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.

 

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!

  • 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 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. When she’s not gleefully crafting survey reminders, she loves spending time with her dogs, visiting wine country, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book or video game.

Comments

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
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