Writing Therapy: How to Write and Journal Therapeutically

Writing Therapy: Using A Pen and Paper to Enhance Personal GrowthHave 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 dancing. These methods can be great for artistic people, but there are also creative and expressive ways to dig yourself out of a rut that don’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.

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What is Writing Therapy?

Writing therapy, also known as journal therapy, is exactly what it sounds like: writing (often in a journal)  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 a pen, or guided by a mental health professional. It can also 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 the format, writing therapy can help the individual propel their personal growth, practice creative expression, and feel a sense of empowerment and control over their life (Adams, 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 (Farooqui, 2016):

  1. Writing in a diary or journal is usually free-form, where the writer jots down whatever pops into their head. Therapeutic writing is typically more directed and often based on specific prompts or exercises guided by a professional.
  2. Writing in a diary or journal may focus on recording events as they occur, while writing therapy is often focused on more meta-analytical processes: 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.

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

man writing - what is writing therapy journal therapy Keeping a journal can be extremely helpful, whether it’s to improve memory, record important bits and pieces of the day, or just 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.

For individuals who have experienced a traumatic or extremely stressful event, expressive writing guided purposefully toward specific topics 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 than those who were instructed to write about neutral topics (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 than the control group, who wrote about emotionally neutral topics (Smyth et al., 1999).

Expressive writing may even improve immune system functioning, although the writing practice 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 different conditions and mental illnesses, including (Farooqui, 2016):

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How to: Journaling for Therapy

There are many ways to begin writing for therapeutic purposes.

If you are working with a mental health professional, they may provide you with directions to begin journaling for therapy.

While true writing therapy would be conducted with the help of a licensed mental health professional, you may be interested in trying the practice on your own to explore some of the potential benefits to your wellbeing. If so, here there are some good tips 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.
  • Consider 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 (Adams, n.d.):

  • W – What do you want to write about? Name it.
  • R – Review or reflect on your topic. 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 five to 15 minutes straight.
  • E – Exit “smart” by re-reading what you’ve written and reflecting on it with one or two sentences

Finally, keep the following in mind while you are journaling (Howes, 2011):

  • It’s okay to write only a few words, and it’s okay to write several pages. Write at your own pace.
  • Don’t worry 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 and comes naturally to you.
  • Remember that no-one else needs to read what you’ve written. This will help you write authentically and avoid “putting on a show.”

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.

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Writing Ideas & Journal Prompts

Journaling with Photographs writing therapyThe 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.

Here are five writing exercises designed for dealing with pain (Abundance No Limits, n.d.):

  1. Write a letter to yourself
  2. Write letters to others
  3. Write a poem
  4. Free write (just write everything and anything that comes to mind)
  5. Mind map (draw 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 (Farooqui, 2016):

  • Journal with photographs – Choose a personal photo and use your journal to answer questions like “What do you feel when you look at these photos?” and “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 sentences 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.”

Tartakovsky (2014) provides a handy list of 30 prompts, including:

  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.

Video

6 Ways to process your feelings in writing – Therapy in a Nutshell


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 to begin, read on for some tips and exercises to help you start your regular writing habit (Hills, n.d.).

  • Start writing about where you are in your life at this moment.
  • For five to 10 minutes just start writing in a “stream of consciousness.”
  • Start a dialogue with your inner child by writing in your nondominant 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.

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 superficial diary or journal entries.

More prompts, exercises, and ideas to help you get started can be found by following this link.

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A Take-Home Message

In this piece, we went over what writing therapy is, how to do it, and how it can benefit you and/or your clients. I hope you learned something new from this piece, and I hope you will keep writing therapy in mind as a potential exercise.

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 three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

References

  • Abundance No limits. (n.d.). 5 Writing therapy exercises that can ease your pain. Author. Retrieved from https://www.abundancenolimits.com/writing-therapy-exercises/.
  • 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(5), 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, 33(6), 54. 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/

Comments

What our readers think

  1. Michael

    Hello,
    Such an interesting article, thank you very much. I was wondering if there was a particular strategy in which writing down questions produced answers. I started doing just that: writing down doubts and questions, and I found that answers just came. It was like talking through the issues with someone else. Is there any research on that? Is this a known strategy?

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

      Hi Michael,

      That’s amazing that you’re finding answers are ‘arising’ for you in your writing. In meditative and mindfulness practices, this is often referred to as intuition, which points to a form of intelligence that goes beyond rationality and cognition. This is a fairly new area of research, but has been well-recognized by Eastern traditions for centuries. See here for a book chapter review: https://doi.org/10.4337/9780857936370.00029

      As you’ve discovered, journaling can be incredibly valuable to put you in touch with this intuitive form of knowing in which solutions just come to you.

      This also reminds me of something known as the rubber ducking technique, which programmers use to solve problems and debug code: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_duck_debugging

      Anyway, hope that offers some food for thought!

      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  2. Alison

    I have never tried writing therapy, but I intend to. Its so much better than seeing the psychiatrist for my behavior issues, which nobody has even identified yet.

    Reply
  3. Jacqui

    Hi great article, just wondering when it was originally posted as I wish to cite some of the text in my essay
    Many thanks

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

      Hi Jacqui,

      Glad you enjoyed the post. It was published on the 26th of October, 2017 🙂

      Hope this helps!

      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  4. Ben P

    Hi Courtney

    I know you posted this blog a while ago but I’ve just found it and loved it. It articulated so clearly the benefits of writing therapy. One question – is there any research on whether it’s better to use pen and paper or Ian using a PC/typing just as good. I can write much faster and more fluently when I use a keyboard but wonder whether there is a benefit from the physical act of writing writing with a pen. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

      Hi Ben,

      Great question. The evidence isn’t entirely clear on this, but there’s a little work suggesting that writing by hand forces the mind to slow down and reflect more deeply on what’s being written (see this article). Further, the process of writing uses parts of the brain involved in emotion, which may make writing by hand more effective for exploring your emotional experiences.

      However, when it comes to writing therapy, the factor of personal preference seems critical! The issue of speed can be frustrating if your thoughts tend to come quickly. If you feel writing by hand introduces more frustration than benefits, that may be a sign to keep a digital journal instead.

      Hope that helps!

      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply

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