Stress and anxiety can impact on both our mental and physical health. They can cause symptoms such as stomach upsets, headaches, sleep problems, irritability and chest pain.

Previous research has suggested that writing down negative emotions has the potential to improve mental and physical symptoms. It has also been suggested that writing about positive experiences can result in an improvement in mood.

A new study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology wanted to explore this theory this further and has looked at how writing about positive experiences might impact feelings of stress and anxiety.

What were the participants asked to write?

Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the study’s components:

  • 71 healthy participants were divided into two groups.
  • One group (with 37 participants) was asked to write about the most wonderful experiences of their lives.

The instructions provided to participants in this group were as follows: ‘Think of the most wonderful experience or experiences in your life, happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music, or suddenly ‘being hit’ by a book or painting or from some great creative moment. Choose one such experience or moment. Try to imagine yourself at that moment, including all the feelings and emotions associated with the experience. Now write about the experience in as much detail as possible trying to include the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that were present at the time. Please try your best to re‐experience the emotions involved.’

  • The other group (with 34 participants) was asked to write about a neutral topic, such as aspects of daily life and their plans for the next day.
  • Both had to complete the task for 20 minutes each day, for three consecutive days.  
  • Self-reported anxiety levels were gathered before and after the writing task.

Did writing these thoughts down make a difference?

The participants in the positive-experience group were found to have a ‘significantly greater decrease in anxiety’ when compared to the neutral topic group.

Four weeks after the writing task the participants reported on their stress and anxiety levels, as well as any physical health complaints.

Stress and anxiety levels were reported to have decreased by a significantly greater amount for those who had written about positive experiences, when compared to their levels recorded before the writing task.

The writing experience did not lead to any reported improvements in physical health problems.

What do the results mean for stress and anxiety?

Mental health services in England are said to be under increasing pressure as more people are turning to them for help.

Arts and creative therapies are already used to help some patients talk about and understand their feelings but they are usually carried out under the guidance of a therapist. Complementary and alternative therapies such as yoga and meditation can be used to help some people manage stress.

A simple task such as writing about positive experiences can be completed for free and at the patient’s convenience. Perhaps this type of writing therapy will form a part of alternative or creative therapy strategies in the future.

Alternative therapies do not suit all patients and those using more traditional therapy methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication should consult with their doctor before trying alternative methods.

It is also important to remember that this is a small study that was not conducted in a clinical setting. The single-blind approach that was applied means that it could have been possible for participants to display unconscious bias during the process.

Could positive writing improve physical illnesses?

Our mental and physical health are intrinsically linked. However, the results of this particular study did not provide evidence to suggest that writing about positive experiences can benefit physical health.

Further research would be required in order for more concrete conclusions to be drawn about the impact of positive emotional writing on physical health.