We all do little things to boost the way we feel and think throughout the day. Something as simple as taking a walk or eating a piece of chocolate can brighten your mood almost instantly, thanks to certain chemical reactions that occur in the brain.
But these momentary pleasures are just that: momentary. If you’re going through something complex and need a creative outlet that allows you to express what you’re feeling, remember it, and process it, you need a more permanent practice.
That’s where writing comes in.
A popular practice in therapy, the act of writing or journaling can help you better comprehend your thoughts and feelings. This is because writing tends to rouse questions about your life and direction, which is the principal reason that so many highly successful people keep journals.
“Journaling is one of the best methods of self-care therapy,” says life coach and author Dr. Stacia Pierce. “Once the words and images hit the paper, you have now crystallized a thought or idea.”
Through the process of populating a blank page with letters and words, writing can be a useful mental health tool that both records your experiences and allows you to work through them.
As Mental Health Awareness Month begins, it’s worth learning about the ways that you can use writing to support your mental well-being. There’s real power behind the pen—here’s why.
Use writing for mindfulness
Meditation and mindfulness are tried-and-true techniques for improving mental wellness, but can writing have the same effect? Research published by Cambridge University Press revealed how the act of writing for a mere 20 minutes each day can work in much the same way.
After engaging in daily “expressive writing” without downplaying any emotions, participants who wrote freely and vividly about their feelings had better mental health indexes than those who wrote without this direction.
By focusing on a particular moment and getting it all out there on the page, you can free yourself from any of the other concerns or anxieties that are crowding your mind. This way, you can use writing as an avenue to mindfulness and as a way of relieving stress.
Clear your mind
Another benefit to writing is its ability to clear your mind of worries, negative thoughts, or sources of pain. Whether you’re struggling with your mental health or not, we all know what it’s like when a dark cloud of emotions descends upon you—it can be heavy, disruptive, and even debilitating.
Clearing your brain of negative thoughts can be really tough work, but writing can speed up the process of restoring mental clarity. Diane Barth, a licensed clinical social worker, claims that journaling is a great way to “spring-clean” the mind. The key is to dive deep, confront your emotions head-on, and remember not to shy away from traumatic moments.
In fact, researchers at The University of Texas, Austin found that people were more likely to talk to others about a traumatic event after writing about it privately. This research powerfully suggests that writing can indirectly lead to reaching out for support, which can mean even greater healing and relief.
Become more self-aware
Writing doesn’t always have to be about working through your deepest thoughts and feelings, however. Beyond its application for self-care, writing down trivial facts about everyday life can have a meaningful impact later on.
In a study by Harvard University, undergraduate students were asked to write down a range of insignificant facts in a journal—like an inside joke, a song they had listened to recently, or an update they shared on social media. The students then rated their level of interest in the things they wrote down on a scale of one to seven, which returned an average of three. Three months later, the students were shown these journals again and asked to rate their level of interest once more. This time, the average interest level was 4.34.
What the study reveals about writing is that even those meaningless aspects of day-to-day living have value. Moreover, having access to those things and being able to return to them might imbue them with meaning in the future. This level of awareness, and self-awareness, can be extremely useful in shifting to a more positive mindset overall.
Tips for getting started
If you’ve never kept a journal before, we’ve scoured the internet for foolproof tips to help you get started.
1 Commit yourself to writing for about twenty minutes each day. Set a timer if you have to, and after a week of writing, a habit will begin to take shape.
2 Write in a space that’s private and personal. Turn off any electronics that might distract you, and focus as much energy as you can on what you’re jotting down.
3 If you’re really stuck, use a series of prompts to get the juices flowing. Here are a few ideas:
- What was the biggest challenge I faced today?
- Did I feel anxious or sad today?
- What brought me joy today?
- What’s frustrating me today?
- Am I tense? If so, why?
- What four small things did I accomplish today?
Use whatever method allows you to tap into your emotions, and go from there.
Remember, there’s no “right way” to journal. Whether you use paper, your computer, or even your phone’s notes app, write however and wherever you feel most comfortable. That way, you can focus on the feelings you’re expressing and write freely.
Give it a try! Your journal is for you and you alone, meaning you can be authentic, open, and truthful about everything you write. Sometimes, that kind of self-care is best, giving you the power to interpret and extract meaning from your experiences.