Writing has been used as a tool for healing for hundreds of years. Translating our thoughts and feelings into written words offers a host of benefits that support growth and teen mental health.
The tradition of journal writing dates back to 10th-century Japan. Ever since then, people have been using expressive writing (writing about the difficult parts of our lives) as a method of transformation and self-discovery.
In fact, the practice of writing is so powerful that it can increase employment rates for people without jobs, improve the psychological and physical health of cancer patients, and enhance marital satisfaction for recently reunited military couples.
How Writing Makes Us Happier
Expressive writing or journaling makes a positive impact on health and well-being at multiple levels, especially when done on a regular basis. Here are some of the ways in which writing benefits mental health.
It helps us manages stress. Writing about what’s creating stress and anxiety in your life helps you to identify outside stressors and pinpoint what’s going on internally. And sometimes you just need to vent, even if it’s only on the page.
It enhances emotional intelligence. Writing about how you feel helps you interpret and make sense of your emotions.
It improves communication skills. Learning to put your thoughts down on paper translates into a better ability to express yourself to others verbally.
It helps us set and achieve goals. Writing down your wishes and dreams signals to your brain that they are important, and takes them one step closer to existence. Furthermore, organizing our thoughts into words helps us prioritize projects and needs.
It builds self-discipline. Writing every day, even when you’re not necessarily in the mood to do so, strengthens your ability to stick to something on an ongoing basis. Therefore, you’re better able to do other things that require self-discipline.
It assists in problem-solving: New perspectives become clear when we write—even if we’re not consciously trying to find solutions. Writing helps us look at a situation from more than one point of view.
It creates empathy. Writing about an event or relationship helps you see more clearly what others might be feeling or thinking during your interactions with them.
It makes us more aware of our habits and patterns. What makes you happy? When do you feel most troubled? Writing regularly, and then reading what we’ve written over time, can help us identify what creates or detracts from our well-being.
It increases creativity. Writing prepares us to be creative in other areas of our life, as well as on the page. We learn to be creative in our approaches to dealing with pain, difficult emotions, and challenging relationships.
Over time, these benefits add up to counteract symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other teen mental health disorders. To sum it up, writing makes us happier!
Writing Supports Physical Health
Writing isn’t just good for mental health, it also improves our physical health. In recent years, evidence-based research has revealed that writing down our life experiences can create positive physiological changes.
University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker, author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, has studied the impact of writing on both mind and body. He believes that expressive writing reduces stress and trauma by helping people process disturbing events in their past or present. As a result, the reduction in stress enhances the “rest and digest” function of the nervous system, which benefits overall health.
Studies by Pennebaker and others show that writing produces specific health benefits, such as
- Better functioning of the immune system
- Reduction of disease symptoms, for HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, and others
- Improved lung function for those with asthma
- Improved liver function
- Better memory
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer visits to a doctor
- Less frequent insomnia.
“Keeping your stories bottled up inside can make you sick, but when you write them down, you get them out of your cells. You feel lighter.”
—Nancy Slonim Aronie, author of Writing from the Heart
Writing Releases Trauma
Because writing is such an effective way to express and release what we’re experiencing inside, it can be an important tool for processing trauma. In one study, Pennebaker assigned 50 undergraduate students the task of writing about either traumatic experiences or superficial topics for four consecutive days. Then researchers measured the participants’ immune-system function. The group that wrote about their traumatic experiences showed greater improvements. This indicates that confronting traumatic experiences through writing can make a positive difference in physical health.
Another study looked at the impact of writing exercises on women with substance use disorders who had experienced trauma and PTSD. The women who practiced expressive writing showed greater reductions in symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety, when compared to a control group. Moreover, the same was true for participants in a study that examined the effect of expressive writing for women with a history of childhood sexual abuse.
What Is Narrative Medicine?
Narrative medicine is a medical approach that uses people’s stories, or narratives, as a way to promote healing. While shamanic teachers have used storytelling as a method of healing for years, the American health care system has only recently incorporated narrative practices.
Rita Charon, MD, PhD, founder and executive director of the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University, is one of the foremost proponents of the field of narrative medicine in the West. Since she began introducing this work in 2000, narrative medicine has become a growing field, recognized in major institutions and health care facilities, including Memorial Sloan Kettering.
According to Charon, narrative medicine builds trust and empathy between patient and physician. Additionally, narrative writing by students and physicians in medical schools and hospitals strengthens reflection, self-awareness, and the ability to better understand patients’ perspectives.
“In medicine, we doctors are faced with the difficulty that most of us don’t know that we have a story. We think everything we do is the factual truth. We forget that history really means ‘his story’ or ‘her story.’ When we talk to someone about her illness, we are actually helping her tell her story, how she came to be where she is.”
—Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, author and narrative medicine pioneer
Writing Therapy for Teens
For teens, writing can be therapeutic. Children and teenagers can use creative writing to express feelings and experiences that are too difficult or scary to communicate verbally.
Many teens recovering from mental health challenges believe that there are certain things they’re “supposed” to say in talk therapy. But the creative process bypasses that manipulation. Therefore, teens are able to get to the heart of what they’re feeling more quickly. In one study at the University of Haifa in Israel, teens who wrote blogs about their emotional and social difficulties showed a significant improvement in stress levels compared to those who wrote only about general topics.
Along with expressive writing, other creative activities can serve as therapeutic modalities, such as art-making, music, and dance.
The Gratitude Journal
Researcher Robert Emmons has looked closely at the link between gratitude and well-being. For example, in one study, Emmons and his team divided participants into three groups. One group was asked to journal regularly about negative events, a second group about the things for which they were grateful, and a third group about neutral life events. The gratitude group consistently showed higher well-being measures in comparison with the other two.
“Gratitude can serve as a huge catalyst for maintaining resilience and well-being. When an individual is able to identify areas of their life they are grateful for, this creates a domino effect of hope and courage, giving them motivation to keep doing the difficult work they are doing.”
—Chelsea Reeves, certified empowerment coach and Director of Alumni Services at Newport Academy
Five Ways to Write About Gratitude
- Every night, write about at least three things you’re grateful for.
- Exchange a gratitude list with a friend via e-mail or text every day.
- At dinner, go around the table and have each person list one thing they’re grateful for.
- Think of a specific time in the past when you felt especially grateful, and write about that time in as much detail as you can remember.
- Write a letter from your future self to your present self, imagining everything that you will be grateful for one, two, or 10 years from now.
How to Start Journaling
Ready to launch your own expressive writing practice? Use these simple guidelines to get started.
- Choose your writing method. What tools work best for you? Your favorite pen and a journal with a pretty cover? A ballpoint and a pad of legal paper? A laptop or iPad? Pick the approach that is the most inviting for you.
- Find the right place. Look for one or more spots in your home where you can sit comfortably and get some privacy, without too much noise or interruptions.
- Pick a time that consistently works. Figure out when you’re most likely to write. Early morning before work or school? Before bed? Mid-afternoon, during a natural break between activities? Try to write at that time every day, or most days, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Experts say 20 minutes a day is ideal.
- Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Allow your thoughts to flow freely onto the page or screen without judging how you’re expressing them.
- Share it—or not. For some people, reading their journal to others, or letting others read it, is a great way to share their thoughts and feelings. Other people can only write freely knowing that no one else will ever read it. The choice is yours—either way, you’ll receive all the amazing benefits of writing.
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