When was the last time you had some kind of emotional meltdown?
Perhaps you lost your cool with someone … or suffered a debilitating wave of anxiety … were plagued by intense, painful feelings of guilt … or felt overwhelmed by grief and sadness.
We’ve all experienced moments when our emotions have got the better of us - moments that have left us feeling vulnerable, confused and lost.
Do you know that there’s something you can do in those very moments to help yourself? Something that:
- is free of charge and available to anyone,
- works on every kind of emotion you can think of,
- has no adverse side-effects,
- and that you can do in the privacy of your own home?
That ‘something’ is therapeutic writing.
The health benefits of writing therapy have been well documented. Research shows that writing about traumatic, stressful, or emotional events leads to improvements in both physical and psychological health.
When people who’d had a therapeutic writing intervention were tracked over subsequent months, they showed a range of improvements including:
- improved mood,
- lower blood pressure,
- improved vital organ functioning,
- fewer depressive symptoms,
- better immune system functioning,
- and fewer traumatic thought intrusions and associated avoidant behaviour.
These benefits arise because therapeutic writing can help us to:
- explore and work through our thoughts and feelings.
- unravel and make sense of knotty thoughts and emotions.
- reclaim lost memories, both good and bad.
- play, try out, and think about things flexibly and experimentally.
- keep a record of our experiences and ideas.
- increase our ability to see other points of view.
- heighten self-awareness.
- develop critical awareness.
- unearth previously-unconscious beliefs.
- query previously unquestioned assumptions that shape our view of the world.
The good news about therapeutic writing is that you don’t have to be good at writing to get all these benefits.
You can forget about spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence construction. You can even forget about sentences and just write down words - words that express how you see things and how you feel.
All you need to do is grab a pen and a piece of paper and start writing - anything and everything that comes to mind.
As little as twenty minutes of writing can help you to make sense of, and regulate, your inner space.
Here are three different types of therapeutic writing you can try:
Free writing or journaling is simply writing about whatever is on your mind. It can be seen as a ‘thought/emotion dump’. It takes the energy out of your mind and body and transfers it onto paper, giving you relief and clarity.
Few of us have ever been taught to manage our emotions effectively. We do the easiest thing in the moment, which is to push difficult feelings down, and then try to ignore them. Whilst this can be a good short-term strategy, in the long term it becomes problematic. Because a point comes when this energy cannot be suppressed any longer, and it begins to bubble up in order to be released, creating distress and turmoil on its way.
At such times, when the intensity of our emotions may be threatening to overwhelm us, writing about our feelings can help us to manage the energy more effectively. If we acknowledge what we’re feeling, what triggered our emotions, who was involved, when, where and how, it allows the energy to flow and be released. We just let it all out.
Eventually, we arrive at a place of peace, and an even greater awareness and understanding of what caused the unrest in the first place.
The other wonderful thing about this sort of free writing is that, not only does it help you to express your anger, guilt, shame, disgust, grief and any other difficult feeling, and thereby reduce the intensity of the emotions you’re experiencing in the moment, it’s also harmless to your relationships because no one is ever going to read what you’ve written.
If you’re processing difficult emotions, then once you’ve ‘dumped’ your thoughts and feelings onto paper you can symbolically destroy what you’ve written by shredding or burning the paper. This can be very cathartic and help you to let go of difficult experiences.
Pen Some Poetry
I am not going to profess to be a great writer of poetry, but I have worked with clients who’ve written some amazingly deep and powerful pieces of poetic verse.
Their poetry has succinctly captured, and given voice to, incredibly painful memories and feelings - feelings they were struggling to articulate through simply talking in our sessions.
In all cases the writing process has resulted in deep healing because it has allowed buried emotions to gently rise to the surface of the conscious mind where they’ve been acknowledged, explored, and resolved.
Interestingly, like layers of an onion being peeled away, this type of creative writing unearths deeper and deeper layers of buried emotions which automatically present themselves for expression.
If you would like to ease yourself into writing poetry then try this exercise from John Fox’s book Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making:
Pick a memory from your childhood. (Maybe start with a happy one.) Recall all the sensations you remember experiencing at the time: what you saw, smelled, heard, felt and tasted. Really engross yourself in this memory, and allow all aspects of what you remember to be absorbed into your body as though you are reliving the experience right now.
Now write down the emotions associated with this memory. If you struggle to label feelings take a look at the Feeling Wheel below.
- Then, staying in touch with your senses, see if you can connect to your inner voice to pen a poem about your experience and how it made you feel.
You may discover a hidden talent! What’s more, your poetry may well help others who have gone through similar experiences.
Compose a letter
Therapeutic letter writing is another powerful exercise to do with anyone that you have unfinished business with. Persistent, recurring bouts of anger, guilt, regret and sadness often stem from thoughts such as, “If only I’d said this or that then I wouldn’t feel so bad/guilty/angry/upset now.”
Addressing someone directly by writing a letter to them gives you a voice. It allows you to speak your truth, get your point of view across, and gain greater clarity and understanding of the situation in hand.
Ironically, you don’t even have to send the letter in order to feel better. In fact, it’s often advisable not to send it. Writing the letter is in itself enough to help process difficult feelings and bring a sense of closure to a fraught relationship.
This process has been effectively used in bereavement work, where people have written to deceased relatives and helped themselves to work through issues that are adversely affecting them in the present moment.
Another powerful use for letter writing is in cases of abuse where the perpetrator has passed away. By expressing feelings of anger, horror, disgust, sadness, hatred, and confusion, as well as articulating the consequences of the perpetrator’s actions on their lives, many victims have been able to face down their abusers and reclaim their personal power and dignity. This sort of letter writing has been deeply therapeutic and resulted in a sense of closure so that a traumatic past can finally be put to rest.
It’s important that this type of therapeutic writing is done with the support and guidance of a trained therapist because it can unearth previously repressed thoughts and feelings, which can be traumatising.
I believe we are all creative if we give ourselves a chance to try. Often we don’t truly know our thoughts until we try to put them into words. Words act as a medium for expression and a catalyst for clarity – or at least illumination.
I am a therapist, so I see first hand the therapeutic power of verbal communication. But sometimes, even in the safety of the therapeutic relationship, it can be extremely difficult to put things into words - to express ourselves, our deepest feelings, our thoughts and our secrets, and to say what we really mean. Sometimes, the person that we really want to share our thoughts and feelings with is not available, or we’re not able to reveal this part of ourselves to them for fear of consequences and recrimination. This can leave us feeling stuck, isolated, frustrated and saddened.
This is where therapeutic writing can play a vital role in helping us move to a state of inner peace and balance. As Anne Frank said:
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”