To reduce stress and anxiety, write your happy thoughts down

A. and I. Kruk/
AUTHOR: Dr Michael Smith, Department of Psychology, Northumbria University

Writing about positive emotions may help to reduce stress and anxiety, according to our new study, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

Earlier research has also found that writing about negative emotions – getting things “off your chest” – can improve your mental health. And it seems to benefit physical health, too.

Stress affects your physical health, so it is thought that improvements in mental well-being might stop people becoming physically unwell. Research has shown that writing about negative emotions can lead to fewer visits to the doctor, fewer self-reported symptoms of ill health, and less time off work due to ill health.

Not many studies have investigated writing about positive emotions, but if writing about negative emotions helps people deal with their negative thoughts and feelings, then it’s possible that focusing on positive emotions might have a positive effect on people’s mental health.

Earlier research has shown that writing about positive experiences for 20 minutes a day, for three consecutive days, improved people’s mood and led to fewer visits to the doctor. Even writing for as little as two minutes a day about a positive experience has been shown to reduce the number of health complaints that people report.

While earlier studies showed that writing about positive experiences can improve your mood, we didn’t know what effect it might have on stress and anxiety.

Twenty minutes a day

For our study, we investigated whether writing about a positive experience – which could include anything from being moved by a good book, painting or piece of music, to falling in love – could reduce stress, anxiety and common health complaints, such as a headache, back pain or coughs and colds. We also wanted to know if it would be helpful for all people, regardless of their level of distress.

Writing about falling in love could be good for your mental health.
Look Studio/

We recruited 71 healthy participants, aged 19 to 77, and randomly allocated them to one of two groups. We asked one group (37 participants) to write about the most wonderful experiences of their life for 20 minutes a day, for three consecutive days, and we asked the other group (34 participants) to write about a neutral topic, such as their plans for the rest of the day, over the same time frame.

We measured levels of anxiety, as reported by the participants, immediately before and after they completed their writing task. We found a significantly greater decrease in anxiety for those people who wrote about positive experiences, compared with those who wrote about neutral topics.

The participants also reported their levels of stress, anxiety and physical health complaints four weeks after they completed the writing tasks. Stress and anxiety decreased to a significantly greater extent for those who wrote about positive experiences after four weeks, compared with the levels reported before they completed the writing tasks. However, writing didn’t improve participants’ physical health problems.

We also found that writing about happy moments was effective, regardless of the levels of distress that people reported at the start of the study.

Because we excluded people with a diagnosed psychological condition, we can’t be sure that this technique would work in a clinical setting. It’s also important to note that in order for them to engage with the task, it wasn’t possible to blind participants to the treatment. Another limitation of our study was that we relied on self-report questionnaires, rather than using objective measures of mental and physical health.

Of course, emotional writing may not be for everyone. Personality traits, problems expressing emotions or a disinterest in writing might mean that for some people there are better ways to tackle negative emotions.

An advantage of writing about positive emotions to tackle stress and anxiety is its simplicity. Unlike many other strategies for improving psychological well-being, this task needs no training or time spent with a therapist. People can do it at a time and place that is convenient for them – and it’s free.The Conversation

Dr Michael Smith is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department, a member of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group, and our Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Spotlight on: Professor Karen McKenzie

Karen McKenzie is a professor in the psychology department, and a Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) registered, Chartered Clinical Psychologist. Karen is the lead of our Research and Practice in Developmental Disabilities (RaPiDD) Group.

Tell us about your career history

I have worked at Northumbria University for almost 7 years. Prior to that, I worked jointly as Head of Speciality (learning disability services) as a clinical psychologist for various NHS trusts in Scotland, as well as on the Clinical Psychology doctorate programme at Edinburgh University. I have been a clinical psychologist for nearly 30 years.

What got you interested in psychology?

I was interested in other people’s life stories and imagined that being a psychologist was a bit like being a psychotherapist. It was a bit of a surprise to discover that it involved a lot of statistics. I became interested in clinical psychology as an undergraduate after hearing a lecture from a psychologist working in prisons. I then obtained summer work as a psychology assistant in a learning disability service and really enjoyed it, so decided to pursue that route. I trained as a forensic clinical psychologist and worked in that area for a few years before returning to work in learning disability services.

Whay are your current research interests?

Most of my current research related to the clinical psychology field, in particular, people with learning disability. My recently funded projects evaluating positive behavioural support (PBS) for this group of people, looking at factors that influence the recruitment and retention of various staff groups, exploring career pathways in mental health and looking at factors which influence student mental health.

What psychology book would you recommend?

A very early book that appealed to me as an undergraduate was called ‘Vaulting Ambition’ by Phillip Kitcher. At the time it struck me as being very well written and I liked that it argued against things such as we are determined and restricted by which sex we are.

What advice would you give to students?

Opportunities often arise in unexpected circumstances, so do not feel that you always have to follow the same path as everyone else, but always try to be honest, kind and authentic.

What would you have liked to do if you have not followed a career in psychology?

I would probably become a nurse, as I was accepted for nurse training but chose clinical psychology training instead. I think I would have liked to have been a full-time author, as I really enjoy writing.

What advice would you give to students who want to study Clinical Psychology?

I know a lot of students are interested in becoming clinical psychologists and my general advice would be:

  • Try to get relevant experience during your time at university – this might be through a placement module, volunteering. or paid work  
  • Try to find ways to show you use/disseminate research – this might be by presenting at the student conference or working with your supervisor to try to get an article published from your dissertation or thesis. 
  • Try to develop an understanding of what clinical psychologists actually do – look at information on the BPS, division of clinical psychology site, speak to clinical psychologists about their role (there a few of us at Northumbria University). 
  • Consider undertaking a thesis/dissertation on a clinically relevant topic. This doesn’t need to be with a clinical population, as long as it is on a topic that would have implications for clinical psychologists and the people they work with. 
  • Look at the Clinical Psychology Clearing House site to get an idea of the types of things that the different programmes are looking for in applicants
  • Be aware that there is competition for clinical psychology places, but don’t let that put you off. Give yourself as good a chance as possible by getting a good degree, having relevant experience, having a good understanding of the role, and showing that you have disseminated research in some way. 

Read More

Want to hear more about the research of the Health and Wellbeing group? head over to the blog

Interested in Careers in Psychology? Read more posts from staff, practitioners and alumni here

You can also look at the British Psychological Society Guidance about Clinical Psychology Careers

Graduate Bio: Megan Holden

We interviewed one of our alumni, Megan Holden, about her career to date. Megan graduated from the BSc (Hons) Psychology in 2019 with a specialism in Clinical Psychology. She now works as an Assistant Psychologist supporting a team of Clinical Psychologists, and is working towards applying for the doctorate in Clinical Psychology.

Which course did you do at Northumbria and what have you done since graduating?

I completed my BSc (Hons) in Psychology, specialising in Clinical Psychology in 2019. Since graduating I have gained full-time employment, working within the Tees, Esk and Wear Valley, NHS Trust. I initially started as the Activity Coordinator on the inpatient organic assessments wards at Auckland Park Hospital, where I also volunteered during my degree. In November 2020, I was successful in obtaining my current position as Assistant Psychologist. I also continue to work alongside Dr Jenny Paterson and Dr Genavee Brown to expand my dissertation research project. 

What is your current job title and what does your job involve?

I currently work as an Assistant Psychologist, within the Care Home Liaison team, across County Durham and Darlington. My role involves supporting the Clinical Psychologist based within the team, to deliver a formulation-based model of care. This involves: completing direct and indirect assessments with patients, families and care home staff; supporting formulation meetings with members of the multi-disciplinary team (MDT) to understand the person’s needs; helping to develop behaviour support plans collaboratively with staff; and promoting the use of non-pharmacological interventions to meet the person’s needs, reduce behaviours that challenge and distress.

What inspired you to follow your career path?

I have always been interested in mental health, which is supported by the clinical specialism of my degree. I was particularly inspired to continuing working within Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP) as by volunteering with services users living with dementia and having personal experiences of the impact Dementia can have on a loved one, and how it can impact the family unit as a whole, it sparked my interest in organic mental illnesses. I hope to continue my career and grow as a professional within psychology by completing the Clinical Psychology Doctorate.

What advice would you give to current students wanting to follow a similar path?

The main piece of advice that I would give to other students wanting to follow a similar a career path to myself, would be to try and gain as much relevant experience whilst completing your degree as possible. Psychology is a very competitive field, so having obtained sufficient clinical and research experience during your time as an undergraduate, will put you in a good position to hopefully be successful in Assistant Psychologist roles after graduation.

What was your favourite thing about studying at Northumbria?

My favourite thing about Northumbria University was that I had the opportunity to meet some amazing people on my course, and I am sure we will remain life long friends! 

Want to hear more about careers in psychology? Head over to our Careers in Psychology blog

Interested in Clinical Psychology? Take a look at the British Psychology Society Careers Pages