For most of us, day-to-day writing is confined to mundane things like shopping lists, text messages, e-mails, birthday cards, social-media updates and possibly keeping a diary – the kind where we write down where we need to be and when we need to be there. But other forms of writing are not the sole reserve of authors who have a book to write.
Many people are discovering the benefits of a different type of writing, called journaling, therapeutic writing or expressive writing.
What is therapeutic writing?
Therapeutic writing has become much more prevalent as an important aspect of people’s self-care and of counselling and psychotherapeutic work. But what is it?
Wikipedia describes it as ‘a form of expressive therapy that uses the act of writing and processing the written word as therapy. Writing therapy posits that writing one’s feelings gradually eases feelings of emotional trauma’.
An instant tool that can enhance mental health and help us cope with life’s difficulties: all you need is a pen, some paper and a quiet place. It is a safe, cheap, easily accessible and effective way of releasing emotion. It allows people to access their subconscious and tap into their own innate wisdom. It is also invaluable in helping us to recognise patterns in our lives.
Therapeutic writing was developed primarily by James W Pennebaker in the late 1980s. Over the past 20 years, much literature has been published on the beneficial effects that writing about traumatic or stressful events has on physical and emotional health.
In one of the first studies on expressive writing (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986), college students wrote for 15 minutes over four days about ‘the most traumatic or upsetting experiences’ of their entire lives, while others wrote about more superficial topics. The students who wrote about upsetting events reported significant benefits in physical health in comparison to the control group.
What are the benefits?
Often the immediate impact of therapeutic writing is a short-term increase in negative emotions and physical symptoms. This is due to increased awareness and expression of the negative emotions that are already present for the person.
However, in the longer-term, the benefits include emotional clarity and understanding, fewer stress-related visits to the doctor, improved immune system functioning, reduced blood pressure, fewer days in hospital, improved mood, feeling of greater psychological well-being, reduced depressive symptoms, fewer post-traumatic symptoms, reduced absenteeism from work, quicker re-employment after job loss and improved working memory.
Is therapeutic writing for you?
Did you ever keep a diary? Did you enjoy writing short stories in school? Have you ever written a poem or song? If so, you are already pre-prepared for therapeutic writing.
It may come more naturally, as you are used to what it feels like to put pen to paper. But do not be discouraged if you never enjoyed writing in its more traditional forms.
With this type of writing there is no need to worry about spelling, grammar or sentence structure. There will be no critic outside of your own inner critic. And with this writing it is important to leave your inner critic outside the door.
No one needs to see what you have written. It is intended to help you express how you are feeling, not to become a published piece of work!
How to get started
Free writing, also known as ‘mind dump’, is a great exercise to start with. Set a timer for between five and ten minutes, put pen to paper and write about anything that comes to mind. The only rule is that once you begin to write, you continue until the time is up. It does not matter what is written about. The aim of this exercise is to clear the mind, get you used to writing and prepare you for any other writing exercises you decide to do. A useful writing exercise is letter writing. You could imagine someone has written to you asking you how you are and you are writing the reply. Or you could write to someone with whom you have unfinished business. This would help you to clarify what you want or need from the situation with them. These letters are not for sending and are solely for your own benefit.
People often like to burn or throw away what they have written. It is personal, and therefore it’s natural to worry about someone else reading it. However, there is value in keeping it all together in a journal or folder. Reading back over what you have written can start to reveal patterns with regards to the issues you tend to face and how you are inclined to cope with them.
For more on therapeutic writing see:
‘Writing for wellbeing’, by Patricia McAdoo (or visit www.patriciamcadoo.ie);
‘Writing down the bones’, by Natalie Goldberg;
Printed in The Mayo News on 09 November 2015