Getting your thoughts down on paper

Mental Health

If voicing your thoughts and emotions out loud feels intimidating, why not try therapeutic writing, which could do wonders for your mental health?

There are many ways that the arts can guide us through difficult times – one of which is through therapeutic writing. You don’t need an English degree, to be the next Shakespeare, or even be a regular writer to try it. The goal is not to have a beautifully written end product. Instead, it’s more about the process, and what you get out of it, that’s important.

So what is therapeutic writing? It’s essentially putting pen to paper to help the writer deal with difficult emotions and events. The act of writing is a cathartic experience, which can help you learn to express feelings that you might not necessarily be able to speak out loud. What’s more, therapeutic writing can give you a sense of empowerment and control over difficult life events and feelings.

“Writing, in a similar way to talking to a therapist, can help when we’re feeling low or anxious by enabling us to order our thoughts,” counsellor and psychotherapist Lucy Fuller says, explaining how writing can support our mental wellbeing. “Our agitated minds can focus on one particular area of difficulty, and then go in all sorts of directions, catastrophising and analysing events and interactions, making our heads almost burst with a noisy confusion of thoughts. Writing down your thoughts is a way of ordering and organising the busyness in our minds and, by getting the thinking ‘outside of your head’, you have effectively released some of the pressure.”

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Therapeutic writing can give meaning to your life experiences, and even help you to view them from a new, healthier perspective. It can lead to revelations and insights about yourself and your life, which might not have been possible without setting aside introspective writing time.

This all sounds great, but what do you do when this type of writing brings up difficult emotions and experiences? I asked Lucy Fuller for her advice.
“Feeling and experiencing the pent up emotions we hold inside our minds and bodies can be very difficult, but in many ways this is a necessary part of coming to terms with whatever is it that’s making us feel this way and, by allowing ourselves to express them, we are effectively alleviating the uncomfortable pressure of holding them inside ourselves. If your emotions are overwhelming, make sure you can get in contact with someone who can support you, and reassure you that it is OK to feel this way.”

Therapeutic writing has been shown to benefit people living with mental illnesses, those dealing with grief and loss, with low self-esteem, or people going through relationship issues. Writing also has a multitude of other benefits, such as improving your memory, and helping you relax at the end of the day.

How to get started

Choose a format that works for you – it could be an online blog, or just a classic notebook and pen. Ensure you allocate time each day to writing, to get into the habit, and find a place where you feel comfortable and secure, where you’re able to sit down and focus.

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Once you’re comfortable with your surroundings, think about what you want to write about and reflect on it by closing your eyes, taking some deep breaths, and focusing. Remember that when you’re ready to write, there’s no judgment. Use your own voice, and write as if no one else will read it – this will help your writing to be more authentic. And finally, go at your own pace; it’s fine if you write a few words, or several pages.

Staring at a blank page can feel daunting. So to help you get started, here are a few handy prompts:

  1. Make a timeline of events that have impacted your mental health. This can give you experiences you can begin to explore through writing.

  2. Write about your life right now, in this moment. Thinking about your emotions in the here and now can help you understand yourself better, and what you need.

  3. Spend five to 10 minutes writing in a stream of consciousness. That includes writing down whatever comes to mind, without overthinking or analysing your thoughts. It might reveal what’s at the forefront of your mind – and what you need to explore.

  4. Try writing letters. They can be to yourself – either you right now, or your past or future self. Write letters to people that are in, or you used to be in, your life. Write down everything you’ve ever wanted to say, but felt like you couldn’t.

  5. If there’s an event you’re worried about, try writing about it in the third person. This makes it less personal, and you can detach yourself from it. This can help you see the situation more clearly, and hopefully from a different perspective.

  6. Use sentence stems – these are the beginnings of a sentence that act as writing prompts. It could be: “The elephant in the room is…”; “I have trouble sleeping when…”; “The thing I am most anxious about is…”

When you’ve finished writing, it’s important to read and reflect on what you’ve written, to truly understand your words. This reflection is where you may discover new insights, have a better understanding of your thoughts and emotions, and hopefully move forward from difficult experiences. What you do with what you’ve written is your choice; you could keep it, never look at it again, or even rip it up and throw it away. Do whatever feels right to you!

You may want to try therapeutic writing with the support of a therapist – to help guide you through what you discover. Find a therapist at counselling-directory.org.uk

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