Science shows expressive writing can help heal mental distress.
It’s no secret writing is a creative way to improve mental health. It provides an outlet for the many racing thoughts that the writer experiences during the day. Somehow, getting them down on paper feels freeing. And there’s science to back it. In fact, author Adam M. Croom of the University of California, Berkley, wrote in an article published in the Journal of Poetry Therapy, “I have argued here that the practice of reading, writing, and reciting poetry with others on a regular basis is not a merely passive and ineffective activity, but rather an active and productively effective one that typically involves engaging a variety of different intrapersonal cognitive-emotional components (such as those involving memory, sensorimotor tasks, and positive effect)…”
Dr. Mark Rowe, MD and an expert in the lifestyle medicine, agrees, saying that keeping a journal and writing in it every day is one of the habits of successful people. Allowing the often-jumbled mess of thoughts become organized in a tangible way helps the mind to prioritize tasks and optimize its ability to be productive. Writing, according to Rowe and other practitioners, should be done on a regular basis (usually daily) to maximize its benefits.
Some of the ways in which writing can improve mental health include its potential to ease anxiety, calm the nervous system, and allow the writer to more closely connect with his or her sense of self. Poetry, specifically, allows for a freedom of expression that the brain is generally not used to when engaging in everyday conversation or simply writing a ‘to do’ list. It is particularly cathartic during difficult times and can reveal much about the self.
David Haosen Xiang and Alisha Moon Yi, both Harvard University Medical School students, published a 2020 article in the Journal of Medical Humanities based on their own personal experience leading poetry workshops. Xiang and Yi cited a number of studies showing various health benefits from reading, writing and listening to poetry and creative nonfiction. All of these creative outlets decrease stress and worry and alleviate symptoms of depression. They’ve also been shown to reduce chronic pain and improve mood and memory.
Another study, published in 2021 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that a group of 44 hospitalized children who were encouraged to read and write poetry “saw reductions in fear, sadness, anger, worry and fatigue.” The authors concluded, “Poetry was a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for self-reflection.”
“Whether it is coping with pain, dealing with stressful situations, or coming to terms with uncertainty, poetry can benefit a patient’s well-being, confidence, emotional stability, and quality of life,” Xiang and Yi wrote.
Poetry’s ability to soothe during stressful times has a lot to do with the fact that it slow one’s reaction to the events and changes the mind’s perspective of said events. Because it takes some concentration to produce a poem, the mind is focused on getting the language right instead of focusing entirely on the circumstances that brought it to life.
Linda Wasmer Andrews wrote in an article about the practice of poetry therapy in Psychology Today, “And the abstract nature of poetry may make it easier to take a close look at painful experiences, which might feel too threatening to approach in a direct, literal manner.”
The best part about turning to poetry in times of distress is that it doesn’t take a college degree or any kind of formal training to do so. It’s entirely based on freedom of expression and there is no right or wrong way to express one’s mental state on paper.