Student writing in notebook. SHAQ HOSEIN/THE VARSITY

For many students, life at university is fraught with uncertainty. The challenges they face evolve throughout their undergraduate careers: first-year students struggle with adjusting to a new academic environment, and upper-year students worry about job prospects in a bleak market or their chances of getting into graduate school. Some pressures, such as maintaining good grades or building a social network, concern all students.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) defines stress as “a response to environmental pressures or demands (‘stressors’), in particular when we feel they are a threat to our coping strategies or well-being.”

The higher stakes and greater time-management demands within academic environments only add to the stressors that students face. The fear of failure to achieve goal in an environment where competition is widespread limits a student’s ability to cope with stress.

Students practicing expressive writing become more in control of their academic life and more rewarded by their success; subsequently, their anxiety about facing challenges decreases over time.

Unfortunately, help on campus does not always reach all students. The Health and Wellness Centre, the Centre for International Experience, and the offices of college counsellors tend to have incredibly long waiting lists, which makes it difficult for students to receive support. Complex mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, may emerge when stress goes unaddressed.

Expressive writing is one way to combat these difficulties. A practice identified by Dr. James Pennebaker from the University of Texas, expressive writing enables the writer to focus on emotions and events, without concerning themselves with grammar and form — a method likely to appeal to students, who are ordinarily constrained by grammatical rules.  

Research by Harvard professor Francesca Gino has indicated that the regular reflection which results from expressive writing can increase an individual’s efficiency at work. Students practicing expressive writing become more in control of their academic life and more rewarded by their success; subsequently, their anxiety about facing challenges decreases over time.

Business Insider has indicated that expressive writing is also beneficial in forcing the writer to disclose or confront unpleasant parts of their life. Maintaining a journal allows students to express their deepest, perhaps darkest, emotions privately, without the fear of judgment or hurting another person. In a time where privacy is diminishing and social media makes oversharing problematic, this can be perceived as a luxury.

it is not the act of writing itself but the nature of what is being written that is crucial.

Students lead hectic lives in which they can rarely make time to reflect on their progress and plan for the future. However, putting their thoughts and emotions down on paper gives students a platform to re-examine and analyze past experiences, and to plan for better choices in the future. By encouraging introspection, expressive writing also discourages rash decisions.

Simply putting pen to paper, however, is not enough. Bridget Murray, a journalist for the American Psychology Association’s publication Monitor on Psychology, argues that writing about emotional difficulties is only the first step towards healing. It may open up wounds that the writer is trying to avoid and needs to be followed with certain activities, like dialogue with a companion, that work towards resolving those wounds.

The absence of reconciliation may cause the writer to become overwhelmed by the bottled up emotional weight of their problems, inadvertently increasing mental health problems in the process. This is especially important for students who may not have someone to regularly talk to, as they would be particularly susceptible.

Susan Lutgendorf, a health psychology researcher at the University of Iowa, also notes that it is not the act of writing itself but the nature of what is being written that is crucial. Students can use optimally expressive writing to focus on their individual mental health problem. More broadly, CAMH advocates regular writing about mental health issues to identify methods that will help patients.

Expressive writing is one effective way to start combatting mental health problems. While regular, written reflection should be essential for everyone, students may find it most beneficial if they utilize expressive writing to address their unique university experiences.

Sonali Gill is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying International Relations and Criminology.

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