Stress and anxiety can be utterly overwhelming. Could putting pen to paper help? Optimum Nutrition speaks to author C J Daugherty.

Writing may help manage feelings of stress and anxiety, whether it’s for a bestselling novel or for your eyes only.

Putting pen to paper cannot solve the very real problems that people face, but research has found that writing down feelings before a task can help to calm the mind.

Other times, it can provide a welcome distraction from worrying thoughts.

Just like dreaming

Bestselling author C J Daugherty explains how writing helped her:

“I have a theory that writing fiction uses the same part of the brain you use when you dream. I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know if it’s true, but dreaming and writing feel the same for me.

“I dream these characters onto the page, and I imagine their world so completely I can escape into it while I’m working. And while I’m focused on their problems, my own worries fade away for a while.

“It is oddly comforting to keep my attention entirely on this other world … There’s no time to think about all the things that usually stress me out.”

Hunger Games

The author of Codename Firefly, and Night School, a series of young adult romantic thrillers, Daugherty began writing her first novel in her mid-thirties as a way of coping with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks.

“It was purely accidental,” she says. “I was working full time in London, and my mother was being treated for cancer back in the US.

“I was trying to hold down my job and also fly to America for weeks at a time to drive her to hospital appointments and help take care of her. It was the most stressful period of my life.

“One day, on a nine-hour flight to the US, I read The Hunger Games. After all the hype, people forget the main thing about that novel — it’s a massive page turner.

“The plot rips along so quickly you can read it in a day. It took me out of my own world and into this fictional universe. For hours I didn’t think about my problems.

“A few months later, on the train home from work, I found myself sketching out a book of my own.

“To my surprise, I found the act of inventing characters and coming up with a plot just as diverting as reading books could be. Within days, I’d begun working on Night School, my first novel.”

Chronically anxious

And there is some research to support using writing as a means to calm the mind.

In a 2017 study from Michigan State University, USA, students who were identified as “chronically anxious” wrote either about their deepest thoughts and feelings for eight minutes or about what they had done the day before.

When both groups went on to perform a task, it was found that although they completed it with about the same level of speed and accuracy, the group that had written about their feelings performed it with greater efficiency.

The authors said that the ‘feelings’ group used fewer brain resources.

writing it all down can help you process the things you’re going through

Processing traumatic events

At the time of the study’s publication, Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, said:

“Here, worried college students who wrote about their worries were able to offload these worries and run more like a brand new Prius, whereas the worried students who didn’t offload their worries ran more like a ‘74 Impala — guzzling more brain gas to achieve the same outcomes on the task.”

The authors said that the findings suggested that whilst expressive writing has previously been found to help individuals process traumatic or stressful events, the same technique can help people to prepare for stressful tasks in the future.

“Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard on upcoming stressful tasks, which is what worriers often get ‘burned out’ over, their worried minds working harder and hotter,” said Moser.

“This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head’.”

Diary writing and more

The research shows that not everybody has to write a bestselling novel to experience the benefits of writing.

“Any form of writing can help,” says Daugherty. “I know people who write poetry to calm their nerves.

“Others keep a diary of their daily lives — writing it all down can help you process the things you’re going through.

“For years I was a reporter — chronicling other people’s lives is similarly fascinating and can help to put your own problems into perspective.

“If not writing, then reading is a wonderful alternative. Seek out books that are highly rated for being absorbing page turners.

“These are the most likely to lift you from your own world and place you somewhere else for just a little while.”

However, Daugherty recommends that if you are using writing as a means to unwind, not to turn it into a chore.

“If you’re writing because of anxiety, setting down rules can add stress to your life, so I recommend taking a more relaxed approach.

“I always start with characters. See if you can invent a main character — one with an interesting job or life — and then take it from there.

“Who are their friends? And what are their lives like? Where do they work or go to school? What is their family like? Or their personality?

“The act of creating these characters usually leads me to the plot quite naturally — what has this person stumbled into that makes their life interesting enough for a book?

“Do all of this just for fun, and you might be surprised by where it takes you.”

Codename Firefly by C J Daugherty is out now.

Enjoyed this article? 

Check out these five tips for coping with stress

Discover our courses in nutrition