Did you know that writing can help to improve your mental health? It’s true. In this blog post, I am going to tell you a bit about writing for mental health ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 which runs from the 15 to 21 May. This year’s theme is ANXIETY.
First things first, if you are currently experiencing a mental health crisis, get help. You’re not alone, and help is out there.
Mental health is a key theme in my writing – prose and poetry. In fact, I’d say it’s a key theme in my life. Just as some people are born with lithe athletic bodies and boundless energy and can take to any sport but some (like me) need to work (sweatily) for physical health, mental health too grows in myriad ways. What is true is that just as all bodies benefit from exercise and a sensible diet, all minds benefit from being cared for in a similar way.
Writing is a powerful tool for self-expression and can have numerous benefits for mental health. Whether it is through journaling, poetry, or fiction, writing allows us to explore and process our thoughts and emotions in a safe and creative way. In this blog post, I will explore some of the many benefits of writing for mental health.
Side note: I’m not making this up or basing it solely on my (albeit considerable) personal experience, there have been several serious studies – done into the benefits of writing for mental health [Harvard, Cambridge, Newport… etc]. This is not a single solution. Just as a healthy body benefits from a blend of techniques, writing is one of various tools that you can use to keep your mental health in good shape. It’s particularly good for mid-level anxiety. Just bear in mind that just as you’d go and see a doctor for a broken leg rather than go for a run, you should go and see a doctor if you are in crisis – it’s not necessarily the time to write it out.
Reduces Stress and Anxiety
One of the primary benefits of writing for mental health is that it can reduce stress and anxiety. Writing allows us to process emotions and thoughts in a safe and private space. By writing down your thoughts and feelings, you can release negative emotions and thereby gain a sense of relief. This process can help reduce stress and anxiety levels, leading to improved mental well-being. EXPRESSIVE WRITING is the best tool for this – just write what you’re feeling without worrying about spelling, punctuation, even legibility. Dump it all out of your brain onto a page. You can rip it up or delete it afterwards. Because this is completely private you can be completely honest. I often dump thoughts out of my brain first thing when I start my creative practice, it helps calm my mind, but some like to end their day with it. You can keep a journal if you like. I bin mine!
This is usually true for me if I use the right technique. Writing can also improve your mood by allowing you to express yourself in a positive way. I call this POSITIVE WRITING: if you write about positive experiences or express gratitude, it helps you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. Seeing a list of thing that you are grateful for written out in front of you can be very powerful. If you do this semi-regularly, it can lead to improved mood and overall well-being.
The flipside of Positive Writing is WRITING IT OUT. This is a powerful tool to help process negative experiences and emotions, and thereby for enhancing self-awareness. By reflecting on experiences and emotions, you can gain a better understanding of yourself you’re your motivations. This can lead to increased self-awareness and self-esteem… however I would use this cautiously. Whereas Expressive Writing is a practice you can use daily, and I like to sit and have Positive Writing session about every ten days, this needs me to be in a robust frame of mind already, or I find it can have the opposite effect. Think of this as a “race day” exercise, one for when you want to take a deep dive and feel that you can usefully work through something – don’t wallow!
Writing can also be a useful tool for problem-solving. By writing down your thoughts and emotions, you can gain a better understanding of the issues you’re facing. I quite like to use a MIND MAP for this type of writing – in fact this is a technique I use often for story development but also when I feel like I’m a bit overwhelmed with too many projects, so I use it to set out the pros & cons, develop new strategies for dealing with problems that arise and find solutions. It helps me to find a sense of control over my life and that improves my overall sense well-being. I declutter my thinking.
Provides a Safe Outlet
All three of these forms of writing provide a safe outlet to express yourself, without fearing judgement – whether it’s your spelling or emotions! This can be incredibly therapeutic and personally, I find it helps me to process difficult emotions.
OK, but what about CREATIVE WRITING? Good news, it can also be really good for you. Also hugely frustrating at times!
This is an obvious one: yes, Creative Writing boosts creativity because you explore your imagination. Whether it is through fiction or poetry, this is a brilliant way to explore new ideas and concepts, to test out ideas. You, the writer, have complete freedom. I love immersing myself in a story, feeling out the plot, discovering my characters. Personally it’s similar to the feeling of binge watching a really good TV show but in my mind, but with the ability to focus in wherever I want, go back and change details, explore other angles.
Provides a Sense of Accomplishment
I find Creative Writing incredibly rewarding too – I get a huge sense of accomplishment and fulfilment from creating something new. The sense of pride in my achievements, even if no one reads them really boosts my mental wellbeing. This was particularly true when my children were young. I felt very lonely and overwhelmed. I got back to writing using Expressive Writing which quickly morphed into writing visceral poetry – raw and full of emotion and not for public consumption, however it provided an outlet, a sense of purpose and direction in my life. Perhaps even a sense of identity: Charlie Roy, Writer.
The various studies have certainly proven that that writing can promote mindfulness by the simple fact that the act of writing makes you focus on the present moment. It requires concentration and you have to bring yourself to a calm more meditative state. If you are writing by yourself for yourself, you may start in an agitate state but by the time you are done, you just do feel calmer. By writing down thoughts and emotions, you become more aware of internal experiences and gain a better understanding of your mental states.
Improves Communication Skills
I hesitated about including this. A lot of the studies mention this. Personally, I think this has a more nebulous link to mental health and wellbeing, however I do take the point that by sorting out how you feel regularly and by practicing Creative Writing, you can certainly boost your confidence in your communication skills and therefore feel more connected to others, which brings me pretty deftly to my final point…
Writing can also foster connection with others. If you’re only really using Expressive Writing, Positive Writing, Writing It Out and Visceral Writing (all excellent tools!) then you may not want to share your writing with friends, but it should help you feel more in control and confident in yourself. Creative Writing however is a really good way to find people with similar interests – whether by joining groups or sharing your work – but even if you never share the work, that self-awareness when you pick up a book and feel a connection to an author you may never meet can be deeply comforting.
In conclusion, I do really believe that writing is a powerful tool for mental health and well-being. Whether you mind map, journal, finger write in the air (I have genuinely heard that advised), or perhaps poetry spills from you, or you are losing yourself in a novel, it is a wonderful mechanism to give your brain a workout.
Grab yourself a note book or a piece of paper, save the writing or rip it up.
Try writing today!