The Benefits of Expressive Writing

For everyone writing is a part of day to day life. Whether it’s putting your thoughts down in a diary, sending a letter to a friend or simply jotting down a shopping list, writing is a purposeful way of staying organised, mentally stimulated and connected to both yourself and those around you. However, expressive and emotional writing in particular may be one of the most effective ways to gain a positive mental wellbeing.

Over the last decade, various studies have confirmed the positive mental and behavioural effects of writing. One such study, conducted by Stefanie Spera, Eric Buhrfeind and James Pennebaker, focused on a group of engineers who had all been laid off from a computer company and who were all seeking another job opportunity. These engineers were placed into three groups. The first group did nothing out of the ordinary in their job search. The second group did practical writing each day, such as writing out lists for time management and target charts. The third group wrote more expressively each day, specifically writing about their thoughts and feelings of job loss and their current emotional state. Within the first three months of this study, the first group saw no progress of employment, the second saw a 5% rise in employment, and the third saw a 26% rise in employment.

Reports from Psychology Today stated that, “Expressive writing affected the quality, not the quantity, of the job search. The engineers who wrote down their thoughts and feelings about losing their jobs reported feeling less anger and hostility toward their former employer. They also reported drinking less. Eight months later, less than 19% of the engineers in the [first and second] control groups were reemployed full-time, compared with more than 52% of the engineers in the expressive [third] group.” [1]. This study highlights the positive influence that emotional writing had towards the individuals’ attitudes on their negative circumstances and their motivation for improvement.

The idea of writing your personal emotions however can seem a little daunting, especially if you feel unable to put your emotional state in the right words. If you feel apprehensive with the idea, we suggest starting simple with just a piece of paper and a pencil. Writing on a piece of paper rather than through a computer screen can feel more personal and grounded, while also allowing you to get more creative with expression. So, if you can’t quite find the words, you can draw, doodle or colour the page until inspiration hits. Writing with a pencil also means you can easily rub out your writing if you make a mistake or simply want to remove what you’ve written – they’ll be no auto-saved copies or accidental forwarding options to worry about. If you are writing for emotional closure, you could even burn the paper afterwards, providing a wonderfully metaphorical end to a bad state of mind.

Having a notepad or diary is also a great way of being able to write and reflect on your thoughts and feelings. Being of convenient size, they are easy to carry with you throughout the day. If you are feeling exceptionally stressed or anxious at any point in the day, writing down a few thoughts and feelings can help to ease yourself into a more relaxed and focused state. If you’d like to go a step further with this, you could even try bullet journaling. This provides a more personalised and structured style of writing and will allow you to add in sections for both practical uses, such as lists and progress charts, and for creative drawing and free-style writing.

In a discussion with Kimberley Castlemain, author of the poetry collection Poise & Arrows, she revealed how her personal poetry helped her through her own hardships. “In 2017 I went through the most difficult year of my life. I went through a divorce, robbery, and had to relocate five times. In somewhat of a miracle at the end of the year, I began writing volumes and volumes of poetry, like a tap had been turned on for good. In this way, a lot of my early poems were my outlet for that very strange time, and hence their subject matter reflected it. Since then though, my life got very much back on track, and today I write about all kinds of things. I don’t need to be hurting or sad to write poetry, I can be happy and grounded, and in these cases I find inspiration everywhere.”

Kimberley also mentioned her own methods on how to get into expressive and emotional writing. “I take out a notebook and write by hand. I usually rewrite my old poems when I do this because it helps me reconnect with them and gets my brain ‘thinking in poetry’ again. I also support my fellow writers by ordering their poetry books, so I have been reading a lot more. I see so many interesting and emotive styles of writing which has been very energetically inspiring. Above all else though, I make sure I am really living by experiencing new things, staying open minded and present in the world around me. I’ve written many poems about things I notice when I’m being fully present.”

Kimberley Castlemain can be found on Instagram on @kimberley.poetry

[1] Grant, Adam. “The Power of the Pen: Boosting Happiness, Health, and Productivity.” Psychology Today. 29th May 2013.