How I believe writing can help to improve your mental health

Last week I didn’t post for the first time since starting this blog; I had managed ten consecutive weeks of blog posting. I was surprised that I didn’t beat myself up about it. I was ill, had a lot of work on and needed to allow myself space for self-care. Though I didn’t post it, I had actually written the crux of this when I was supposed to and was writing every day. The editing and publishing just felt like too much at the time and I was conscious of taking care of myself.

Monday (10th October) was World Mental Health Day and it was interesting for me to see how many people on my Twitter feed had had some experience—directly or indirectly—with mental health difficulties and were willing to share them. It has taken me quite awhile to feel comfortable enough to share my experiences of depression and anxiety with others as it has been something I have been ashamed of for years. However, when I do share, I am often shocked to received the response ‘Me too!’ or ‘My mum/dad/husband/wife/partner has depression/anxiety’.

When it comes to thinking about how writing helps me, I have taken journals or examples of my writing to some of my sessions with my psychologist and this has worked wonders to access areas of my mind that are more closed off in the moment. There is a lot of research around the benefits of journaling and expressive writing and their links to mental health benefits but here are my own thoughts about how writing helps my mental health:

By clarifying thoughts and feelings

The times I need to write the most are the times when it feels like I have too many thoughts whizzing round my head. I can’t possibly give them all attention. Often the thoughts I give attention to are the negative ones, making them bigger and bigger in my mind. I am the queen of catastrophising. Have a problem that is minuscule? Let me help make it a crisis.

Writing gives form to my ideas and helps gets them out of my head on to the paper where they never seem as bad.

“When you write down your ideas you automatically focus your full attention on them. Few if any of us can write one thought and think another at the same time. Thus a pencil and paper make excellent concentration tools.”
– Michael Leboeuf

Lebouef’s quote is important to me as I highlights what I have noticed about writing—it can feel like a form of meditation, encouraging focus and mindfulness. Writing my worries down often decreases my feelings of overwhelm as my thoughts becoming clear, tangible items rather than monsters in my mind.

By purging

Purging or venting through stream of consciousness writing is something I find incredibly cathartic because I am metaphorically ‘vomiting’ my thoughts onto the open page. That sounds pretty disgusting but feels pretty darn good. It provides somewhere to go for all those frustrations, worries and feelings of anger that I accumulate overnight or throughout the day, leading to a nice clean slate.

Purge writing can work in the same as spilling out my thoughts to clarify them but it often works in another way; allowing me to access to my unconscious mind. I am sometimes shocked by what comes out when I write about the emotional episodes of my life. Reading it back, I think ‘wow, I didn’t realise this was still affecting me in this way’ or I hadn’t understood a certain side of it.

Last week, I read an article describing the 40 year research by James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas into the links between writing and emotional processing. In his studies, Pennebaker found that people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced marked improvement in their physical and mental well-being.

Pennebaker concluded that applying words to emotions is an incredibly helpful way to deal with stress and anxiety.

This is what happens for me, by delving into the emotions I am experiencing in more detail, I am able to apply labels to them and understand them better. It also allows some distance between myself and that emotion, where I am viewing it as ‘a thing’ rather than ‘the thing’.

By escaping

Sometimes my writing amazes me. When I am able to create characters who are so far removed from the person I am or anyone I have ever met, I am intrigued to think about where those people come from.

My new course with the OU has been great for this. I have been doing a lot of writing exercises that allow me to become lost in worlds of my own creation. In the past week, I have created four different characters which I develop in detail and I love them all.

What I like is that I don’t know where they come from. Something sparks in my mind and a character is ‘built’.

I can escape into the mind of this new character and begin to think like them.

I enjoy placing my characters in scenes, developing these scenes into stories and forcing myself to think as them rather than myself.

Writing other characters is often the best medicine when I am in a bad place. It can help to work through different issues when you place the characters you have created in those situations and have them figure out how they will work through a problem. The detachment I experience when I do this myself often allows me to come at problem from a completely different angle than I would have normally imagined.

By keeping track

I keep everything I write and have notebooks and journals from nearly twenty years ago.

It is amazing to see how your handwriting and voice changes over the years.

But mainly, it is incredible how much I have changed as a person.

Having access to things you have written years ago allows you to see how far you have come. It can make for difficult reading; I recently read something I had written when I was 17 and deeply depressed and it felt like I was reading the writing of someone else. It was painfully sad to read the writing of someone in that much distress, someone who felt that alone. However, it was also a powerful example of how much I had come through and how much progress I had made since then.

By making sure to date everything written, I am able to track any patterns in my emotions. Is your writing more depressing during the holidays or near birthdays? It gives you a great insight into the workings of your mind.

I’ve noticed that winter isn’t a great time of year for me through my journals, my writing takes on a negative tone. I’ve also noticed that I am less likely to write in my journals when I have a lot of work on, when this is probably the time I need to write more.

Being able to identify the times when I am less likely to be taking care of myself mentally helps me to make the time for writing as a self-care strategy.

Writing every day has become an important part of my own self-care and management of my mental health. Currently, I’m taking part in a daily writing challenge set up by the wonderful Karen Marston  (I’ll write about my experiences of this in another post) and I noted in our Facebook group that writing felt like free therapy.

A few others commented that writing doesn’t just feel like free therapy, it is free therapy. And aren’t the best things in life free?

Has writing helped you with your experiences of anxiety or stress? In what ways? Let me know in the comments.