Does writing things down help you feel better?

writing things down

When you’re sad, have you tried writing things down to help you feel better? Have you tried it when you’re angry or fearful or full of self-doubt. The evidence continues to grow that the simple act of writing things down relieves stress and can make you feel a whole lot better. So how does writing things down make you feel better.

An article in the well-respected British Medical Journal in September 2003 explained how Suzanne Scott and colleagues from the Unit of Psychology, King’s College London, asked 36 people to write – half were asked to write about an emotional event in their lives, preferably one they had not talked about before, and the other half were asked to write on something more trivial, avoiding emotional language. They did this three times for 20 minutes each time over a week.

In the second week all the participants received an identical wound in the upper arm. The results showed that after 14 days the participants who had written about the traumatic events had significantly smaller wounds than the other group. This research shows that wounds heal more quickly if stress – even when it is unrelated –  is eased. It also, of course, shows how writing about traumatic events can make you feel better and make it easier to deal with other stresses in your life.

Qian Lu, assistant professor and director of the Culture and Health Research Center at University of Houston (UH) in the USA agrees that research has found that writing about emotionally difficult events for just 20 to 30 minutes at a time over three or four days increases the immune function. The release offered by writing has a direct impact on the body’s capacity to withstand stress and fight off infection and disease.

Her own research with Asian-American breast cancer survivors also shows the benefit of writing down fears and emotions:

“In my research study, I found long-term physical and psychological health benefits when research participants wrote about their deepest fears and the benefits of a breast cancer diagnosis.”

The findings from the study suggest participants perceived the writing task to be easy, revealed their emotions, and disclosed their experiences in writing that they had not previously told others. Lu added that health outcomes associated with the expressive writing intervention include a decrease of fatigue, intrusive thoughts, and reducing post-traumatic stress after three months. She also noted a decrease of fatigue, post-traumatic stress, and the increase of qualify of life and positive affect after six months.

The UK charity Childline offer this advice on their website for those children who feel guilty but don’t want to talk to anyone:

“If it feels too difficult to talk about how you’re feeling you could try writing it down somewhere safe. List all the things you think you did or said that you’re feeling guilty about. For each of these things, write down what other emotions you were feeling at the time and what else was going through your mind.

Then try and write down the answer to these questions:

– Do you still feel the same now?

– Was anyone else involved?

– Is there anything you want to do differently?

Once you’ve got all your thoughts and feelings out then you might find you start to feel differently. When you feel ready to move on, you can choose what you want to do with what you have written. You could tear it up into a thousand pieces or lock it away in a secret place.

It’s a shame this idea of writing things down to benefit physical and mental health isn’t suggested more often. Research back in 1999 was already showing the benefits:

“Asthma and arthritis patients who for several days wrote down their feelings about a stressful event in their lives showed significant improvement in their conditions during a four month study, but a comparison group of patients who wrote instead about their plans for the day improved only half as much”

Research from 2017 shows how chronic worriers can be helped by writing things down. One of the researchers, Jason S. Moser, says:

“”Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard on upcoming stressful tasks, which is what worriers often get “burned out” over, their worried minds working harder and hotter .. This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head.'”

Harvard Medical school website says:

“Stress, trauma, and unexpected life developments — such as a cancer diagnosis, a car accident, or a layoff — can throw people off stride emotionally and mentally. Writing about thoughts and feelings that arise from a traumatic or stressful life experience — called expressive writing — may help some people cope with the emotional fallout of such events. “via Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma …

There’s some interesting research from psychologists at the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg found that writing things down can help people to become more playful. Before going to bed, participants either had to write down three situations from that day in which they had behaved particularly playful, or they were to use their inclination to be playful in an unfamiliar situation, for example in their professional life, and write down that experience. Or they were to reflect more broadly on the playful behaviour they had observed in themselves that day. In contrast, the placebo group received a task that had no influence on the experiment. The group who did the writing did experience an increase in playfulness and, more importantly in general well-being.

Writing things down, also known as journaling, is simple:

“The standard format involves writing for a specified period each day about a particularly stressful or traumatic experience.

“Participants usually write nonstop while exploring their innermost thoughts and feelings without inhibition (and the writing samples remain confidential for that reason). They may also use the exercise to understand how the traumatic event may revive memories of other stressful events. via Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma …

All this suggests that writing things down can help cope with past traumas. It can improve mental and physical health. It can help turn off the chronic worriers mind. What are you waiting for? Start writing?