Writing Therapy: Using A Pen and Paper to Enhance Personal Growth

Writing Therapy: Using A Pen and Paper to Enhance Personal Growth

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.

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values and self-compassion and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students or employees.

You can download the free PDF here.

 

What is Writing Therapy?

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,man writing - what is writing therapy journal therapy  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.

Benefits of Writing Therapy

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:

How To: Journaling for Therapy

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.

Writing Ideas & Journal Prompts

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).

 

Journaling with Photographs writing therapy

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.

Exercises and Ideas to Help You Get Started

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.

A Take Home Message

In this piece, we went over writing therapy – what it is, how to do it, and how it can benefit you. I hope you learned something new from this piece, and I hope you will keep writing therapy in mind the next time you find yourself considering a visit to a therapist’s office.

Have you ever tried writing therapy? Would you try writing therapy? How do you think it would benefit you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Thanks for reading, and happy writing!

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching or workplace.

  • 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. doi:10.1192/apt.11.5.338
  • 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/

About the Author

Courtney Ackerman, MSc., 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, well-being in the workplace, and compassion.

Comments

  1. Anne

    Thank you for this article! I have been a writer all of my life and recently published a writing journal specifically for parents of children with special needs. Writing has been such a crucial part of the journey of parenthood, and special needs parenthood, that I have been inspired to share it with others. I came to this article for advice before teaching a writing workshop and loved reading all of the science behind they why’s and the positive impact writing about our experiences can have on our physical and mental health. Therapeutic writing has been instinctual for me in my life so it is exciting to learn there is a whole field of study on it. I’m going to share this article with the workshop attendees as I know it will be a great resource for them as well.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      Thank you for your comment, Anne! I’m so happy to hear this article will be put to good use. Wishing you the best!

      Reply
  2. Victor

    Thanks for the article. Tomorrow is my first step towards my writer career! I am Victor and I shall not remain anonymous!

    Reply
    • Brenda

      Hi, I love writing as therapy! I’ve done it on my own, (initiated by me) with two different therapists. It is so helpful & empowering to know we have a resource within us to work out the “tangles” of our lives! Therapy has been monumental in my growth & healing, but writing for me is everything. I can find a voice I don’t otherwise have. Your article gave me encouragement & ideas, prompts that I can’t wait to try! Thank you!

      Reply
  3. Sara

    Nice Blog! I never heard of the writing therapy before. I am hearing it for the first time, thanks for sharing useful information.

    Reply
  4. Frances Vanwoert

    I am very excited about Journaling. I write in three journals. How many do you use?

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Frances,
      Wow — three journals! I did used to journal when I was a teenager but haven’t done so for many years (it’s something I’d like to get back into). How do you use each of your specific journals? 🙂
      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  5. Amira

    Thanks for this helpful article

    Reply
  6. john

    i believe it’s important also to have TOTAL anonymity. the issue with writing with pen and paper is that somebody one day might find that journal . This might subconsciously stop you from writing every dark secret that might affect you. So writing using an online journal is better with a password and even a fake name or junk email so you stay totally anonymous.
    That’s my point of view.
    cheers
    good journaling.
    btw : I use penzu for a while now..it’s very straight forward.. just google it it’s pretty good and free.

    Reply
  7. Yvonne Weekes

    My journal eventually became an award winning book – Volcano published by Peepal Tree Press, Leeds. It helped me to deal with the grief and loss of my island Montserrat, two-thirds of which was devastated by an active volcano.

    Reply
  8. Keita Cosgrove

    I suffered from severe soreness in my right knee and swollen joints which eventually developed into such a painful condition, I could not lift my leg or put weight on it to walk. After trying several treatments, I finally went to a care clinic where x-rays showed advanced Arthritis/OA. My condition worsened with severe pains and stiffness, so a friend introduced me to Herbal Health Point (ww w. herbalhealthpoint. c om) and their Arthritis Formula treatment protocol, I immediately started on the treatment, few weeks into the treatment the pain and stifness were completely gone and I had regained complete use of my leg. The treatment totally reversed my Arthritis condition, since I completed the treatment 11 months ago I have not had any symptom or pain

    Reply
  9. Irene

    I would not be alive today had I not been writing all the while. It is not by coincidence that while growing up with an extremely mentally ill parent, I majored in English and writing. I was using writing and literature (books) to heal myself. I have used an incredibly successful memoir writing unit to have at-risk youth process their trauma. I am now a registered expressive arts educator and consultant giving writing therapy workshops. Writing has saved my life. Thank you for the truth of this article.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      It’s great to hear your story, Irene! What an amazing journey of recovery. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  10. jeehye lee

    Hello,
    I found your information as I was searching keywords in google, particularly in the subject of journal coaching/ therapy. I would like to learn about relevant resources and perhaps find journal therapists/coaches as well. Unfortunately, I am currently living under a limited financial circumstance at this time. If you offer any free or low payment consultation(s), please contact me
    I would appreciate it. Thank you.

    Reply
  11. Danita Courtney

    This is where I will start! Thank you for providing such much needed information for people to help heal themselves!I have kept factual journals over 30 years, but this will be a release for all the trauma and pain. Don’t worry, my tool box is full and I have a great support system. It’s the right time! Thank you!

    Reply
  12. Tim Yaotome

    As you mentioned that writing therapy can help a person recover from posttraumatic stress, grief, loss, and low self-esteem, another way to heal from these mental illnesses is through signing up for sessions at a wellness center. It will help expose a person to not only new insights about life from the trainer but also learn it from other people who signed up for classes too. Your article made me think about signing up for one with my friends so that we can nurture our friendship and be able to manage our emotions too.

    Reply
  13. Lisa

    Thanks for the informative article. I never thought about written therapy seriously. But once I met a writer who first told me about this kind of therapy. He is the great professional in his branch. I think that fate brought us together. I was just finishing studying in college and I had problems with sociology dissertation titles. I turned to this https://proessayservice.com/sociology-dissertation-titles writing service for help in this matter. I got not only high-quality work, I also met a wonderful person who told me about writing therapy, and how much it’s cool. Thank you.

    Reply
  14. Alyssa

    This is actually very helpful and I just want to thank you for these helpful ideas and I actually just started journaling a few days ago and it actually helps me think through my thoughts before I act on them. And about a year ago before I started journaling, I was suicidal and that was the worst part of my life and I actually tried to commit suicide but then I got help and went to a mental hospital and they encouraged journaling but i didn’t consider it then, but now I find it very helpful and I am now doing it everyday and I just want to thank you for these helpful tips.

    Reply
  15. David

    During the 24 years I lived in Africa, journaling was my therapist. Whenever I had a problem, I wrote about it in detail. This yielded clarity, an action plan, and resolution.
    Hence my Journal is all about presenting and working out conflicts, problems, and conundrums. You won’t read about positive experiences-:).
    When I didn’t have a problem, I didn’t journal. It was a tool – – very pragmatic and action oriented. I’d go months without writing a word. Them boom, something happened and I wrote pages. Writing really differs from talk therapy.
    I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal and filled six notebooks with observations. Haven’t read them since I wrote them during the 1970’s. Because they were descriptive, not really therapeutic. But I still refer to my problem solving therapeutic Africa journals.
    Writing down your true feelings is excellent therapy. The challenge is implementing your conclusions.
    Oh, I’m here because I’m about to Journal again.

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      Thanks for sharing your story, David! Journaling can truly be an excellent path to mental health and simply feeling good. I’m so glad you found such a great tool for yourself!

      Reply
  16. Steve

    And here I thought I’d check to see if Google know how cathartic this crazy 3 hour binge write has been. Feels like yoga for the contained-to-bursting with thoughts.
    Ms Ackerman. Google and I are grateful for your validation. “Subdominant hand” to my early writer? Genius!?

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      Ha! You’re welcome, Steve. I’m glad your positive experience brought you here!

      Reply
  17. katherine young

    Thank you for your insight – I found all of the other comments very helpful too – the magic of sharing ideas; people should do it more often x

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      You’re welcome, Katherine! We think sharing ideas is a pretty worthwhile exercise too. Thanks for engaging with us!

      Reply
  18. Juan Maria Ezcurra

    Excelente web .Una de las mejores . No pierdas el tiempo en buscar otras .Esta es muy completa .¡¡ Y no cobra dinero ¡¡.( Suele ser señal inequívoca de ser una “grande “, con voluntad de servicio expresa .Muchas gracias.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      De nada, Juan! Estoy feliz de que te guste el sitio web. Gracias por tu comentario!

      Reply
  19. sarah

    I agree with this article. I heard about writing and its affection before.Last year my mother passed a trauma and she involved depression. I talked with her and asked to write about trauma completely with details. She did it and write around 6 pages.She cried during the writing, but after that she felt calm and relax.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      How wonderful to hear, Sarah! I’m so glad your mother is doing better. Working through our trauma in narrative form has such amazing healing potential.

      Reply
  20. lisa

    good article, lots of great suggestions. thank-you.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      You’re welcome, Lisa! I’m happy to hear you found it useful.

      Reply
  21. Audrey Foster

    Thank you very much. I have started writing about all the different professions and learning courses that I have taken over my life. Imagine my surprise when I looked back at an old film and I saw my name in the credits. I totally forgot the job that I was doing at that time.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      Isn’t it great when you get an unexpected blast from the past? I had one of those myself over the weekend, and I was absolutely flooded with nostalgia!

      Reply
  22. Bereket

    I think this is what i have been looking for to start writing my thoughts …thank you so much!

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      You’re welcome, Bereket! Best of luck as you get started with writing therapy.

      Reply
  23. Claudia

    I write to myself. That is how I solve my problems.Thanks for this opportunity.
    .

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      It’s a pretty effective way to solve problems! Thanks for your comment, Claudia.

      Reply
  24. leona dawson

    Hi Courtney -Thanks for posting this article. I love journalling as part of my work as a therapist and for my own life. I like to think of Journalling as part of writing therapy which of course can include expressive writing, poetry and so on. Kathleen Adams has developed the Journal Ladder in which writing activities start from contained, paced and with simple structure through to more intuitive, abstract and freeform. The activities on the ladder can also be matched to our clients’ cognitive & processing styles which means some clients might also enjoy drawing symbols or quick pics that capture what their experience. I, myself, am pretty much a stick figure level artist 🙂 but my little images are profounding resonant. In terms of positive psychology the kind of reflection we do can make a difference to how we understand writing to be helpful, to see patterns in our life, to take in lessons learned and meanings made and sometimes to rewrite our dominant narrative. I am currently trying our some online journalling tools (Diaro, OneNote, Day One etc). Your readers might enjoy an overveiw of these tools…especially for our younger clients who are more at ease with writing on a keyboard than longhand. Finally, in terms of organisational psychology check out this fabulous series “It’s easy to W.R.I.T.E.” for a range of professional practices and audiences.
    https://rowman.com/Action/Series/_/RLE002/Easy-to-write-expressive-writing
    Last but not least I’d love to hear how you have included therapeutic writing in workplaces!

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      Hey Leona, thank you for sharing those resources! I agree, many younger individuals would probably be more comfortable typing rather than writing–although there’s something about a fresh page and a sharpened pencil that is so soothing.
      I think incorporating therapeutic writing into workplaces is a great idea! I don’t have any tips or tricks off the top of my head, but that’s definitely worth looking into.

      Reply
  25. Cristiana

    I also keep a gratitudine journal and have a blog. I think I will start practicing the writing therapy soon as I feel very stressed at the moment.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      What a great time to try writing therapy! If it works when you’re stressed, you know you’ve found an effective technique. Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  26. Charles

    Courtney,
    I have questions. How do I reach you?

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      Hi Charles, feel free to leave them here! If they’re too detailed for a comment, please use the contact page to get in touch.

      Reply
  27. Glenys Horne

    I keep a gratitude journal, and I have had a blog on the go previously, this article inspires me to dedicate more time to those pursuits.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      That’s great to hear, Glenys! It’s amazing how many positive ways there are to use a journal.

      Reply

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