Writing Therapy Might Be the Key to Better Mental Health in 2023

Writing therapy, whether as a solo practice or done in partnership with a licensed mental health clinician, has long been a powerful tool “for unpacking and making sense of our thoughts and feelings,” says Rebecca Hendrix, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York. Sometimes it can feel as if the latest in mental health treatment is overwhelmingly tech heavy or experimental—hello, free online therapy and psychedelics for postpartum depression or PTSD—but the recent rise in interest surrounding writing therapy feels refreshingly grounded and old school. 

“There are numerous studies linking journaling about our thoughts and feelings to a decrease in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress,” says Charlotte Haigh, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. “Where else do we have a forum to be our most unfiltered, authentic selves?” 

Creating that space to be vulnerable and unfiltered in writing sessions with a licensed therapist—a.k.a. therapeutic writing—may be just the form of therapy you need to process lingering feelings of anxiety, depression, or trauma. “It can be a great way to go deeper with the therapeutic work and to help clients continue processing, reflecting, and making progress between sessions,” Haigh says. 

To understand what makes writing therapy so powerful, we asked three trained therapists to break it down. 

What is writing therapy?

Writing therapy is the act of writing about a specific trauma or feeling under the guidance of a mental health professional. “If we are able to write about our thoughts and feelings and then process them verbally with a therapist, we are engaging multiple areas of our brain in our healing process,” Haigh explains. “Even if a client fully trusts their therapist, it is still a deeply vulnerable act to express everything that we think or feel. Writing can provide a safe space where we are free to be totally honest and unfiltered.” 

Just because you're writing with somebody doesn't mean you're writing for somebody—it’s less about writing a coherent essay to present and more about getting your feelings out of your body and onto paper. “When I do writing therapy, I don’t use lines,” says LaNail R. Plummer, EdD, a licensed clinical professional counselor and CEO of Onyx Therapy Group, a team of 30 Black and women of color mental health professionals. “I give clients plain white paper, and people just write wherever they wanna write—we don’t always have to write in prose. It can be all over the place. It should really be a matter of you releasing. It’s an outpouring of thoughts and feelings that allows for a desensitization experience of something that used to be a constant trigger.” 

What’s the difference between writing therapy and journaling?

Writing therapy is not the same as journaling, Dr. Plummer stresses. How a person journals can vary broadly—you might write about the details of your day, use that space to reflect on past events, or journal about goals you’re hoping to manifest for the future. “Sometimes people are journaling just for reflection,” Dr. Plummer explains. Journal therapy, however, is a therapeutic process focused on improving your mental well-being through writing about stressful experiences.

“Writing therapy is more targeted, exploring elements of our lives that have had greater effects on us,” says Dr. Plummer. Think less venting about a confrontation with your boss, and more doing introspective work around a major traumatic incident. “There are different intentions that go into the work,” she explains.  

It's important for writing therapy to be done with the support of a therapist (as opposed to journaling, which is a great solo reflective tool). “We want to make sure that a person doesn’t spiral,” says Dr. Plummer. “When you open an emotional wound, someone needs to be there as a healer.” She likens the process to surgery: You open the wound, clean it out with the help of a trained professional, and then close it back up again. “That’s why writing therapy is different from journaling—we can’t let you go home with this open wound,” she says. 

What are the health benefits of writing therapy?

“Writing can help us stop ruminating about a distressing event or situation by giving us a medium to let it all out,” says Haigh. “Leaving things on the page can provide that extra closure that we need to stop repetitive thinking cycles.” 

Research shows that writing can actually help rewire your brain. “Studies show that writing may reduce activity in the amygdala, which is a part of the brain that is involved in processing emotions and memories associated with fear,” says Haigh. 

Put another way, writing helps your brain move an experience from raw feeling into rational thought. “When we experience something, we experience it in the back part of our brain through the sensory limbic system,” says Haigh. “Then we move it forward to the amygdala, which is where a lot of our emotions are.” Traumatic experiences linger here, generating strong emotional responses when triggered. “Writing therapy moves that experience to the frontal cortex, which is where our executive thinking, functioning, and processing is.” 

Writing about an emotional experience or stressful event through journal therapy can help you form a more cohesive narrative. “By writing our stories, we can start to define the meaning behind them,” Haigh says. “This is a very important and empowering part of healing, especially when we are talking about traumatic experiences.” 

Is writing therapy right for you?

“We all process information differently, and some process more internally than externally,” says Hendrix. For some, verbally processing a traumatic event with someone they trust comes naturally. But “not everyone can use clear words to express themselves in a conversation on the spot,” she says. And that’s perfectly okay. 

If you’re more of an internal processor—you’d prefer journaling, exercising, or meditating to work through emotions—writing therapy can be especially helpful to work through negative experiences. It’s best to talk with your therapist about the potential benefits of therapeutic writing and whether or not it might work for you.

How to do writing therapy

Step one: Engage a therapist. “Writing can bring up overwhelming emotions and physical sensations at times, and it’s a good idea to have a trained professional who can help you work through whatever comes up,” Haigh says. “There is also something so powerful about having a trusted person be a witness to your story and to love you and support you through it no matter what. This can help reduce the shame that clients feel about traumatic experiences.” 

To practice expressive writing therapy, your therapist may start by having you write for a timed period during your regular session. “We may start with a 5-minute time block and then extend that to maybe a 10- or 15-minute time block,” says Dr. Plummer. Giving you a time limit helps prevent spiraling, she says. 

Dr. Plummer sometimes has her clients stand and write on chart paper on the wall. “Not everybody wants to sit when they're recalling trauma or negativity,” she explains. “The body gets anxious as a defense and survival mechanism. When you have the chart paper up, you can stand and you can move.”

Once you’re comfortable with the practice and your therapist has evaluated and assessed that you can handle it, they might assign a writing exercise as homework, Dr. Plummer says. “The timeframe is still important because we don’t want open any wound for too long.”

Nor would you want to engage in writing therapy right before a meeting with your boss, for example. Ideally, writing sessions would be followed by a self-care practice or something that also benefits your physical health. “Generally you want to be doing writing therapy when you can have some physical movement afterwards, like going for a walk or a run or a dance class,” Dr. Plummer says. 

Macaela MacKenzie is a writer and editor specializing in wellness. She writes about self-care, mental health, fertility, and women's equality with a focus on breaking down stigmas in women's health.

Originally Appeared on Glamour