Writing Therapy: Using a Pen and Paper to Enhance Personal Growth
By Courtney E. Ackerman, MA
Have you ever been feeling low, down in the dumps, stuck in a rut, or just plain stressed out?
Of course, the answer to that question will be “yes” for everyone!
We all fall on hard times, and we all struggle to get back to our equilibrium.
For some, getting back to equilibrium can involve seeing a therapist. For others, it could be starting a new job or moving to a new place. For some of the more literary-minded or creative folks, getting better can begin with art.
There are many ways to incorporate art into spiritual healing and emotional growth, including drawing, painting, listening to music, or interpretive dance. These methods can be great for artistic people, but there are also creative and expressive ways to dig yourself out of a rut that doesn’t require any special artistic talents.
One such method is writing therapy. You don’t need to be a prolific writer, or even a writer at all, to benefit from writing therapy. All you need is a piece of paper, a pen, and the motivation to write.
Writing therapy, also known as journal therapy, is exactly what it sounds like – journaling for therapeutic benefits.
Writing therapy is a low-cost, easily accessible, and versatile form of therapy. It can be done individually, with just a person and his pen, or it can be guided by a mental health professional. It can be practiced in a group, with group discussions focusing on writing. It can even be added as a supplement to another form of therapy.
Whatever format is chosen, writing therapy can help the user to propel their personal growth, practice creative expression, and feel a sense of empowerment and control over the user’s life (Center for Journal Therapy, n.d.).
It’s easy to see the potential of therapeutic writing – after all, poets and storytellers throughout the ages have captured and described the cathartic experience of putting pen to paper. Great literature from such poets and storytellers makes it tempting to believe that powerful healing and personal growth are but a few moments of scribbling away.
However, while writing therapy seems as simple as writing in a journal, there’s a little more to it.
Writing therapy differs from simply keeping a journal or diary in three major ways:
1. Writing in a diary or journal is usually free form, in which the writer jots down whatever pops into his or her head, while therapeutic writing is more directed, and often based on prompts or exercises.
2. Writing in a diary or journal is generally focused on recording events as they occurred, while writing therapy is focused on thinking about, interacting with, and analyzing the events, thoughts, and feelings that the writer writes down.
3. Keeping a diary or journal is an inherently personal and individual experience, while journal therapy is generally led by a licensed mental health professional (Farooqui, 2016).
While the process of writing therapy differs from simple journaling in these three main ways, there is also another big difference between the two practices in terms of outcomes.
Keeping a journal can be extremely helpful for the user, whether it helps them improve their memory, record important bits and pieces of their day, or just helps them relax at the end of a long day. These are certainly not trivial benefits, but the potential benefits of writing therapy reach further and deeper than simply writing in a diary.
In individuals who have experienced a traumatic or extremely stressful event, expressive writing can have a significant healing effect. In fact, participants in a study who wrote about their most traumatic experiences for 15 minutes, four days in a row, experienced better health outcomes up to four months later (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).
Another study tested the same writing exercise on over 100 asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients, with similar results. The participants who wrote about the most stressful event of their lives experienced better health evaluations related to their illness (Smyth, Stone, Hurewitz, & Kaell, 1999).
A recent study suggested that expressive writing may even improve immune system functioning, although it may need to be sustained for the health benefits to continue (Murray, 2002).
In addition to these more concrete benefits, regular therapeutic writing can help the writer find meaning in their experiences, view things from a new perspective, and see the silver linings in their most stressful or negative experiences (Murray, 2002). It can also lead to important insights about yourself and your environment that may be difficult to determine without focused writing (Tartakovsky, 2015).
Overall, writing therapy has proven effective for many different conditions or mental illnesses, including:
- Posttraumatic stress
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Grief and loss
- Chronic illness issues
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Interpersonal relationship issues
- Communication skill issues
- Low self-esteem (Farooqui, 2016)
There are many ways to begin writing for therapeutic purposes.
If you are working with a mental health professional, he or she may provide you with directions to begin journaling for therapy.
If you are planning on starting to write for therapy on your own before meeting with a therapist, there are some good tips out there to get you started.
First, think about how to set yourself up for success:
- Use whichever format works best for you, whether it’s a classic journal, a cheap notebook, an online journaling program, or a blog.
- If it makes you more interested in writing, decorate or personalize your journal/notebook/blog.
- Set a goal to write for a certain amount of time each day.
- Decide ahead of time when and/or where you will write each day.
- Write down what makes you want to write in the first place – this could be your first entry in your journal.
Next, follow the five steps to WRITE:
- W – What do you want to write about? Name it.
- R – Review or reflect on it – close your eyes, take deep breaths, and focus.
- I – Investigate your thoughts and feelings. Just start writing and keep writing.
- T – Time yourself – write for 5 to 15 minutes straight.
- E – Exit “smart” by re-reading what you’ve written and reflecting on it with one or two sentences (Adams, n.d.)
Finally, keep the following in mind while you are journaling:
- It’s okay to write only a few words, and it’s okay to write several pages – just write at your own pace.
- Don’t worry so much about what to write about, just focus on taking the time to write and giving it your full attention.
- Don’t worry about how well you write – the important thing is to write down what makes sense to you and what comes naturally to you.
- Write as if no one else will read it – this will help you avoid “putting on a show” rather than writing authentically (Howes, 2011).
It might be difficult to get started, but the first step is always the hardest! Once you’ve started journaling, try one of the following ideas or prompts to keep yourself engaged.
The following ideas and writing prompts are great ways to continue your journaling practice or to get yourself “unstuck” if you’re not sure what to write about next.
For instance, you could try the five writing exercises from this blog:
1. Writing a letter to yourself
2. Writing letters to others
3. Writing a poem
4. Free writing (just writing everything that comes to mind)
5. Mind mapping (drawing mind maps with your main problem in the middle and branches representing different aspects of your problem)
If those ideas don’t get your juices flowing, try these prompts:
- Journaling with Photographs – choose a personal photo and use your journal to answer questions like “What do you feel when you look at these photos?” or “What do you want to say to the people, places, or things in these photos?”
- Timed Journal Entries – decide on a topic and set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes to write continuously.
- Sentence Stems – these prompts are the beginnings of a sentence that encourage meaningful writing, such as “The thing I am most worried about is…”, “I have trouble sleeping when…”, and “My happiest memory is…”
- List of 100 – these ideas encourage the writer to create lists of 100 based on prompts like “100 Things That Make Me Sad,” “100 Reasons to Wake Up in the Morning,” and “100 Things I Love” (Farooqui, 2016).
Psychologist Margarita Tartakovsky provides a handy list of 30 prompts (2014). Some of these include:
1. My favorite way to spend the day is…
2. If I could talk to my teenage self, the one thing I would say is…
3. Make a list of 30 things that make you smile.
4. The words I’d like to live by are…
5. I really wish others knew this about me…
6. What always brings tears to your eyes?
7. Using 10 words, describe yourself.
8. Write a list of questions to which you urgently need answers.
If you’re still on the lookout for more prompts, try the lists outlined here.
As great as the benefits of therapeutic journaling sound, it can be difficult to get started. After all, it can be a challenge to start even the most basic of good habits!
If you’re wondering how you begin, read on for some tips and exercises to help you start your regular writing habit.
This list of ten handy tips can help get you started:
- Start writing about where you are in your life at this moment.
- For five to ten minutes just start writing in a “stream of consciousness.”
- Start a dialogue with your inner child by writing in your subdominant hand.
- Cultivate an attitude of gratitude by maintaining a daily list of things you appreciate, including uplifting quotes.
- Start a journal of self-portraits.
- Keep a nature diary to connect with the natural world.
- Maintain a log of successes.
- Keep a log or playlist of your favorite songs.
- If there’s something you are struggling with or an event that’s disturbing you, write about it in the third person.
- Develop your intuition and learn to listen to yourself (Hills, n.d.).
If you’re still having a tough time getting started, consider trying a “mind dump.” This is a quick exercise that can help you get a jump start on therapeutic writing.
Researcher and writer Gillie Bolton suggests simply writing for six minutes (Pollard, 2002). Don’t pay attention to grammar, spelling, style, syntax, or fixing typos – just write. Once you have “dumped,” you can focus on a theme. The theme should be something concrete, like something from your childhood with personal value.
This exercise can help you ensure that your therapeutic journal entries go deeper than the more superficial diary or journal entries.
More prompts, exercises, and ideas to help you get started can be found at this link.
Courtney Ackerman, MA, is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working as a researcher for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, wellbeing in the workplace, and compassion.
- Adams, K. (n.d.). It’s easy to W.R.I.T.E. Center for Journal Therapy. Retrieved from https://journaltherapy.com/journal-cafe-3/journal-course/
- Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 11, 338-346.
- Farooqui, A. Z. (2016). Journal therapy. Good Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/journal-therapy
- Hills, L. (n.d.). 10 journaling tips to help you heal, grow, and thrive. Tiny Buddha. Retrieved from https://tinybuddha.com/blog/10-journaling-tips-to-help-you-heal-grow-and-thrive/
- Howes, R. (2011, January 26). Journaling in therapy. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-therapy/201101/journaling-in-therapy Murray, B. (2002). Writing to heal. Monitor. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun02/writing.aspx
- Pollard, J. (2002). As easy as ABC. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2002/jul/28/shopping
- Smyth, J. M., Stone, A. A., Hurewitz, A., & Kaell, A. (1999). Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis: A randomized trial. Journal of the American Medical Association 281, 1304-1309.
- Tartakovsky, M. (2014). 30 journaling prompts for self-reflection and self-discovery. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/09/27/30-journaling-prompts-for-self-reflection-and-self-discovery/
- Tartakovsky, M. (2015). The power of writing: 3 types of therapeutic writing. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/01/19/the-power-of-writing-3-types-of-therapeutic-writing/