Experience the benefits of therapeutic writing
Deena Kara Shaffer
We can use writing as therapy to help us cope with life's stresses. Journalling, free-writing, and keeping a dream log are creative ways to engage its therapeutic powers.
Writing can be a deeply therapeutic experience. With a pen and paper in hand, we can help ourselves cope with grief, gain perspective, and resolve complex issues and decisions.
Whether it’s a life event, subtle curiosity, or holistic interest in wellness that has sparked your interest, writing can be powerfully reflective and liberating. It costs next to nothing, and can be done anywhere and by all ages. Further, writing can improve our mood, provide stress relief, and may even offer long-term physical benefits, such as lowered blood pressure and improved liver and lung function. Indeed, writing can serve anyone striving for greater equilibrium, understanding, and health.
Below are various entry points and approaches to writing, from dream recollection to prompt-based exercises. They can help you get started, move beyond a block, and encourage commitment. Try them out and see which ones work (and may not work) for you.
Diary writing and journalling: keep it close and simple
Maintaining a book of personal writing can serve as a best friend or counsellor, a log of uplifting or consoling phrases, and a timeline of wisdom and insight. If kept up, reoccurring thought patterns, worries, stressors, and behaviours can be recognized and pierced through. As well, previous accounts of joyous experiences can serve as reminders of resilience in times of distress.
Suggestion: Keep it honest; remember that it is not meant for any audience but yourself. Avoid self-criticism, and write without any inner editing. Above all, make sure to have a book you feel drawn to use and a safe place to keep it.
Dream log: let the unconscious speak
Keep a notebook beside your bed and write just as you wake up. Try not to let planning for the day interrupt the liminal space between sleep and wakefulness. Recall, with as much detail as possible. Most importantly, mark down the things that really jumped out at you, what you reacted to, and what seemed significant. By recording dreams, we can ask ourselves: is this reminiscent of something in my present or past? Is there a kernel of a wish or desire? Is there a caution I need to heed?
Suggestion: Not a dreamer? Set the intention to dream, and for your memory to hold onto them, by keeping your dream-writing book close at hand. Are your dreams embarrassing, or do they seem too wild to be true? Jot down every person, place, colour, and sensation that you can bring to mind without scrutiny or second-guessing.
Free-writing: write without limitation
Without any constraints of structure or style, free-writing goes where the mind and heart guide. One writes about anything —autobiographical or fictional, or bits of both —in any way. Experiment with trying on different perspectives. Write without grammar or spelling fears. Play. Try, for example, writing without punctuation one day, or in the voice of your eight- or 15-year-old self the next. Write outside of your gender, age, or location.
Suggestion: Although free-writing has no rules and boundaries, it is beneficial to establish a routine, as a set place and time can foster dedication.
Timed writing: make it fast and furious
Either to a predetermined topic or spontaneous as the muse strikes, write according to a timer or stopwatch. This writing provides a contained context, and in this way can be motivating and easy to stick to. You never know what’s going to emerge!
Suggestion: Start with 10 minutes every other day. After two weeks, adjust according to your lifestyle and how the process feels. If writer’s block is a worry, jot down a list of words on a non-writing day and use one per session as a starting place for inspiration.
Prompted writing: jump in
Making use of prompts—yours or others—can serve as a helpful springboard. Sometimes we feel shy, reluctant, or uninspired when facing a blank page. But by making use of a recommended topic or starting point, often the rest will flow.
Suggestion: In addition to books of writing prompts you can buy or borrow, some DIY alternatives include making lists of favourite quotes or phrases; jotting down overheard snippets of conversations; or focusing on a vivid memory and recalling it in detail from a different perspective, or investigating what could have happened. No matter what you choose as your platform, feel free to stray from it; a prompt is just that: a trigger or cue to spur you into action. Let whatever follows flow!
Letters unsent: write to yourself and others
Write everything you wish you had said, but can’t. Get unspoken longings or hurts off your chest. Clear your conscience. Confide. Rid your psyche and soul of anything pent-up, resented, feared, or avoided. Face a want or ache squarely, writing from and to it with all the intensity and sincerity you can muster.
Suggestion: Don’t send it! By removing the actual receiver, and thus any expectation of a response, you can reach a truer place. Best of all, you can explore how you really feel, and send out that energy, be it of yearning, forgiveness, or finality. Write versions and drafts so as to articulate the barest truth you can. Then, keep it somewhere safe, bury it, or burn it (safely, please!).
Try to avoid placing too much importance on diction, pace, and length. These outside controls, while not inherently negative, are unnecessary in therapeutic writing. Instead, focus on intention (mean it), frequency (keep at it), and making time (plan it).
Whatever form or format you choose —and feel free to mix and match and swap pencil for keyboard —there are countless mental and physical health benefits which can be enjoyed from engaging in writing.