We all get confused sometimes. Or anxious, or fixated on a problem that doesn’t seem to have a solution. Next time you’re feeling confused, anxious or stuck on something, try writing about it. Writing helps to slow our thought process down, giving us some focus and clarity. When we put words on a page, it also gives us the opportunity to let things go. It’s like a safety-deposit box for your thoughts. They’re still out there in the universe, and you can always come back to them later. The next time you revisit these thoughts, you’ll have a different perspective and you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come.
You might surprise yourself. You’ll start to write, thinking about one topic, but end up writing about something completely different. You may think that one thing is bothering you, but it’s something else altogether. Humans are really good at avoidance – your brain can trick you into not dealing with difficult issues. This avoidance costs extra energy and may make us feel worse. On paper (or screen), we can process our thoughts in an uncensored way, and sometimes we can say things on paper that are hard to say out loud. We can tap into the things we’ve been avoiding and stop spending so much energy turning our thoughts the other way.
It can be a little easier to admit things to ourselves in the written word because writing accesses a different part of the brain than thinking. Thinking uses lots of different parts of the brain. That’s why it sometimes seems like we can be thinking about several different things at once, and it can be hard to stay on track. When we write, we use a special part of the brain known as Broca’s area. This part of the brain handles language and speech. To formulate words about our thoughts and feelings, we must focus our thoughts. Additionally, if we’re writing in a calm, relaxed state, then we’ll be able to process our thoughts without getting triggered or worked up. When we process our thoughts without emotional charge, we have more clarity.
Expressive writing can also improve mood and decrease stress response to past traumatic events. On a recent episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain”, a woman with PTSD described her story. She survived a horrific motorcycle accident but had recurring dreams about her accident. Because of her vivid dreams, she had insufferable insomnia for years. It wasn’t until she resorted to writing that she finally got some peace. She re-imagined her own story, and it ended with her landing gently on the sidewalk. Through writing, she could re-process her fears and trauma and finally get some sleep.
Journaling can help us learn from our experiences and mistakes. You can observe your thought patterns over time – something that’s hard to do unless you write it down. When we are honest with ourselves, we give ourselves the opportunity for real growth. Here are a couple of ideas to inspire you to include more reflective writing into your life:
- Keep a notebook on your bedside table. Take 5 minutes before you go to bed to reflect on your day. What went well? What was difficult? What is one thing you can do tomorrow to help make things go smoothly?
- Keep a journaling app on your phone or your computer. If you have an extra couple minutes during the day, take a moment to jot down what’s on your mind.
- Try incorporating drawing or doodling into your writing. Many people find the combination to be very relaxing and satisfying.
 Blasio PD, Camisasca E, Caravita SC, Ionio C, Milani L, Valtolina GG. The effects of expressive writing on postpartum depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms. Psychol Rep. 2015;117(3):856-82.
 Smyth JM, Hockemeyer JR, Tulloch H. Expressive writing and post-traumatic stress disorder: effects on trauma symptoms, mood states, and cortisol reactivity. Br J Health Psychol. 2008;13(Pt 1):85-93.
 Eyes Wide Open: Part 2. Hidden Brain. November 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/11/13/563831137/the-swiss-army-knife-of-health-a-good-nights-sleep. Accessed November 15, 2017.