The Healing Power of Your Words: What is Writing Therapy?

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

Portrait of happy asian girl sitting in park and writing in her journal

Writing therapy is a popular method used to help people express and release emotions, improve their mental health and emotional well-being, and promote personal growth. It involves writing down (often in a journal) thoughts and feelings – particularly those related to traumatic events or difficult experiences.

This allows a person to start making sense of their thoughts and emotions and gain deeper insights into past events, experiences, and situations. Writing provides a safe space in which they can explore their inner self to find meaning and clarity.

It also helps people communicate things through their writing that they may feel unable to say in one-to-one talking therapy or group sessions. Writing is a non-judgmental, private space where people can freely express their deepest thoughts and emotions, and can be incredibly healing.

A brief history of writing therapy

Traditional talk therapy has long been a standard practice in many counseling and psychotherapy settings, with disclosure in the form of the spoken word considered highly beneficial.

However, there is mounting evidence that the ancient art of writing therapy can also be effective in treating a number of conditions, providing many mental and physical health benefits of its own.

A belief in the healing powers of the written word can be traced back as far as 1,200 BC, with the inscription above Egypt’s famed royal library declaring ‘House of Healing for the Soul.

Writing therapy began to gain momentum in the early 19th century and was further popularized in the early 20th century with Sigmund Freud’s Creative Writers and Day Dreaming

While talk therapy remained the go-to approach for trauma and psychiatric conditions, writing therapy gained further traction in the 1930s and 1940s as part of a new wave of creative arts therapies – alongside music, dance/movement, drama, psychodrama, and art.

In 1965, a symposium hosted by the American Psychological Association (APA) in Chicago focused on written communications with clients – organized by a division of APA called Psychologists Interested in the Advancement of Psychotherapy. This generated a significant increase in writing therapy research in the 1970s.

By the late 1980s, psychologist James Pennebaker emerged as a leading advocate and researcher of the modern writing therapy movement. His landmark research study focused on the physical health benefits of ‘expressive writing’ – including writing about traumatic events and one’s emotional disturbances.

Pennebaker’s work has helped propel writing therapy into mainstream psychotherapeutic practice as a legitimate therapeutic tool. 

There are now more than 200 research studies showing that writing can improve a person’s physical and emotional health, enhancing overall well-being.

How does writing therapy work?

Pensive man writing in planner

Why writing therapy is so effective still remains largely unknown. It is a complex and multifaceted activity involving creative expression, emotional catharsis, cognitive processing, and uncovering a sense of empowerment and control over one’s life.

One theory is that suppressing or inhibiting traumatic events, emotions, or aspects of one’s identity contributes to long-term, low-level stress that can result in adverse mental and physical health conditions.

Therefore, writing therapy, which serves as an act of disclosure and emotional release (in a similar way to talk therapy), can help remove this stressor and relieve any associated health conditions. 

It also creates a safe space for us to become our most unfiltered, authentic selves as we:

  • Become more aware of our thoughts and feelings
  • Organize our thoughts as we begin to put them into words
  • Make better sense of our thoughts and feelings
  • Process and release emotions that have built up inside
  • Work through challenging feelings
  • Better understand ourselves
  • Increase our mental clarity

What happens in a writing therapy session?

Sometimes, writing therapy can be self-generated, for example, through a diary or journal, songwriting, or memoirs. However, in most cases, it is carried out under the guidance of a trained therapist. This is particularly important in the case of trauma survivors. 

Sessions can take place individually or in a group setting, face-to-face, or remotely through email or via an Internet platform.

When engaging in writing therapy with a therapist, clients are typically asked to write about a specific trauma or feeling in whatever way feels best for them. Different intentions will be set based on each client’s individual needs. 

A standard practice might involve writing for 10–15 minute time blocks. Writing may be done on paper, sat down, or on large chart paper on the wall, standing up. 

The therapist might also assign writing exercises for homework between sessions, if appropriate.

When clients feel comfortable, they will begin to read their written words and process them verbally with their therapist. Opening emotional wounds and addressing traumatic experiences can be overwhelming, so it’s important to have a trained professional to guide and support the process.

What are the benefits of writing therapy?

Writing therapy is an accessible and affordable practice that can provide numerous potential benefits to those who use it.

It has proven to be beneficial for physical health conditions, including:

  • Improved immune system functioning
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved liver function
  • Improved lung function
Navigating Life After Recovery: Building Fulfillment and Purpose

It can also be beneficial in helping to treat many mental health conditions, including: 

Some of the key benefits of writing therapy include:

Lets out emotion

Writing therapy gives a cathartic release of suppressed emotions, whether grief, fear, or anger. It can provide a great sense of relief. 

Helps with processing traumatic memories

The process of writing and developing a coherent written narrative, with the help of a mental health expert, can help those with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to reorganize and structure traumatic memories. 

This can help people get a new angle on and reframe their narratives, find meaning, and develop more adaptive internal schemas. 

Writing also allows for a paced processing of trauma, limiting overwhelm and distress.

Reduces stress, anxiety, and depression

By writing things down, people can begin to organize their thoughts and gain better clarity. This can give a sense of structure and control, which can help to relieve feelings of helplessness, reduce stress, and relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Gives greater insights

Writing therapy encourages self-reflection and self-awareness. Putting pen to paper gives people a better understanding of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and expectations. This often leads to insights that help the person make more sense of their experiences, choices, and behaviors.

Promotes personal growth

Writing therapy promotes personal growth by giving a safe and expressive outlet for self-reflection and self-awareness. Through writing, people can explore their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. This will help them to gain clarity and personal insights, and is valuable in helping people to make positive transformations.

What are some techniques used in writing therapy?

Types of Journals for Stress Management

Writing therapy can take the form of letters, journaling, narratives, or poetry. Most people find using a pen on paper to be the most beneficial rather than typing or writing on an electronic device. 

Some mental health professionals believe this is because handwriting makes it more personal. There’s also thought to be something in the physical act of releasing tension as we write by hand.

Several techniques can be used in writing therapy, including:

Stream-of-consciousness writing

People write whatever comes to mind without judgment or any editing. The aim is to express the subconscious mind, uncovering anything that might have been hidden or repressed.

Writing stories or poetry 

Writing stories or poems helps people explore their experiences and identity. When read aloud, a mental health professional can guide the person to see important things in their story. Sometimes when we hear our own story as if we were listening to someone else’s, certain realizations we’ve never previously made become obvious.

Writing letters

Writing letters to oneself, others, or even to abstract concepts such as alcohol, drugs, fear or grief can be an informative and empowering technique. Frequently, if these letters are written to someone such as a parent or sibling, they will never be sent.

It is another method that allows someone to express their thoughts, emotions, and feelings – and can give a real sense of release, atonement, and closure.

Gratitude journaling

With gratitude journaling, people focus on things that they can give thanks for having in their lives. This gives rise to positive emotions. It can be in the form of a list, which is an ideal way to start and end each day. Being grateful will shift perspectives, boost mood, decrease anxiety, and foster a sense of general well-being.

Tikvah Lake Recovery

Writing is a healthy practice that can help reduce stress and improve physical and mental health, but sometimes life can become more overwhelming than daily journals can resolve. That’s why Tikvah Lake Recovery in Florida offers a personalized retreat for mental health recovery. 

We prioritize your privacy and offer the most experienced clinical and medical staff, as well as spiritual and culinary professionals, to help with addiction and mental health treatment. 

If you are concerned about your mental health or would like to explore your thoughts and behaviors further – please contact the team at Tikvah Lake Recovery, who can help.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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