Health

Guide to Therapeutic Writing and Drawing

Journaling is more than just a method for unpacking thoughts, feelings, and desires; it can also be a powerful wellness tool. Here are a few of the potential health benefits of writing.

Decrease Anxiety 

Cornelia Gibson, EdD, executive director of Agape Counseling Center and Network in Fairfield, California, recommends journaling therapy for patients with anxiety. “Anxiety is typically connected with thoughts, so what we want to do is externalize those thoughts, or get them out of their head,” she says. “We’re not getting rid of the problem, but we’re moving it to paper so people can recognize it.”

That said, it’s also beneficial to write about cheerful things.

In one study, adults with anxiety and other medical conditions who wrote about positive experiences saw greater improvements in well-being than those who received usual care. Journaling took place for 15 minutes three days per week for 12 weeks. As there is no standard treatment for patients with mild to moderate anxiety symptoms, the control group simply received usual care for their medical conditions during the study.

Improve Memory

Expressive writing, or writing down your thoughts and feelings as they come, may help boost your memory.

Research involving college students found that those who wrote about negative personal experiences, thoughts, and feelings about coming to college had greater gains in working memory than students who wrote about positive experiences or trivial thoughts. The researchers speculated that writing down stressful thoughts and experiences helped encourage the students to confront them, instead of keeping those thoughts and experiences tucked away in their brains. This may have freed up space in the students’ working memories, researchers argued.

However, the groups studied were relatively small. Larger studies are needed to confirm these findings.

Improve Sleep

It’s not uncommon for unwanted thoughts and worries to get in the way of sleep, but journaling may help ease your mind and clear the path for better rest.

In a study, poor sleepers were divided into three groups: A problems group wrote about worries and concerns, a hobbies group recorded interests, and a control group didn’t write at all. Both writing groups jotted down their thoughts for three nights and reported their sleep patterns. The problems group reported falling asleep faster than the hobbies or control groups, which may suggest that writing about the stress we experience during the day can help us process it. By using this technique, researchers claim, those thoughts and worries may subside, enabling us to relax and fall asleep. 

This study, however, had limitations. Not only was it small (only 42 subjects), but people self-reported their sleep patterns, which means that researchers can’t check the accuracy of those reports.

Boosts Immune Health

Putting pen to paper may strengthen your immune system.

In a study, researchers asked some medical students to write about traumatic experiences, while others wrote about daily events and plans for four days. After the trial period, all of the students received the hepatitis B vaccine and two booster shots. Blood tests revealed that students who wrote about negative experiences had greater levels of antibodies (proteins created by the immune system when it detects harmful substances) right before and two months after the last dose than those who wrote about neutral experiences.

Another study found that the mental effects of journaling may also help once you’re infected with a virus. Some students who tested positive for Epstein-Barr, the virus that causes mononucleosis (with symptoms including extreme fatigue and swollen glands), wrote about stressful events three times a week for 20 minutes, while others wrote about their possessions. The students who wrote about stress had higher levels of antibodies in their blood compared with students who wrote about possessions.

According to another report, holding in negative thoughts and experiences is harmful for our health. Writing, drawing, and other forms of therapeutic journaling may help release the negativity from our brains so we don’t dwell on it.

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