How Can Writing Help Your Mental Health?

A girl snaps on the bedside light and squints against its raw artificial glow. It is two o’clock in the morning. Already she’s dreading the next day at school: the laughter shuddering on a plume of cigarette smoke outside the gates; the laughter as she lurches clumsily onto the schoolyard and feels the deliberate thud of someone’s shoe across her ankle.

She dashes across the room, opens a drawer, claws out a notebook and clicks a pen. A small pause as she pushes the lid against her front teeth, deep in thought. She begins to write. The pen pushes along fluidly, describing every miniscule detail of the day: the radius of faces expanding in hallways; cheap body sprays in changing rooms pressed to a sickly splutter; the hacking laughter as she fumbles, pink-faced in her gym kit.

At three o’clock, she puts down the pen and gazes at the page. Something drops from her shoulders, an almost-sigh.

The girl is fourteen years old and writes secretly. 

The sleepless girl is me.

Why is Some Pain More Difficult to Write About?

As someone who has always turned to books and diary pages for comfort, connecting creatively with poetry has always been the thing that allows me to channel hard-to-express feelings into something real. Sometimes verbalising difficult feelings feels too concrete – too ‘real’ –.but bit by bit, along with the support of people I love, a passion for running, and the necessary medication (because I don’t want to be ashamed of this anymore when it really has helped me so much), literature has been one of my greatest healers.

With every piece of art produced, there’s human expression in it. For every emotion, there’s a poem or a song that can offer us comfort or perhaps capture those hard-to-describe feelings of being in love or trap the essence of a fleeting childhood memory. There’s something in art that we can connect with on an emotional level. Just as traditional talking therapy does, art helps us work through challenging and overwhelming feelings: whether that’s reading it or writing it.

After the loss of my dear grandad last year, I found that writing brought me closer to him; it was my way of saying to him all the things that felt too final and painful to say in the final days. In my first book, ‘And Suddenly You Find Yourself’, it was my way of talking to family members I missed even though I knew they wouldn’t read the poems. When people won’t listen, paper will.

However, the ability to channel pain into writing doesn’t always happen immediately. Sometimes, especially where the predominant feelings are shame or confusion, writing can feel like scraping against an exposed nerve. Reading about the thing you’re struggling with can feel too raw. Instead, we might turn to fantasy worlds or immerse ourselves in the lives of make-believe characters. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, some things need time to settle and you can’t skip the act of processing your feelings. You may still need traditional therapy. It’s important here that you don’t distress yourself through writing; it’s part of healing but not always the full picture.

For example, type one diabetes is notoriously hard to condense into poetry. I’m slowly learning to write more about it, but a lot of the time it’s too much a part of myself, every minute of every day. Maybe one day it’ll be easier to write about in prose; with poetry, often the images I try to summon are disrupted like a radio that keeps slipping into white noise.

Different feelings might eventually lend themselves to different forms.

Writing as Catharsis

During an appointment, I was asked to take part in an ‘empty chair’ exercise, a form of Gestalt therapy which involves projecting the cause of your feelings onto an inanimate object. You must then tell that object exactly how you feel as a way of expressing your emotions in a safe environment.

All that happened was that I turned red, refused, and could barely speak for the rest of the session. However, upon reaching my car I began to scribble poetry onto the back of a receipt and by lunchtime I had my head stuck in a poetry book again, seeking comfort. I wanted to know that someone had felt the way I was feeling that day. The result was that I ended up working late into the night editing the poem, feeling lighter and more accomplished once it was complete. It was imagistic, it was slightly abstracted, but the words were a snapshot into what was happening within my own brain: confusion, disorder, frustration. It was something I could never have expressed verbally in any therapist’s office.

That poem was later commended in the 2019 International Hippocrates Prize. It was pain transformed into art.

Writing to Feel Purpose

Sometimes, all we need is to be listened to. It’s such an innate fear to feel as though we don’t exist; no matter how quiet we are, we want to feel we’re playing a part in this huge, loud world.

The best example of this that I’ve experienced is from when I used to run after-school creative writing workshops for children aged between six and eleven. Some of them were talented and ambitious little writers, always with their nose in a book and keen to one day see their names on bookshelves themselves. They reminded me of being eleven years old again and writing in my diary about how one day, I wished I could be signing my own books in Waterstones. There were children there too who weren’t deemed ‘academic’ and lacked confidence in themselves, but who wanted to be part of a club and try something new.

What was most remarkable and rewarding about those workshops was not the writing itself that the children produced, but the growing confidence that I saw week after week as the other children sat and listened to their words. It was a genuine joy to see them beam with pride over a comic strip they’d written or a short poem they’d scribbled, all from their own imagination. That their words and ideas were being encouraged, listened to and celebrated by their peers gave them a sense of purpose and self-belief.

It was the total opposite of all those times I’d refused to speak in class or contribute ideas because I was terrified I’d become more of a target, or that people would simply snort ‘swot’ and dismiss me. It’s exactly why I love seeing more in the way of writing workshops and creative activities increasing for young people in recent years.

How Does Writing Help Your Mental Health?

I recently put the question out on Twitter and received a number of responses as to how writing helps mental health. Here are just a few examples:

  • “It helps me address the traumas of violence that I have witnessed around the world, and helps lay to rest the ghosts I have encountered along the way. My writing offers a catharsis both to myself and to those whose testimonies of suffering have been shared with me.” — Iain Overton
  • “It helps me see and sift, shape, release. Also, I can look back on journals/poems etc and see patterns, ways out, insights, a reminder I’m on a journey with the writing, on a journey with being. The act of the pen moving is a sort of EMDR. It’s the listening ear.” — Clare Potter
  • “I think it helps because it gives me purpose – this goes for any kind of work I’m making, not just writing. Feeling adrift is often where angst creeps in, so writing helps to focus the mind and gives meaning to me being on this planet.” — Matthew Haigh
  • “If I don’t write I get antsy, unhappy and stressed. I have also used my mental health experiences in novels – the protagonist in Angel’s Fury deals with sleep issues and in The Girl on the Platform, Bridget has postnatal depression. Very cathartic for me!” — Bryony Pearce
  • “Creatively – it helps me explore and understand what I think about a given subject – I find that I rarely have a preconceived conclusion of something when I start writing, I find it along the way and always have a better understanding of my opinion at the end of it. Non creatively, it allows me to empty my head onto a page and safely store thoughts for later – which lets my brain escape business and function to let me daydream or think outside the box which leads to creative and fun solutions to projects.” — Gary Lulham
  • “As you know, it has helped me process my thoughts, feelings and traumas. Each edit helps me understand my emotions more. Just getting those words onto paper is half the battle achieved. PTSD and depression and anxiety on a page is much easier to cope with. And if I can make something I’m proud of out of something so utterly awful, that changes it to a positive, rather than negative memory.” — Jamie Woods

To read more excellent responses (and there are many), check out the Twitter thread.

Can Writing Actually Hurt Your Mental Health?

However, one response made me pause:

  • “I would say it has a big detrimental effect on me. I have a horrible compulsion to do it that I can’t explain. I often wish I had never started writing, even though I know I can never stop. Sometimes it’s amazing but the stress which comes with it outweighs this massively.” — Rhys Thomas

I think it’s important to consider the counter-points. Yes, writing can be hugely beneficial to our mental health. But what about when it works against us? I’ve written about the huge pressure to produce writing during the start of the pandemic, when everyone felt they had to chain themselves to the desk and write that novel. I’ve also written about how cruel we can be to ourselves, and how cruel the writing world can feel with all its rejections and disappointments – at times, even the thickest skins can turn petal-thin.  

Sometimes you’ll want to write something. Your gut is telling you: write. Your heart is telling you: write. The world seems to be screaming: write!

Yet your head is saying: what’s the point?

I’ve had phases where I’ve been unable to even read poetry because it only confirms my worst fears: I will never write as well as these people do. Every beautiful line I should be marvelling at is just another trigger for my brain to say: ‘And look! This is why you shouldn’t bother. You don’t have this sort of capability. Give up.’

At those times when writing harms you, it’s okay to take a break. At times, the writer’s relationship with their own writing is the most dramatic and demanding of love affairs.

Finally…

Why do you write?

Is it for a sense of purpose? A sense of healing? Does it help you make sense of your feelings and the world around you? Is it a way to be heard?

We all have our own reasons for writing (and, at times, for not writing).

Life is messy, imperfect, beautiful and painful. Writing is messy, imperfect, beautiful and painful.

The world might not always make sense but as long as we can put pen to paper – just like that frightened teenage girl scribbling in her diary – we can try to make sense of it in our own way.

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