Writing usually means meeting deadlines and routinely showing up to write. Writing for an audience requires the consideration of who the audience will be, because while writers want to express themselves, they also want to impress. After all, there are books to sell, and articles that need to be read.
But what if you were simply free to express yourself as you write, and not worry about anything?
This is the gist of writing therapy, a type of therapy that has been shown to be rewarding both mentally and physically. Writing therapy can foster personal growth by supporting self-awareness, empathy and understanding. Want to learn some ways you can get started with writing therapy? Read on.
1) Expressive writing
This type of writing has been shown to be immensely beneficial. However, while initially there may be some discomfort when writing about your traumas and bad memories, allowing yourself to face the trauma and to feel the associated emotions will help you gain insight and relief.
Write down your deepest thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event or bad memory. Explore how it affected you in your life. You may write for as little as five minutes, or as long as twenty minutes.If a trauma is still raw, and you feel overwhelmed, it may be too soon to deal with it through writing.
Physical health has been found to improve through expressive writing. Some examples include:
- Reduction in resting blood pressure levels
- Improved mobility and reduced pain in rheumatoid arthritis patients.
- Reduction in anxiety and depression symptoms among patients with maladaptive rumination.
- Reduction in depression symptoms, trauma-related cognitions, and behavioural problems in children with post traumatic stress disorder.
- Decrease in disease symptoms and improvement in cognition in irritable bowel syndrome patients with longer term disease.
- Reduced healthcare visits and reduction in physical symptoms in patients with colorectal, breast, or prostate cancer.
- Improvements in lung function in adult asthma patients.
- Immune functioning was found to be boosted with expressive writing. HIV/AIDS patients who wrote about negative life experiences produced higher CD4 lymphocyte counts. In another study, people who wrote about traumatic experiences before receiving the hepatitis B vaccine had a stronger immune response, producing more antibodies.
It is important to note that both Dr. Pennebaker, one of the major researchers on expressive writing, and Dr. Susan Lutgendorf, a health psychology researcher who has also done research on the subject, stress that in order for expressive writing therapy to yield benefits, people must find meaning in the traumatic memories, and to allow oneself to feel all the associated emotions.
2) Gratitude Journaling
Write down what you are grateful for in a journal once or twice a week, on a regular basis. Doing so will increase your sense of happiness and well being.
Gratitude induces brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, areas which are associated with moral cognition, value judgement, and theory of mind. Dr. Emmons has found that counting blessings through gratitude journaling can have a positive effect on the subjective well-being of participants. Gratitude can help you sleep better, care for your own health, and help reduce depression.
Tips by Dr. Emmons:
- Be motivated to truly feel gratitude.
- Rather than exhaustively list the many things you are grateful for, explain in detail the reasons for your gratitude about particular things.
- You may write about things and people you are grateful for, but when you focus on people, it tends to be more effective.
- Write about what your life would be like without particular blessings.
- Unexpected or surprising events of goodness can provoke a stronger reaction of gratitude.
- Don’t do too much gratitude journaling, because you can become adapted to positive things. Writing in your gratitude journal once or twice per week is sufficient.
3) Letter Writing
Sometimes you may not get the closure you need in a relationship, or have feelings towards someone you still need to express, whether it may be anger, sadness, resentment, or love. Write it all down as a letter. You can keep it stored away somewhere in your desk, burn it, or send it. It’s up to you. All that matters is that you won’t be the one carrying the burden anymore.
4) Poetry Writing
It can be fun and therapeutic to create a poem. This is because you can draw material from your own life experiences, and express yourself through symbolism, metaphor, and philosophy. You can share the poem with others as well. You may discover new perspectives and meaning for your experiences through poetry writing.
For instance, palliative care patients as well as health care professionals have been able to use poetry to find meaning and perspective in cases of “serious illnesses and losses towards the end of life”.
5) Reflective Journaling
In your reflective diary/journal, write down your positive or negative experiences, any associated thoughts, and what you learned from these experiences. A reflective journal can be used for a class, or for an event that you participate in. You can keep a reflective journal for everyday life too. In any case, write down your observations, thoughts and ideas as soon as possible. Always have your journal close by, and make it a habit to produce regular entries.
It will be rewarding when you look over entries made previously and realize how far you’ve come, and how much knowledge and insight you’ve gained since. This type of journaling has been found to encourage critical thinking and self reflection. Classes which incorporated reflective journaling have been found to yield positive results, such as cultural humility.
As you can see, there are many different ways to benefit from writing therapy. You can choose which form of writing therapy will suit your needs, and start from there. Writing therapy can always be there for you, even when your counsellor is asleep, or all your friends have gone on vacation. All you really need is a notepad and something to write with, so it is inexpensive and very accessible.
The next time you are feeling stressed about meeting your deadlines, or about anything at all, you can use writing to help you not only feel better, but to understand yourself on a more intimate level.
Sierra Delarosa is a musician, scientist and writer. She is the content manager for Global English Editing.