Stress and anxiety are on the rise and according to a recent poll of 18 to 30-year olds in England and Wales, a third of young people in the UK feel more anxious now than they did at this time last year.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) also show that overall satisfaction with health and mental health is on the decline, and nearly 20% of people said they had experienced depression or anxiety compared to around 18% the previous year.
So what can we do to tame all this anxiousness? One simple activity that can work wonders for stress and anxiety, according to research from the University of Michigan, is expressive writing.
Lead researcher and MSU doctoral student in psychology Hans Schroder explains that while worrying takes up cognitive resources, expressive writing can free up cognitive resources and provide relief from cognitive overload.
"It's kind of like people who struggle with worry are constantly multitasking--they are doing one task and trying to monitor and suppress their worries at the same time," says Schroder.
"Our findings show that if you get these worries out of your head through expressive writing, those cognitive resources are freed up to work toward the task you're completing and you become more efficient."
Another study found that expressive writing can lower symptoms of depression, and writing your thoughts down is also the best way to understand them. So if you want to give it a try, here are a few tips for getting started with expressive writing.
1. Write by hand
Using a pen and paper to write activates different areas of the brain than typing on a keyboard and writing by hand has been linked to improved creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Another good reason to write by hand is that it can be relaxing and help you wind down before bedtime. Studies show that the light emitted by your phone, tablet or laptop screen can disrupt your body's natural sleep pattern because it has a higher than normal concentration of blue light. So try to unplug during your evening writing sessions and use an old-fashioned pen and paper.
2. Follow a two-step process
In order for your expressive writing sessions to be effective, it's important to focus more on your thoughts and feelings than on facts and data. So rather than writing about what you did, try to reflect on how each specific event or situation affected you or what you'd like to do differently.
To do this, you can follow a two-step process that involves first asking yourself "What happened?" followed by "How do you feel about what happened?"
Looking at how you feel or felt about each event that occurred throughout the day can help you get to the bottom of your stress and anxiety, and eventually uncover ways to improve your overall well-being.
3. Don't worry about grammar or spelling
When it comes to keeping a journal, don't worry too much about whether you're using proper grammar, punctuation or spelling. The most important thing is to get your thoughts down on paper, so as long as you can read and understand them later, there's no need to edit yourself.
Give yourself the freedom to write whatever comes to mind, play with words and mix things up without worrying about whether it's grammatically correct or is following the right format.
4. Make it a habit
If you want to reap the benefits of expressive writing, it needs to become a habit rather than a sporadic activity. Research shows that it can take between 18 and 250 days to develop a new habit, so try to do your writing around the same time each day until it feels as natural as brushing your teeth or scrolling through Facebook at the end of the day.
When you're just starting out, you may also want to set a timer and write for a predetermined amount of time, even it's just for five minutes before you go to bed each night. Eventually you'll probably work your way up to longer writing sessions, but giving yourself a goal in the beginning will help you stick with it.
5. Keep it private
If you want to feel comfortable putting all your thoughts, ideas and emotions down on paper, it's important to feel safe in the knowledge that no one else will be able read them.
In order for the writing exercise to be effective, you have to be able to be brutally honest and expose your vulnerabilities, and this can't be done if in the back of your mind you're worrying that someone else might read it. So look for a safe and private place to store your journal, whether this means keeping it out of sight at the back of a closet or safely in a locked drawer.
Marianne Stenger is a writer and journalist with Open Colleges.