 10503307.2016.1169332

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