Writing Your Way Through Anxiety and Depression

Sarah Gane Burton

Writing for Therapy

At the very best of times, articulating feelings and concerns can be challenging. In the middle of a depressive episode, it can seem almost impossible. However, writing, even simple stream-of-consciousness writing, can bring clarity and perspective to a mind tangled up in worries or drowning in sadness. Through “expressive writing,” you can describe thoughts and feelings you might be otherwise uncomfortable sharing and process stressful or traumatic events. 

 Sophia* was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after her first pregnancy. She is a prolific poet and shares her poetry on social media (@bipolar.girl.poet). 

“I create a poem out of whatever mood or struggle I have,” she says. “I think it really helps me process it. The poem and I work it out between each other.” For Sophia, sharing her writing and knowing that others appreciate her words is deeply fulfilling. 

Not everyone will feel compelled to share their writing with others, but Sophia still recommends the practice of writing. “Get some sort of system, a binder with pages, a computer, a journal, and just start blasting your mind out on paper. Say anything you want. Lock it up so no one will see it,” she says. Sophia often uses her phone to dictate her words into a text or email. 

You may find that some of what you write can be developed or will inspire you in other ways, but even if it gathers dust in the back of a bookshelf, the practice of writing down your thoughts and feelings is worth the effort. Counselor Mindy Kissinger, MA, often uses writing as a therapy tool with her clients. “I have never had someone come back with writing that they did and thought it was a waste of time. It’s always given me some kind of insight,” she says. 

Kissinger encourages her clients to write letters to express grief, trauma, or depression. “Write down how you feel or, if you are grieving, write a letter to the person telling them what you want them to know. Write a letter to your past or future self.”

Writing for Depression

A study showed that people diagnosed with depression experienced an immediate decrease in depression scores after engaging in expressive writing for three consecutive days. Tacyana Behrmann, LLMSW, project specialist in mental and behavioral health, recommends working with a therapist through guided questions. Still, she notes that while writing might be an escape for one person struggling with depression, it might feel like a burden to another. “You need to work with a therapist to decide what works,” says Behrmann. 

For someone who is deeply depressed, Behrmann suggests “writing about how dark it is and then what it would be like to break the surface. What would it look like to live?” 

Kissinger notes that it isn’t necessary to shy away from negative writing. “Sometimes it’s cathartic and makes it easier to move forward because you expressed your negative thoughts and feelings. You don’t want to live in that space, but it’s OK to be there short term,” says Kissinger.  

However, if there is suicidal ideation, Behrmann cautions that writing is best done under the guidance of a therapist.

Writing for Anxiety

While depression often sparks introspection and reflection, anxiety is often accompanied by racing and intrusive thoughts. Free-flowing writing can help ground you and untangle some of your thoughts and feelings. In fact, a study indicates that writing out your intrusive thoughts and worries actually “off-loads” them, freeing up your working memory. Researchers Ronald Kellogg, Heather Mertz, and Mark Morgan write that “expressive writing may not reduce the frequency of intrusive thoughts, but it could still aid [working memory] capacity by reducing the cognitive, as well as emotional, costs of dealing with event memories that appear unbidden.” 

Writing for Gratitude

Expressing your deepest emotions through writing can help you articulate your struggles, fears, or traumas. But how do you move beyond your current situation? Incorporating positive language and gratitude into writing has been shown to positively impact mental health and can break cycles of negative thinking. In a recent study of women recovering from addiction, positive recovery journaling (PRJ) decreased depression and increased life satisfaction and confidence in recovery. Participants in another study who wrote letters of gratitude reported an improvement in mental health.

Sophia has found positive writing to be beneficial in dealing with her depression. She expresses reasons for joy in the middle of sadness, interrelating her positive and negative emotions. “I can use writing to pull myself out of the deep well into which I have fallen,” she says.

Wherever you are in your mental health journey, writing can be a helpful tool for expressing your thoughts and emotions and charting a path toward positive mental health. Try it, even if it’s just once. You have nothing to lose!

Sarah Gane Burton is a freelance writer and copy editor from Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she lives with her husband, Kevin, and two children.

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