One of the most powerful means of expression involves taking pen to paper or fingers to keyboard as emotions spill forth. For those in mental health treatment, it is often a life line.
Sitting with a client recently, I found myself holding back tears as she opened a previously nailed shut window behind which terrifying feelings were held captive. As she maintained a flat affect and read aloud what she had written, it was if she was telling someone else’s story, but we both knew that she was letting loose her demons, a Pandora’s Box of twisted, wing flapping fury. I felt honored that she was willing to lay bare her soul. Writing allows us to do that. I could see the tension melting as she finished. Like the mythical container, Hope was what was left at the bottom of the box.
In my own life, writing has helped me remain “sane and vertical,” amid multiple losses, the deaths of my husband, parents and other family members and friends, personal illness, financial challenges and job changes. I have drawers full of journals from as far back as my college years (1977-1981) and as I periodically peruse them, I shake my head in bewilderment, “Holy smokes, you really believed that stuff?” and even more astonishing, “You still believe some of that stuff?” It is then that I revisit my personal script and am determined to re-write the narrative to smooth the transition from one phase of my life to another.
A few years ago, I attended a workshop called Writing Down the Light taught by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. The intention was that the participants take their life story and the beliefs they held about how life “should be” and transform them to create a more fulfilling outcome. Because of doing the recommended exercises, I discovered new ways to view what had been a longstanding and daunting belief system that told me I needed to be all things to all people and couldn’t allow others to be of support to me. Since then, it is a dynamic that shows up regularly and offers the opportunity to continue to edit my viewpoint.
Your Brain on Ink: A Workbook on Neuroplasticity and the Journal Ladder (It’s Easy to W.R.I.T.E. Expressive Writing) was written by Deborah Ross and Kathleen Adams. In it, they explain the concept of neuroplasticity which allows for creating new neural pathways that help us to heal from physical and emotional challenges.
Writing Exercises to Expand Your Horizons and Alter Your Brain Functioning
- Journaling. Take time regularly (ideally daily) to jot down your observations, impressions, and emotions as way of purging your system. Often, we attempt to contain our feelings so that we don’t disappoint or upset others. A journal is a safe place to get real and raw while knowing that, unless we share it, no one else will read it.
- Full Sensory Writing. Use language that describes your experiences through smell, taste, touch, sound and sight. Color with your creative juices.
- Stream of Consciousness Writing. Ask yourself a question, such as “How do I resolve the conflict with my partner?” Close your eyes, take a breath and begin writing or typing your response. Don’t edit or censor. Let the words flow naturally and when you feel complete, stop. Read aloud what you have written. Hearing your own voice saying the words, anchors them to you. They feel genuine. Your mind accepts them as your own.
- Pre-plan Your Outcome. Ruth Anne Wood who is a writer, speaker, coach and entrepreneur, created a modality called Scripting for Success. Two of the characteristics of this type of writing is that it be done in the third person and as if it has already happened. An example is someone who wants to create a new business. As if it was a newspaper headline, the first part could read, “Local entrepreneur opens doors to her new window business,” and then continue to share the details such as, “Customers show up daily to purchase her products and tell others about her company. By the end of the fiscal year, she has netted $100,000.” What Ruth has discovered is that when she and her clients have utilized this type of writing, scenarios often play out exactly as designed. Clearing the emotional blocks and melting the mental resistance gives way to accomplishment of goals.
- An Attitude of Gratitude. Take time each day to record at least three things you are grateful for. More is better, but that is a way to launch into an awareness of what is working in your life and not just what is troubling. It also sets the stage for calling in more of what you want.
- Tell Me a Story. Describe an incident in your life that felt troubling. Embellish it as you wish and exaggerate it beyond the bounds of what really occurred. Use as many catastrophizing words as you wish. The next step is to change the language, so it has a positive outcome. Be aware of the feelings each one evokes.
Sherry Reiter, Ph.D, LCSW has taken her years of experience as a writer and therapist to pen a book entitled Writing Away the Demons: Stories of Creative Coping Through Transformative Writing. In it, she offers the benefits of evocative writing. She refers to her work as The Creative Righting Center which has a double entendre’ flavor since it reflects her name and the idea that writing can help us to up-right ourselves when we feel swamped by life circumstances and the emotions they evoke.