Why reflective writing is a powerful wellbeing tool

One writer explains how journaling changed her life

Every evening after I finish work, while my mind is still whirring with tasks and stresses, I sit down with my notebook and I write. I don’t think about what to write in advance; I just let the words tumble from the tip of my pen. I write about the errands I’ll need to run tomorrow. I write about a problem at work I’m still figuring out, plus some possible solutions, followed by a motivational affirmation to myself: “You will get there!” I write a gift idea for my partner’s birthday. I write about a childhood memory that popped into my mind that afternoon. I write and write and write, until my brain feels clear and my heart feels calm.

Writing, in my opinion, is the most underrated and underused wellbeing technique. It’s an opportunity to sit with your thoughts and get to know yourself better, which is something that can be easily lost in the bustle of work, home life and social commitments (even if they are only on Zoom). There’s something soothing about that connection between pen and paper; it can feel almost meditative. I started daily writing last year, as a way of comforting and reassuring myself during all the upheaval and uncertainty. Before long, my notebook became a steadying anchor whenever I felt unmoored.

And it turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks there’s power to be found in the pen. According to Megan Hayes, researcher and author of upcoming book The Joy of Writing Things Down (Greenfinch), there are many benefits to daily writing. “It increases self-understanding and empathy, allows greater mental focus, gives us the opportunity to enter a creative state of ‘flow’, and even improves physical health,” she says.

It’s true: one study found that those who wrote for 20 minutes a day for four days had a marked mood improvement. They also visited the doctor 43% less often than those who weren’t writing, for ailments such as respiratory infections and the flu, something that feels especially important right now.

“The best part is it’s widely accessible, infinitely adaptable and easily transportable,” continues Megan. “For me, writing is truly one of the best self-care practices we can establish.”

I can guess what you’re thinking: “That all sounds great, but I’m not a writer.” It’s an understandable response. In truth, as someone who writes for a living, I used to think that if I’m not penning something ‘good’ – something to be read and enjoyed by others – then what’s the point? According to Allison Fallon, author of The Power Of Writing It Down (Zondervan), this misguided idea explains why so many of us avoid it altogether.

“We have a cultural idea that writing is an elite activity reserved for the uniquely gifted, skilled or trained, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she explains. Most of us write in some form or another every day, whether it’s noting down a reminder, sending a text, or compiling a pitch at work. That all counts as writing, so why not take it a step further?

“Writing is not just for certain people; it’s for everyone,” adds Allison. “It’s communication, self-discovery, creativity, spirituality and self-expression.”

In short, everyone has the right to write. Your sentences don’t have to be elegantly constructed or grammatically correct, and I promise you never have to share your writing with anybody else. In fact, you don’t even need to read over what you’ve written. But the act of tuning in to your thoughts and putting them down on paper, can be transformative.

Just ask psychotherapists, who regularly recommend writing practices to their clients. “Expressive writing” – that is, writing about your innermost thoughts and emotions – is often used as a tool for helping people process trauma, from soldiers returning from war, to those who have suffered from heartbreak, bereavement or serious illness.

“Writing down our struggles helps us externalise what has been hidden and swirling internally,” says Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and co-founder of Examined Life, who commits to daily journalling herself. “The process helps shift our perspective, helping us confront ourselves in new ways. When you put something into writing, it becomes real; it can document and validate something by making it visible. I once wrote down: ‘I will get through this’, and it encouraged a powerful shift in my thinking.”

BY ARIELLE TCHIPROUT first published at April 26, 2021