Writing Your Way to Health

Unleash your mind power with a good ol fashion pen and paper

Unleash your mind power with good ol fashion pen and paper

Writing is something that all of us have done from time to time. Maybe it hasn’t been a novel or a movie script, but even a grocery list counts as writing. Keeping a journal also counts. I’ve heard over the years that writing can be therapeutic in different ways and wanted to discuss just a few of these things today, especially since drugs aren’t always the answer and finding other avenues of treatment for the mind is useful, especially when it’s free.

In a study of college students, researchers looked at how writing would affect depressive symptoms in those students. College, after all, can be a trying time for many a student. The students were instructed to write on their “deepest thoughts and feelings on current and past emotional upheavals” (intervention) or “time management conditions” (control). [1] It was set for three consecutive 20 minute sessions, plus a booster session 5 weeks later. Depressive symptoms were measured just before the first of three session, just before the 5 week booster and 6 months later.

Students in the “feelings” group did report lower depression scores than those in the control group. The 5 week booster seemed to have no effect. It would be interesting to see if this study was repeated, but with more writing sessions instead of 4, and on a more consistent basis.

In a study with cancer patients, subjects were asked to write about their feelings and thoughts of the cancer, or neutral topics, on four different occasions. Patients writing about their feelings exhibited better physical functioning scores and seemed to improve the cancer related symptoms. [2]

In another intervention in marriages, couples who were experiencing discord and disagreements were assigned to a control or writing group. The writing group was asked 3 specific questions and they were given time to write about them. The writing wasn’t started until a year into the study. The couples who wrote had their downward spiral level off, while the couples who didn’t write, continued in decline. [3] It’s not to say that writing fixed all the problems in the relationship, but it did make an environment from which they could come together and not continue to grow apart.

Writing about it may also be an important step. And I mean actually taking out a pen or pencil and paper and writing, rather than just typing on a keyboard. In a study looking at brain scans and writing, good writers showed more activation in areas of “cognition, language, and executive functions, consistent with predictions, and also in working memory, motor planning, and timing”. [4] This may be beneficial when helping a person really use their brain in coping or figuring out emotional problems.

In another look at typing vs longhand, it was found that people who write notes tend to assimilate information and process it to write it down, whereas typers just assimilate and type the facts. In other words, writing notes longhand while learning allow people to understand concepts better than if they were to type. Actual facts are maintained about the same in both groups. [5]

I think this is some good advice in general; to write regularly and to try to write instead of type. I’ve noticed in my own writing, my style changes when I’m brainstorming or just rambling vs when I’m being direct or making a point. When I write a prescription for example, my writing is neat, organized, and very legible. When I’m taking notes in a class or a meeting, it is more sloppy and all over the place, and not just because I’m trying to be quick.

Does this mean anything? I think it is reflective of different parts of my brain being utilized when writing, I think that’s obvious. It probably goes deeper than that, but I’m no neuro-expert. What I am convinced of is that writing can be beneficial for all sorts of things, but you have to do it to get the benefit. It also appears that focusing on your thoughts and feelings, in other words, what is actually being processed by you, is far more important than just writing about what you did or what you’re going to do, say in a schedule.

Maybe this writing doesn’t have to be everyday, but regularly, whatever that is, would probably be best. Maybe that’s a journal once a week or month. Maybe writing is part of work and your sick of writing already. Sometimes a break from the things we do is part of health as well, or at least changing what we write about.

Writing blog posts regularly can sometimes be a bit boring, so I’m writing a novel on the side for fun. It has reinvigorated my love for writing and now the blog doesn’t seem like a chore as sometimes it can.

Being intentional about writing can be useful too. In the studies listed above, postive outcomes were seen when subjects were answering specific questions about what problems they were facing. So write specifically. If you don’t want to, then at least try writing.

So if any of you want to try a different approach to depression, pain, cancer, crazy children, or anything else, I give you this challenge; write about it.

I’d love to hear any experiences anyone has had with this in the comments.



1.Gortner, Eva-Maria, Stephanie S. Rude, and James W. Pennebaker. “Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms.” Behavior therapy 37.3 (2006): 292-303.

2.Milbury, Kathrin, et al. “Randomized controlled trial of expressive writing for patients with renal cell carcinoma.” Journal of Clinical Oncology 32.7 (2014): 663-670.

3.Finkel, Eli J., et al. “A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time.” Psychological science (2013): 0956797612474938.

4.Berninger, Virginia W., et al. “fMRI activation related to nature of ideas generated and differences between good and poor writers during idea generation.” BJEP Monograph Series II, Number 6-Teaching and Learning Writing. Vol. 77. No. 93. British Psychological Society, 2009. 77-93.

5.Mueller, Pam A., and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological science (2014): 0956797614524581.