The next time you feel stressed out, you may want to dig up your old journal. I've personally experienced the therapeutic effects of writing as others may have, but studies also show that expressing your emotions on paper can help reduce stress and anxiety and even ease trauma. Dr. James W. Pennebaker, liberal arts professor and executive director at The University of Texas at Austin, has conducted research on the benefits of expressive writing, "writing about thoughts and feelings that arise from a traumatic or stressful life experience," according to Harvard Health Publications.
In one of his studies, 46 healthy college students were asked to write about either traumatic life events they've experienced or random topics for 15 minutes, four days straight. Students who wrote about their personally traumatic experiences made fewer visits to the campus health center and reduced their use of pain relievers over the six months that followed.
More recent studies have looked at the effects of writing on reducing stress and anxiety. One of them showed that gay men felt less "stigma-related stress" with the help of this technique, while another proved its benefits on caregivers with chronic stress. Researchers at the University of Chicago also found that anxious students who briefly wrote about their feelings before taking an important exam actually earned better grades than those who didn't participate.
The writing format generally asks the person to write nonstop for a certain amount of time each day about a personally stressful or traumatic event. The reason writing has the ability to reduce negative feelings goes beyond simply being able to come to terms with the experience. The act of writing involves thinking about the experience and expressing your emotions about it, therefore giving meaning to it. In addition, expressive writing may help the writer better manage their emotions or, as an intellectual process, forces them to turn the event into a constructive story instead of dwelling on those thoughts. Those who write down their stress or trauma are also more likely to open up to others about it, which can serve as an additional form of healing.
One thing to note, however, is that expressive writing may not be as effective for those severely struggling with their mental health or those with post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Pennebaker also mentions in the article that using writing as a form of therapy shouldn't be tried immediately after the event. Waiting one to two months gives the participant a little recovery time before having to relive their experience again. Though this technique won't work for everyone, it's worth a shot since it's accessible and easy to maintain.