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If you feel depressed, try some expressive writing

Last week I gave an overview of expressive writing. This week, I want to apply it directly to something that affects many of us: feeling depressed. I want to preface this by saying, it sort of works. I'll talk more about why it might and might not work more below.

It is no surprise that for people that are feeling depressed (even without having clinical depression; we all feel depression at some point) tend to think, and think, and think. This thinking may not be productive or conscious, but our minds go over things and events without stopping.

In this case, we need to retake control over our minds. Expressive writing is a good tool to potentially do that.

What I am going to say below is based on a review of 39 studies that instructed people (both non-clinically diagnosed depression and major depressive disorder) to use expressive writing (you can find more specific info in the visual abstract and write-up for this week).

I want to focus on 2 things in this blog post: 1) Why didn’t it really really work and 2) what can we do to make it work.

1. Why didn’t it really really work?

So, participants had to write for 20 minutes for 3 days straight for the most part. After the 3 days, there was a reduction in negativity, but not much. It “sort of” worked (it was reliable but just not that big of a decrease; maybe something is better than nothing).

Here are some considerations.

Expressive writing may work more for physical symptoms than more mental symptoms though there is evidence for both.

Expressive writing may work better for more severe (but not TOO severe) cases. This makes sense in both ways. It would work better because you have more room for improvement in mood and functioning. But, if you are too impaired by your stress or negative emotions, then writing is not feasible. You’ll be more likely to spiral into negativity than find a way out of it.

There are no reliable long term effects. This means that the amount of writing one did probably wasn’t enough. To see long term effects, you typically have to engage for a long period of time.

2. What can we do to make it work?

If you have more sessions, it *likely* will work better, but not guaranteed. This also depends on other aspects of yourself. If you have a hard time with writing, labeling emotions, expressiveness, or have ambivalence about expressing emotion, then it is very possible that expressive writing just isn’t for you and more writing sessions wouldn’t help that (and may actually make things worse).

Another thing that helps is having more specific writing topics to guide you. If you have a specific issue, such as depression, a prompt that asks you to specifically talk about depression helps (or even better, a specific situation that made you feel symptoms of depression). This same thing happens with other conditions like cancer. It is also good to remind yourself that distress is normal while writing and that it isn’t your fault. You are just here to process the depression, not to blame yourself.

Guidance from a therapist also helps. Some studies have shown the increased effects of expressive writing with guidance from a therapist after every writing session. This helps you try a different approach to your writing. Each time you write, it should be at least a bit different. Simply writing will not get you the effects you want, especially if it is the same thing every single time.

One more thing that can help is if you can also talk to others after writing, in between sessions. This will help with motivation to continue progressing and keeping with the intervention.

When it comes to depression, there are many options, but I personally think expressive writing can be among the best things to do for self-help. However, I will underline that it really might NOT work and especially in the case of depression, if you don’t have any motivation to do it or to follow through with it, it may be best to try a different route.

Personally, being able to write and control myself is empowering. Also, people can suck. They can be judge-y and rude, careless with what they say, steal the attention, and much worse (e.g., use your words against you in vulnerable moments). Possibly you feel you are self-critical as well, but at least you can control yourself better than you can control others.


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