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Writing for Stress-Release During the Holidays

Research shows that writing can be cathartic during stressful times.

CCO Creative Commons - upsplash
Source: CCO Creative Commons - upsplash

This time of year presents challenges for many people. In addition to the stress of parties, shopping, and gift-giving, many individuals feel stressed because they’re reminded of loved ones who are gone, or other life events associated with this time of year. In fact, it seems as if some people get quite nostalgic during the holidays, while others are mindful and able to be in the moment. Both these scenarios present a good opportunity to write down your feelings in a journal.

Journaling is a cathartic and safe way to spill out your feelings. It is important to note that, in journaling, you are not necessarily chronicling your life experience; rather, you are documenting and getting in touch with your feelings and thoughts as you write. My attitude is to “direct your rage to the page.” I have a writing colleague who says, “If it hurts, write harder,” and for years those words were posted above my computer until they simply became a part of my literary life.

In his book, Writing to Heal (2004), James Pennebaker, one of the pioneer researchers on writing for healing, says that the art of writing has the ability to break down some of the barriers between you and others, and that sometimes writing to other people is an easier way to communicate rather than looking at them in the eyes. Pennebaker believes that a certain type of writing erupts when we are faced with loss, death, abuse, depression, and trauma. He does have one rule, however, that he calls “the flip-out rule," which proclaims that if you get too upset when writing, then it’s probably best to stop and take a break.

Basically, therapeutic writing can help you understand yourself better and deal with various obstacles in your life that could include depression, anxiety, addiction, loss of loved ones, diseases, and life transitions. As writer Graham Greene deftly said, “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in a human condition” (1980, p. 10).

Tapping into nostalgia is a good reason to engage in this type of writing practice. Not only can this kind of writing be cathartic and empowering, but it can help us make sense of certain events in our lives and reveal how they’ve influenced us. Writing about the past is also an excellent way to keep our memories alive, and possibly share them with others.

When working on my doctoral dissertation, I studied the healing power of writing. My research taught me that many people find writing about their past and present lives very cathartic. One woman I interviewed wrote a memoir about her son, who had died too early. She confessed that writing was a way to make sense of the impact of her loss in the context of the rest of her life. Relating her experience also helped her move forward and get on with her life. Sometimes the creative process can be a way to explore unknown territory and help us tap into the secrets hiding in our psyches. Writing can also help us get in touch with what excites and inspires us.

Writing and telling personal stories is a practice that has been around since the beginning of time. Whether verbal or written, stories can heal, inspire, transform, and guide us on our journeys. Stories may be written in the form of journaling, memoirs, novels, poems, or plays.

To begin or rekindle your writing practice, consider getting a journal that resonates with you and a pen that flows easily. Then, find a place where you won’t be interrupted for at least 15 to 20 minutes. You can increase the amount of time as your schedule allows. The important thing is to make your writing practice regular, and preferably do it at the same time each day.

Some prompts:

  • Connect with your memories. At the top of your journal page, write “I remember.”
  • Write a letter to someone who has changed your life.
  • Write a story about some of your achievements, big or small.
  • Write about what brings you joy
  • Write about what you love and what you dislike about the holiday season.


Pennebaker, J. W. (2004). Writing to heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma & emotional upheaval. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Raab, D. (2017). Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Program for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.

Greene, G. (1980). Ways of escape. New York, NY: Simon & Shuster.

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