Mental Health and Writing: When Wordsmithing is Self-Care

Abi Wurdeman
May 15, 2024

Any writer could tell you there’s a link between consistent writing and good mental health. 

I mean, sure, we love to lament the anguish of discovering unexpected plot holes and the devastating certainty that our current draft is garbage.

But as much as we dramatize the pitfalls of our art, many of us would say writing is what makes us whole. It’s the best tool we have for understanding ourselves and making peace with the complicated world we live in.

As it turns out, it’s not just us. Time and again, research suggests that writing can help reduce stress, ease depression, and improve focus. In fact, writing doesn’t just offer psychological benefits; it has physical benefits, too, from better sleep to improved immune functioning.

The best part? These perks are available to you even if you don’t consider yourself a particularly creative person.

If you want to explore how writing can become part of your mental health practice, stick around. You’ll learn all about the therapeutic benefits of writing, how this form of expression can help you cope in a crisis, and how to start a journaling routine.

And if you also happen to be a writer by hobby or profession, you’ll find tips for navigating mental health challenges while writing.

Put on your softest joggers, pour a soothing cup of chamomile, and let’s show our minds some love.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing

Study after study has demonstrated that writing has the potential to ease our anxiety, sharpen our focus, and even help heal our bodies. Seriously.

There’s the study where patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis experienced a decrease in symptoms after writing about a stressful event.

And the one where expressive writing appeared to boost immune functioning in patients with HIV/AIDS. 

And the one where trauma victims experienced a decrease in depressive symptoms following a six-week writing intervention.

The mere act of expressing ourselves through the written word can reduce anxiety and improve our sleep. The immersive nature of creative writing sharpens our focus and trains our minds to enter a flow state more easily. Reflective writing can boost our self esteem and improve our performance at work.

The healing power of writing is a very real thing backed by data. And how can you tap into it? 

So glad you asked.

How to Reap the Mental Health Benefits of Writing

A person sits outside a tall building and types on a laptop.

I’m not a mental health professional and I can’t make any guarantees about the psychological benefits you can expect from doing a particular writing exercise. Each individual is different.

What I can do is introduce you to a few styles of writing that have proven to be beneficial to a whole bunch of people. You’ll learn about the specific mental health advantages associated with each style and get a few tips for exploring these techniques yourself.

Expressive Writing to Cope With Trauma and Stress

Expressive writing involves writing about stressful or traumatic events in one’s own past. In this practice, the writer describes the experience with specific, concrete details and shares their deepest thoughts and feelings regarding the event.

If you’re thinking this sounds terrifying and like it might do more harm than good, you’re not entirely wrong. Depending on the person and the extent of the trauma, it might be best to do this exercise under the guidance of a therapist. 

It’s also important to note that the goal of expressive writing is to ultimately find meaning in the traumatic memory. This is where the healing comes in. Rather than being a victim of the situation, the writer takes control of it. They observe and reflect on their experience, deciding what they want to take from it.

Dr. Joanna Arch has even taken this concept and used it to help late-stage cancer patients cope with anticipated trauma. As she puts it, “For many of these patients, their worst fear is playing in the back of their minds much of the time and they don’t really have anyone to talk to about it. Taking that monster out of the closet and naming it reduces its power.” 

Multiple studies suggest that expressive writing eases the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD, as well as improving physical health.

Reflective Writing for Self-Awareness and Confidence

If it’s clarity and confidence you’re after, reflective writing might be your jam.

In this exercise, you write about a specific experience in a more analytical way. You reflect on what happened, why it happened, why you made certain choices, how those choices led to a specific outcome, and what you plan to do next.

While expressive writing digs into emotions and searches for deeper meaning, reflective writing nurtures self-awareness and strategic thinking.

As you might have guessed this kind of self-reflection isn’t typically used to heal from trauma. It’s better suited for making tough decisions, finding opportunities for growth in failure, and exploring new perspectives.

From a mental health perspective, it’s an effective way to maintain calm and find clarity under stress. It can also be empowering and build confidence as you turn your attention away from feelings of hopelessness and toward concrete decisions.

Creative Writing for Joy and Focus

In the context of this article, creative writing refers to any writing you do to express yourself without making a direct attempt to hash out or heal from a specific life experience.

You might choose to write a novel, short story, or poem. Maybe it’s a song, essay, or observation about how the tree outside your window resembles an elderly giraffe.

The beauty of creative writing is that it’s deeply engaging. It instantly captivates the imagination, conjures mental images, and draws you in as you work to solve problems like “What rhymes with ‘spongy’?”

Creative writing also allows you to step outside all the incessant shoulds and musts that come with being a human being in the world. You can express yourself without worrying about whether you’re achieving anything, winning anyone’s approval, or creating something you can sell.

Your only job is to create.

The mental health benefits of this are huge. This type of writing sparks joy and inspires creative thought in all areas of your life. It’s a way to affirm the value of your own thoughts, feelings, and ideas. And because it’s naturally engaging, it’s a good way to train your brain to focus on a specific task and find that ever-elusive flow state

Journaling for Mental Health

A person holds a cup of tea and looks at handwritten passages in a journal.

You can explore any of the writing approaches we just discussed by maintaining a regular journaling habit.

Keeping a journal is a great way to engage in the kind of writing that reaps major mental health benefits. The entire point of journaling is that your words are private and personal. It’s an exercise that allows you to explore your own emotions and chase inspiration without worrying about who will see it and what they’ll think.

If you’re not sure how to get started or what to write about, here are a few pointers:

Establishing a Journaling Routine

There’s really no way to mess this up. Write in a leather-bound journal or a beat-up spiral notebook. Create a journal in your notes app or start a new project in Dabble. Choose whatever method helps the words flow freely.

As for when you write, that’s up to you, too. Maybe you prefer to journal at the end of the day when you have plenty to reflect on. Or perhaps you prefer Morning Pages—a thought-clearing stream-of-consciousness exercise Julia Cameron recommends in The Artist’s Way.

If you’re able to establish a daily journaling routine, you’ll likely see enough psychological and emotional benefits that writing will start to feel like essential self-care. Please know that you’re totally justified in scheduling and protecting your journaling time. Writing is never frivolous—it’s good for you!

There are also no rules about what or how you should write. As we discussed, different topics and approaches can result in different benefits. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want to get out of this exercise.

Journal Writing Prompts

Not quite sure where to begin? Try one of these prompts:

  • Write about an unexpected challenge you had to overcome. What did you learn from it? How did it change you?
  • What is your secret superpower? How have you put it to use in your life?
  • Describe a place where you feel calm or safe.
  • If you’re going through a tough time or feeling down on yourself, write a letter to yourself—the kind of letter you’d write to a friend who was feeling the same way.
  • Need a little motivation? Write a letter of gratitude from your future self to your current self, thanking you for all the effort you put into building a beautiful life.
  • Pick an ordinary moment from the last week that still sticks in your memory. Describe it in detail, including any thoughts or feelings you had. Find the remarkable in the unremarkable.
  • Write about your favorite memory with your favorite person.
  • Is there something you can’t stop worrying about? Write about it. What’s the worst-case scenario? Is there anything you can do to improve the situation? If the worst-case scenario happens, how will you respond? 

Overcoming Mental Health Challenges as a Writer

A white sign with black letters reading "Self care isn't selfish" sits on a pink background.

Now, let’s say you’re someone who writes for reasons other than psychological healing. Maybe you’re working on a novel or maintaining a blog or assembling a beautiful poetry collection.

You know writing doesn’t always feel like a liberating exercise in creativity and self-validation. Every writer is vulnerable to the constant sniping of our inner-critics and the constant feeling that we’re not writing fast enough or well enough or saying anything anyone cares about.

Add mental illness to the mix, and that spirit-squashing inner dialogue only gets worse.

So how are you supposed to keep creating when writing is the last thing you want to do?

The answer is different for every person. You may need to find your own path forward through trial and error and with the help of a therapist. In the meantime, I can at least offer some suggestions worth trying.

Show up and let it be bad - This is also the standard advice for overcoming writer’s block and the classic “fear of starting.” If you can, embrace the bad—or at least tolerate it. Bad writing still gives you something to fix. And odds are, you’ll return to your writing later and discover it’s much better than you thought.

Write what you need to write - Don’t be afraid to take a break from your big writing project if your mind is begging you to work through a personal challenge. If you want your beautiful mind to bring its best self to your novel, you have to give it lots of love and care.   

Write small things - If writing anything—good or bad, creative or personal—feels utterly impossible, that’s fine. Keep writing on the tiniest possible scale. Maybe one sentence a day. “I wish we hadn’t run out of cheese.” Bam. You did it. You kept your oar in the waters of the written word. When you’re ready, you’ll make bigger strokes. 

Read - If you can’t bring yourself to write, try reading. Not only will reading make you an even better writer when you’re ready to return to the keyboard, but it’s also an excellent form of self-care.

However you approach this, be kind to yourself. Our best quality as writers is our humanity. It’s what allows us to see the world from complex angles, dig deep into universal emotions, and connect with our readers. So give yourself the space you need to be human.

Writing Heals

When in doubt, grab a pen and a notebook and write whatever comes up. 

Explore your fears and doubts. Gush about your gratitude. Dream about your future. Construct new worlds and create whole human beings out of nothing. Whatever you write—even if it’s pure fiction—you’re going to end up with a clearer understanding of yourself and the way you relate to the world.

Writing offers peace, meaning, and sometimes even a clear path forward. Or, as Joan Didion put it: 

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Words are powerful. More to the point, your words are powerful. Might as well see what they can do for your bright and beautiful mind.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.