How Expressive Writing Can Benefit Therapy
Lockdown has led to a surge of interest in expressive writing. Ahead of National Writing Day later this month (June 24), therapeutic writing facilitator Anne Taylor reflects on the power of putting pen to paper to reduce anxiety and help us access meaning – and shares three writing prompts to get both therapists and therapy clients started.
In this time of Covid19 and the deep uncertainty it brings, writing can provide a valuable potential tool for helping clients to manage their anxieties.
The therapeutic benefits of expressive writing are well researched. Over the past 30 years a number of studies have shown a strong connection between using expressive writing – writing out your thoughts and emotions – and improved physical, mental and emotional health. Psychologist James Pennebaker found that writing can help to manage feelings of anxiety by giving them structure and organisation on the page. His work has been built on in a number of other studies which show that expressive writing and journal writing can be an aid to coping with challenging life events.
In my role as a therapeutic writing group facilitator, I have witnessed a surge of interest in therapeutic writing over the last few weeks, as people in lockdown reach out for ways in which to deal with stress and find meaning in our new strange circumstances.
A clinical and a personal development tool
Therapists and counsellors who, of course, are not immune to the emotional challenges of the current situation, can also benefit. Many of the participants on the online therapeutic and reflective writing course that I co-direct with biblio-poetry therapist Victoria Field, have found writing useful for their own personal and professional development, as well as a useful tool in their work with clients.
Expressive writing encourages writers to write freely and authentically and without rules. In letting go of the normal constraints we are conditioned to obey, it’s possible to form a deeper connection with our feelings and release them on to the page. By writing without thinking we can access information just below the level of consciousness. This kind of writing can also be cathartic and a way of creating a distance from emotions as they present on the page. Often expressive writing goes hand in hand with reflective writing and keeping a journal, which can provide a safe private space or private container for thoughts and words.
Where possible it may help to encourage writing by hand. Research has shown that handwriting can be more beneficial than using a keyboard, as it stimulates
the synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Three useful writing prompts
Writing prompts can provide a container for writing and provide new perspectives. Here are three prompts that may be useful for clients in between sessions and for maintaining your own emotional health during the pandemic.
- How do you feel today?
Encourage clients to write freely and regularly about their feelings without paying attention to grammar, punctuation or spelling. The key thing is to keep going without worrying about repetition. To prevent thoughts and feelings spiralling out of control it is a good idea to put a time limit on this kind of writing – five or six minutes a day might be enough to start with. Simply start writing with the prompt ‘Today I feel…’
- Write a letter to yourself when this is all over
Writing unsent letters can be an accessible means of processing emotions, relationships or conversations with yourself. Letters are a familiar form and can be a way of dealing with unspoken thoughts or feelings. Write a letter to yourself before lockdown or to yourself in the future, or to someone you are missing or want to show you appreciate, or to a wise internal mentor. For a counsellor or therapist, writing an unsent letter to a client or an internal supervisor could be a way of exploring issues from a new perspective.
- Compile a lockdown gratitude list
During times of high anxiety or stress it helps to stay in the moment and identify things that sustain us. Writing a list of things we are grateful for and which keep us going during lockdown can be therapeutic and give us hope and meaning. Listing the small interactions or simple pleasures, or precious objects, can provide perspective when life feels full of overwhelming worries.