Expressive Therapy: Writing It Out
by SM CADMAN
“Our stories make us Human.” Sue Reynolds, TEDxStouffville 1
For many of us, myself included, we deal with mental illness. From depression to anxiety disorders, Bipolar and Schizophrenia, we are a colorful and vibrant spectrum of necessary human evolution; a marker and epitaph on the world of being human. And it’s not uncommon or by chance to find us disproportionately attracted to and working within creative fields—from writing to painting, we have firmly embedded ourselves in this community. We’re a diverse group, albeit still a small fragment of overall society but our contributions to the world have been undeniable: We change things and propel society forward. We carry within ourselves, creative momentum. It’s the ability to make what we think, feel and perceive real for us and everyone else. We are in a sense, the “Keepers of the keys to the kingdom”, the universe.
What’s so important about reading, writing and language? It’s fundamental to communication and it’s necessary for being human. It’s both creative and logical, it describes us and who we are as a species. It creates us, defines our world and frames reality for us. And, it evolves as we do… It doesn’t matter which language it is, whether Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, or Mathematics and even ASL (American Sign Language), we take intangibles and move them into a tangible, a conceptual framework that describes our shared existence. We are what our stories are. This is also why it’s important to claim our narratives of who we are. We need to understand and feel where we have been, where we are and where we are going. This is where Expressive Therapies are especially helpful to us.
Expressive Therapy is an umbrella term that uses art, dance, drama, music, film and writing to help us better understand our feelings and express them. Writing therapy is especially good for us and there are several reasons why: A piece of paper, journal or word processor is nonjudgmental; you are free to be who and what you are; and free to create the reality you wish. It can even be used to re-script and redefine your reality. It also helps us with our metacognition, that awareness and understanding of our own thought processes which are very useful in reflective writing too.
Therapeutic writing was first studied and developed in the late 1980’s by American social psychologist Dr. James W. Pennebaker. It has also been extensively researched and written about by Dr. Gillie Bolton in the UK also. This type of expressive therapy has been proven to improve both the physical and psychological health of an individual, for both the immediate relief of distressing symptoms and the overall long-term as well (Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing: http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/11/5/338).
Writing for Therapy or Personal Development – A Conversation with Dr Gillie Bolton
So how can we benefit most from this relatively cheap and easy self-help? By just writing it out. There are several approaches to using expressive writing that can benefit us. Perhaps you kept a journal as a child or teenager, maybe you still do. Here are some ideas to get you started on this expressive writing journey. Also when doing this, forget about the grammar and spelling or even the content. Write exactly what you feel and what comes naturally to you.
Expressive Writing Ideas:
- Write your internal distress and pain a letter. Start with one feeling or a few, expand on it. Use personal photographs or art as a compass even.
- Do you suffer with troubling nightmares that keep you worried upon wakening or during the day? Write out the ending to it. Resolve the conflict, outside of your head, on paper. Re-script the ending to the dream.
- Dealing with anxiety about a particular situation or unresolved issue? Write out the most outlandish, impossible thing that could happen. Use the “what if…” sentence clause. Does it seem silly or even improbable? That’s because it most likely is.
- Conversely use the “what if…” sentence as a starter to explore why you will be successful with an endeavour. Perhaps you’re not afraid of failure, you’re afraid of success.
- Worried about an upcoming event, or a certain conversation you must have with someone? Write out the dialogue. Talk with yourself on paper. Your internal mentor is stronger and more compassionate than your internal critic. “Your internal mentor will always give you positive things.” (Dr. Gillie Bolton, from video above on YouTube, 2011).
- Write out a stream of consciousness. Whatever pops into your head.
- Start with a theme, word or topic and write a journal entry. Or a piece of poetry, or even a list of things about your topic.
- Start a journal. Do timed entries between 5 to 30 minutes each day, or a few times a week or month. Use prompts, sentence stems, art and/or photographs to get yourself started with each entry.
After speaking with 68 year-old Falk Stethin, I’m convinced expressive writing can do something profound for all of us. He’s been journaling and writing, mostly poetry for over 50 years. It’s personal in nature and he writes only for himself. He’s currently dealing with cancer and describes a sense of cathartic release while writing.2 He very kindly gave me a recent poem from his journal to publish on my site. It’s entitled, Beauty Hurts. You can read it here: https://smcadman.com/2016/07/08/beauty-hurts-by-falk-stethin-poem-poetry-expressivewriting/
Further online resources on Expressive Writing:
Writing to Heal, APA: http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun02/writing.aspx
The Psychological Benefits of Writing: https://www.helpscout.net/blog/benefits-of-writing/
6 Unexpected Ways Writing Can Transform Your Health: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/12/writing-health-benefits-journal_n_4242456.html
The Health Benefits of Journaling: http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-health-benefits-of-journaling/
Expressive writing in a clinical setting, PDF: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.307.8403&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Writing As Therapy, PDF: http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/docs/WritingTherapy.pdf
Tools and Info: http://psychology.tools/technique-writing-therapy.html
Journal Therapy: http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/journal-therapy
Susan Lynn Reynolds (Sue Reynolds): http://www.goforwords.com/goforwords/
Writing Our Way Out of Trouble: Sue Reynolds at TEDxStouffville: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvb2QV0xMUs
The Product Poet: https://theproductpoet.com/
Dr. Gillie Bolton: http://gilliebolton.com/
Dr. James Pennebaker: https://pennebaker.socialpsychology.org/
YouTube Playlist on Therapeutic Writing compiled by user Tammie Fowles: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9HlMzRI1p1anDwD-CXW-s2rYu3hB9xtz
Users to follow on Twitter:
DISCLAIMER: I’m not a health care professional or therapist so always consult your health care provider and practitioner, psychiatrist, psychologist and/or therapist, social worker etc. first before beginning any self-help mentioned in this article. Always seek out immediate medical attention and help if you’re feeling distressed, depressed and/or suicidal. A detailed international list of suicide hotlines is available here: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html
1 Reynolds, Sue. “Writing Our Way Out of Trouble: Sue Reynolds at TEDxStouffville.” Online video clip.
YouTube. YouTube, 17 Jul. 2013. Web. 5 Jul. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvb2QV0xMUs>
2 Falk Stethin (retired, senior citizen) in discussion with the author, July 5th 2016.
Originally published on Page To Pixels.