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How Expressive Handwriting Can Help With Mental Health in College

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Writing by hand is quite beneficial for one’s well-being and the brain’s cognitive function. Many studies have linked it to the boost of the immune system and better physical health. The activity is also beneficial for reducing stress, anxiety, depression symptoms and overall mental health improvement.

American social psychologist James W. Pennebaker was the first to study expressive writing and its impact on memory and state of mind. Since publishing his initial research, many other works have proved the therapeutic influence of handwriting. Such a simple act as journaling several times a week can improve one’s life and academic performance, which is especially relevant for college students.

The level of stress and anxiety among college students has been growing in recent years. It is not only connected with personal traumatic events but more with everyday struggle and stress. The majority of college students claim that they have experienced anxiety or depression symptoms at one or another point in the studying process. Depression rates are growing all over the world, so it is quite a necessity to do something about it.

How can expressive writing help with that? Let’s have a closer look at its benefits.

1. It improves working memory and helps concentration.

The experiments conducted by Kitty Klein and Adriel Boals show that expressive writing about negative events and experiences improves working memory among students.

The learners of the first group were asked to write about negative events, and the control group was to note the positive ones. The results proved that the first group experienced less intrusive thoughts and had better results in working memory testing.

Writing honestly about the negative experience helps in creating a comprehensive narrative and reflecting on it. Students tend not to avoid stressful thoughts that might lead to less concentration.

How can it help students in their education? First of all, increased memory leads to better academic performance. It is easier to learn new things and memorize the necessary information.

Secondly, it reduces stress and anxiety when one puts the thoughts on paper. For example, if students feel anxious about a particular subject, like Math, they might be less effective due to intrusive thoughts. However, when they begin journaling, it helps to reduce such adverse effects. And it is helpful not only with regard to Math.

This activity also boosts one’s writing and analytical skills. The habit of creating narrative helps to perform better with such a task as weighing the pros and cons of choosing the right one among given argumentative essay topics; also, it helps to cope with the writing tasks, such as preparing analytical essays, research papers, thesis statements for different projects, etc.

2. Writing can help with managing depression.

Writing will not cure depression on its own, and it is always better to combine it with the help of professionals. However, it has been significantly beneficial for helping to cope with symptoms. How does it help? Here are a few ways:

It brings awareness. When we write thoughts and feelings down, we can follow the narrative and analyze it. It helps to trace negative thought patterns and see false statements that might not be evident otherwise. Some feelings will come to the surface, and it will be easier to work with them.

Writing for even 20 minutes a day reduces symptoms’ severity among people. It helps students not to feel so frustrated. In a way, journaling gives a person control of their feelings when they are put on the paper.

It can change one’s thinking of different issues. When a statement is noted, it is easier to conquer it because it doesn’t sound absolute. For instance, if a person writes down, “I am a failure at everything,” it is easier to debate that as it is obviously not true.

It reduces emotional tension when one writes everything down. It is helpful because you are not overwhelmed by these thoughts anymore.

3. It helps to cope with anxiety.

The education and studying process can be challenging for students. There is a great load of work and a lot of tension regarding academic performance. That’s why anxiety becomes such a significant problem, whether it is worrying about a new course, writing an essay or finals. And handwriting can help with it too. Here are a few ways how:

It helps to root the negative thoughts behind the anxiety. Rooting the problem makes it possible to find a solution. Anxiety might come in the form of simple feeling without any reasoning regarding it. That’s when putting everything on paper comes in handy.

It helps to clear one’s mind and calm down. Sometimes is it just about having too many thoughts and things to remember. Students need to cope with a considerable amount of information and deal with many other issues like living on their own, budgeting, etc. Journaling can help in decreasing the number of pending thoughts that lead to anxiety. The process is simple – once ideas are on the paper, the brain doesn’t have to keep reminding itself about things all the time.

It might help to explore your personal struggle with anxiety. One can learn about triggers and events that cause it. It is also beneficial to see what mechanisms help to cope with worrying. For example, one might write about the times when they experienced anxiety, how they dealt with it, and what was the most effective way to cope.

Finally, it helps to track progress. You can see how overwhelming things were at first and how much better the situation is now.

4. Everyday stress reduction.

It is crucial to learn to manage one’s anxiety as it might lead to some mental issues. Students experience stress on an everyday basis, starting from the first day in college.

Going to college on its own is quite stressful as it means leaving home, changing habits, leaving friends and starting an entirely new chapter in one’s life. That’s why it is especially hard on the freshmen year, and many students need help with stress management.

It is essential to build healthy habits and develop coping mechanisms. Journaling can become one of them. First of all, it is very easy and doesn’t take too much time. Secondly, it has shown its effectiveness, which is proved by many studies. In a way, it can become something similar to meditation when one can take time for oneself.

Journaling helps to manage life better in general. It boosts prioritizing tasks, helps one become more grateful and learn about what is more important for each person. Besides, it endorses the immune system and betters physical health.

5. Recovering after traumatic events.

Writing therapy is used by many professionals as a tool in working with traumatic events, negative memories, PTSD and overcoming addictions.

Expressive writing and journaling are very effective in dealing with negative memories. First of all, it can help one concentrate on what is good in life, note some positive events and stick to them.

Secondly, it helps to comprehend what has happened with regard to trauma and work it out. It is especially beneficial when dealing with the loss of loved ones or other dramatic situations. Journaling becomes a tool to deal with grief and feeling of loss that might be extremely hard.

The activity is also advantageous for those who are recovering from an addiction. It helps to keep a track record and praise yourself for every success, however small it may seem. Writing down the struggles may also make it easier to overcome them. It is a healthy way to work with complicated emotions and thoughts.

When working with trauma, it is crucial to concentrate on identification and self-awareness. Handwriting allows maintaining the identity and sense of self.

6. Handwriting teaches one to be more grateful.

One of the most amazing things is that expressive writing can be conducted in many ways. Various exercises and techniques are designed for dealing with a particular issue. One of them is concentrating on gratitude writing. It is a form of journaling where one is focused on being grateful and praising good things in a person’s life.

Being grateful is one of the most crucial factors in human well-being. It shows what good things happen every day. It might seem simple, but it works. Concentrating on positive thoughts leads to better mental and physical health, strong interpersonal relationships and increased academic performance.

Gratitude writing helps to feel and sleep better. That’s why it is beneficial to work on such a diary before going to sleep. It gives the feeling of accomplishment, even if one writes half a page. It might seem insignificant in universal terms, but praising small stuff makes people happier in the long term and helps to cope better with any issue.

Naturally, it leads to more positive thought patterns. People who write about things they are grateful for exercise in positive thinking. They tend to focus on what’s good in life, savoring little things and staying happier.

Also, journaling allows stating goals and helps in achieving them. Students deal with a lot of tasks that take a considerable amount of time and effort, and it is essential to divide them into little accomplishments. Each one deserves to be praised.

As it boosts mood and increases well-being, writing usually leads to being more open to other people and opportunities. Sticking to positive thinking patterns helps to cope with everyday challenges and be friendlier in general.

7. It improves creativity and cognitive functioning.

Handwriting helps not only to care for oneself mentally but also increases brain functioning. It is therapeutic and serves as a writing exercise at the same time.

The activity helps to master the skills of building a narrative, increases vocabulary and trains to put thoughts down in a more comprehensive way.

After all, writing is a skill, and the more you do it, the better you get at it. This will lead to better performance in composing papers for college, for example.

It is also beneficial for memory, which is important for students. It creates new links in the brain and helps to boost cognitive abilities.

How to Incorporate Expressive Writing in Everyday Life

Now, when the benefits of handwritten journaling are clear for both mental and physical health, it is important to get to know how to do it right. There are many exercises and practices in this regard. Yet, overall, they follow the same guidelines:

1. Write about your feelings and thoughts. It is much more important than describing the setting or the weather or any other factual information. Stick to how the event made you feel and what do you think about it.

2. Find a safe and calm place for this. It is an activity for one, and it is important to feel comfortable doing it. You keep a journal for yourself; do not show it to anyone, whether it is your partner or friend. After all, a substantial therapeutic part of it is having “me time” and exercising introspective. Whether you do it in the morning or at night, it is crucial to stay on your own without any distractions.

3. Disregard grammar and spelling because it is not important to the task. It is all about thinking patterns, coping with anxiety and feeling, so there is no need to care for grammar as one would do working on a college essay. It is essential to keep the flow of the narration without getting distracted on the form.

4. Do it for at least 20 minutes a day. Overall, a 20 to 30-minute session is enough to clear one’s mind and get it all out of one’s system.

5. Keep it one issue at a time. There is no need to deepen in all struggles at once. Focus on one thing you are ready to work on right now. Be honest and concentrate on personal events and feelings.

Final Words

Expressive writing allows better coping with stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms. It increases working memory function, boosts creativity and exercises positive thinking patterns.

It is linked to physical and mental well-being and can make students’ lives better. This simple activity clears the mind and allows working on many psychological issues.

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

Originally published: February 14, 2020
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