Can Writing Your Story Help Your Mental Health?
A common piece of self-help advice for mental health conditions is to write things down in a diary, cataloguing the times you feel overwhelmed by emotion, tempted to use drugs or anything relevant to your condition. This all raises the question: does writing things down really offer any benefits to your mental health? Research has generally been supportive of the effects of writing on everything from memory to mood and even general happiness, and learning about what’s been seen in research and why the simple act of putting things into words may be beneficial can encourage you to pick up a pen (or open a word processing program) and structure your thoughts.
Research on Writing and Editing Stories and Mental Health
One of the earliest studies into the effect of writing a personal story on mental health was conducted on university students, in particular ones who were struggling academically and were suffering from low self esteem as a result. 40 students wrote down their personal stories, and then they were split into two groups. One of the groups was given information about how many students have difficulty in their first year of university, and was then instructed to edit their narratives about their university experience with this in mind, while the other group received no such intervention (the “control” group). In the short-term, the students who edited their personal stories scored better on a sample test than the control group, but in the long-term their actual grades improved and they were four times less likely to drop out in the following year than the control group.
Another study looked at the impact of story-writing on couples experiencing conflict in their relationship. After writing about their most recent conflict, half of the 120 couples were assigned to re-appraise the conflict through the eyes of a neutral, third-party observer. They were also encouraged to take this “third-party” perspective in future disagreements. The results showed that those who re-appraised their writing experienced less conflict-related distress over time, and they didn’t experience the declines in marital “quality” that were reported by the control group.
These studies show that re-appraising things you’ve written helps you frame issues differently and shift your perspective, but there are also indications that writing – even without guided re-appraisal – can also be beneficial. For example, a psychology professor at the University of Texas found that students instructed to write about important personal issues for 15 minutes each day were less likely to visit the student health centre and had fewer illnesses than those who didn’t.
Lead author of the first study sums up the benefits of personal story writing succinctly, “Writing forces people to reconstruct whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it.”
Conclusion – Something Troubling You? Write it Down
The findings of studies like this suggest that putting something that’s bothering you into words can have notable benefits to your mental and even physical health. The key is to look back over what you’ve written: although structuring the events into words helps you make sense of what’s happened, reading it back with a critical eye helps you think about things more objectively and see if there’s anything you could do differently in future. So the next time you’re feeling low, try to put it into words and have a think about what you’ve written.