Write It Out

A magnificent way to manage unwanted emotions and problems is to write them all down. Whether you just want to vent your feelings, get clear on your needs, find some insight into a past experience, or confront issues head on, the evidence proves that writing down your feelings can help you overcome emotional distress and amplify positive feelings.

After volunteers wrote their feelings down on paper, brain scans showed reduced activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for controlling emotional intensity. Writing about an emotional experience actually turned down brain cell activity linked to strong emotional feelings.1  

Another study found that students who spent just 10 minutes writing about their anxious thoughts and feelings before a test scored higher than those students who wrote about something else or who wrote nothing at all. The research showed that just distracting yourself from your worries does not calm your mind. Those students who wrote about a past experience or about what they thought was going to be on the test did worse than the students who specifically wrote about their feelings in the moment.2


As reported in the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment3, “Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health.” The article demonstrated that the longer-term benefits of expressive writing includes:

Emotional Outcomes

• Elevated mood

• Improved psychological well being

• Reduced depressive symptoms

• Reduced post-traumatic interruptions and avoidance symptoms

• Decrease in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms

Health Outcomes

• Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor

• Improved immune system functioning

• Reduced blood pressure

• Improved lung function

• Improved liver function

• Fewer days in the hospital

• Improved mood/affect

• Feeling of greater psychological well-being

• Reduced depressive symptoms before examinations

• Fewer post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms

Social and Behavioral Outcomes

• Reduced absenteeism from work

• Quicker re-employment after job loss

• Improved working memory

• Improved sporting performance

• Higher student grade point average

• Altered social and linguistic behavior

Medical Conditions That Might Benefit From Expressive Writing Programs

• Lung functioning in asthma

• Disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis

• Pain and physical health in cancer

• Immune response in HIV infection

• Hospitalizations for cystic fibrosis

• Pain intensity in women with chronic pelvic pain

• Sleep-onset latency in poor sleepers

• Post-operative course


That last section about medical conditions is incredible news. It shows that writing your feelings down on paper can actually have a beneficial effect on your immune system and help relieve chronic physical symptoms. Specifically, researchers from North Dakota State University and the State University of New York asked 48 asthma and 35 arthritis patients to write about the most stressful event in their life for 20 minutes on three consecutive days. A control group of asthma and arthritis sufferers were only asked to write about their plans for the day.

The study found that asthma patients’ lung functioning improved by an average of 19% over the course of four months while the control group showed no change what so ever. The arthritis patients showed an average 28% decline in the severity of their symptoms. There was no change in the arthritis symptoms of the control group.4 

But due note, writing by hand has a bigger effect on emotional and health well-being than typing your feelings out on a keyboard. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington explains, “Handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key. Pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.”

Beth Jacobs, Ph.D. adds, “Real modification of the emotional system takes more integration, and this is what writing can provide. Writing unifies brain processes by focusing motor, memory, emotional, and painful cognitive circuits in one act.  Writing can actually develop complex neuronal connections that override emotional reactivity and writing can amplify positive emotional states.”5

Tips On Writing It Down

There are no official commandments as to how or what you write. There doesn’t need to be any coherent order to it, one day doesn’t have to look like the next, and this is the one place where you can be free of spelling, punctuation, and grammar rules. Just be open and honest with yourself so that you may be completely expressive about how you are feeling.

            To start out spend just 10 minutes a day writing down your thoughts about specific issues that are bothering you or how you are feeling. You can use a spiral notebook, composition book, fancy diary, or piece of scrap paper. This is only for you; you don’t have to show it to anyone, so be messy if you want. You can keep your writings forever or discard them. It could be helpful to reread them so you can see the progress you’re making, or to notice the wave like pattern of your emotions. I’ve been writing on and off for years, but truth be told, I’ve never reread of any of my journals.


Daily Summary – At the end of the day write down how you were feeling from the time you got up in the morning till the time of your writing. Parts of your day will stand out. Reflect on both the good and bad parts of the day. Elaborate on any great or awful emotions that came up. This is a wonderful way to discover any emotional triggers.

Free Flow – Write out whatever comes up, stream of consciousness style, whether it “makes sense” or not. Just keep writing. If you get stuck write, “I’m stuck, this isn’t working,” or something, anything, until the thoughts roll back in.

The Angry Letter – If you’re angry or upset with someone write out everything you’d like to say to him or her about what happened. You can curse, call them nasty names, and say anything you want because you’ll destroy the letter when you’re done.

Art Journal – Express yourself through collage, painting, drawing, poetry, or song lyrics.


The Guess What Letter – This is the reverse of the angry letter, here you write a real friend about all the great stuff that is happening in your life. If you can’t come up with anything in the present moment, start talking about all the great things that are happening in the future, a great way to write about your dreams and life vision. Start the letter with, “Dear Mary/Sam, Guess what, I just found out I got my dream job and it pays more than I thought!” Even though this is a happy, positive letter you still don’t send it. It’s only for you.

Gratitude – Research has shown that grateful people are more likely to have higher levels of happiness and lower rates of stress and depression.6 One study assigned volunteers “one of six therapeutic intervention designed to improve the participant’s overall quality of life.”7 The biggest short-term effects came from the “gratitude visit,” where participants wrote and delivered a letter of gratitude to a friend, family member, or co-worker. The volunteer’s happiness scores were raised by 10 percent and they showed a significant fall in depression rates, all of which lasted up to one month after the gratitude visit.

The longest lasting effects were from writing in “gratitude journals.” By writing only three things they were grateful for every day the volunteer’s happiness score not only increased but continued to increase each time they were tested after the study was over. Even six months later they were still showing increases in their happiness scores!

Gratitude Journal – Write down 3 or more things you are grateful for everyday. If you are having a hard time coming up with stuff try writing down things like: my morning hot shower, my shoes, peaches, email, my toothbrush. Also try these gratitude variations: 1) Write out the “10 Things I Love About My Life.” 2) Start a sentence with “I Love It When…” my spouse surprises me with a dinner date, I go on a hike in nature, I go to out to the movies with my friends, I spend time in my garden, etc. 3) “I’m So Grateful Now That….” This is future thinking as you visualize how you’d like your life to be. I’m so grateful now that…I’m my ideal weight, I feel happy, I wake up refreshed, I am financially free, etc.

Yes Game – This is a fun writing exercise I learned from EFT master and therapist Carol Look. Write down 10 questions to which the answer is undeniably an enthusiastic “yes.” This gets the positive neurons connecting on a wide scale. Is your name Craig Meriwether? – Yes. Do you live in the United States? – Yes. Is your favorite color blue?- Yes. Do you want to feel happy? – Yes. Do you love cats? – Yes.

What I Love About You – Write down the things you love about another person, a child of yours, your spouse, family member, close friend, not so close friend. List everything you love from their cooking, to their hair, and then move onto their inner beauty. Put some feeling and emotion into this one and you will get quite the endorphin rush!

Write With Your Non-Dominant Hand

School emphasizes and rewards left brain thinking (logical deduction, numbers, language, critical reasoning, analytical contemplation) and by the time we graduate most of us favor the left brain over right brain thinking (artistic creativity, imagination, intuition, expressing emotions, color, and images). But as Dr. Lucia Capacchione writes, “Neglecting the nonverbal language of the right brain leaves us emotionally illiterate.”8

Studies have shown that the non-dominate hand, whether it’s your left or right, is linked to the non-dominate hemisphere of your brain, which in most of us is the right side. When you write with your dominant hand you engage only the left hemisphere of your brain. However when you write with your non-dominate hand you engage BOTH hemispheres of your brain and you open up new neuronal pathways between the two sides of the brain.9

So what will happen when your logical, analytical, reasoning brain works in tandem with your creative, emotional, intuitive brain? Sometimes you’ll see miracles where your thoughts and emotions are fully expressed and understood.

Here are three exercises to use with your non-dominate hand:

1.) Choose one of the previously mentioned writing exercises but use your non-dominate hand. It will be slow going and messy but you might be wonderfully amazed at the insights.

2.) Hold a “conversation” between your two hands. Have your dominant hand write down some question like, “How am I doing right now?” Then write down the answer with your non-dominate hand. Other questions you might ask are: How do I feel; What do I need right now; How can I make this situation better; How did my day go; etc.

3.) Use a pen, pencil, marker, crayon, or what-have-you to draw, doodle, scribble, or just make marks using your non-dominant hand. Then with your dominant hand write down words that express how you feel in the moment.


1. Sample, I. (2009, February 15).  Keeping a diary makes you happier [WWW page]. Guardian News. URL http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/feb/15/psychology-usa

2. Gerardo Ramirez, Sian L. Beilock. (2011). Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom. Science, 331 (6014): 211-213

3. Baikie, K., Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11: 338-346

4.Health Writing tonic for chronic complaints [WWW page]. (1999, April 14). BBC News. URL http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/318953.stm

5. Sample, I. (2009). Keeping a diary makes you happier. Guardian News.; Bounds, G. (2010). How Handwriting Trains the Brain. Wall Street Journal.

Jacobs, B. (2008). The Brain, Emotions, and Writing: Why They All Work Together [WWW page]. Life Journal. URL http://www.lifejournal.com/index.php?src=gendocs&ref=Emotions%20and%20Writing

6. McCullough, M. E., Tsang, J., & Emmons, R.A. (2004). Gratitude in Intermediate affective terrain: Links of grateful moods with individual differences and daily emotional experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 295-309.

Wood, A., et al. (2007). Gratitude–Parent of All Virtues. The Psychologist, 20.1, 18-21. Print.

7. Seligman, M., et al. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

8. Capacchione, L. (2001). The Power of Your Other Hand: A Course in Channeling the Inner Wisdom of the Right Brain. New Page Books; Revised edition.

9. Hoshivama M., Kakigi R. (1999). Changes of somatosensory evoked potentials during writing with the dominant and non-dominant hands. Brain Research, 833, 10 – 19

Other References:

Klein, K. & Boals, A. (2001) Expressive writing can increase working memory capacity. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 130, 520–533.

Lepore, S. J. (1997) Expressive writing moderates the relation between intrusive thoughts and depressive symptoms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1030–1037.

Park, C. L. & Blumberg, C. J. (2002) Disclosing trauma through writing: testing the meaning-making hypothesis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 26, 597–616.

Pennebaker, J., et al. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 56(2), 239-245.

Pennebaker, J. (1993). Putting stress into words: Health, linguistic, and therapeutic implications. Behaviour Research and Therapy, Volume 31, Issue 6, Pages 539-548.

Pennebaker, J. (1997). Writing About Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process. Psychological Science, vol. 8, no. 3, 162-166.

Schoutrop, M., et al. (1997). Overcoming traumatic events by means of writing assignments. In The (Non)Expression of Emotions in Health and Disease (eds A. Vingerhoets, F. van Bussel & J. Boelhower). Tilburg University Press, pp. 279–289.

Schoutrop, M., et al. (2002). Structured writing and processing major stressful events. A controlled trial. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 71, 151–157

Sloan, D. M. & Marx, B. P. (2004) A closer examination of the structured written disclosure procedure. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 165–175.