The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a mental health crisis in America. A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that almost 41% of respondents are struggling with mental health issues stemming from the pandemic, with a staggering 11% saying they’d seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days. These statistics are alarming. And with a long-term solution to the pandemic nowhere in sight, what can people do to stay sane during such ongoing uncertainty?
One simple tool to help manage your life when everything feels so out of control is something you already have access to: writing. Specifically, writing therapy can help ground yourself to relieve stress, improve focus, and calm your mind.
But how can just writing about your feelings help to combat depression and anxiety? Is picking up a pen really that beneficial? And how does it work?
Working With Others
As part of my master’s degree in creative writing, I was required to do a field study that helps promote writing, community engagement, and social justice. I volunteered at a psychiatric hospital and addictions rehabilitation center near Chicago where I taught writing therapy for eight weeks to approximately 350 patients. These patients were struggling with behavioral health issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, addiction, and schizophrenia.
Many patients had recently attempted suicide, and most were at the lowest points of their lives. One woman I met had been arrested multiple times and had her baby taken away from her. Another woman could barely hold a pen to write because both wrists were heavily bandaged after her suicide attempt.
I saw one patient, a shy young man named “Trey,” over three consecutive weeks. When I first met Trey, he had been admitted to the psychiatric ward after another suicide attempt and quietly kept to himself. The second week, Trey smiled when he recognized me and said that my writing class had been his favorite session. He’d been journaling in his room all week and his writing started to unlock some doors for him. Trey told the other patients to just keep an open mind because for some reason, “writing therapy just works.” The last week I saw Trey, he shared that he was hopeful he could manage living with his depression and that he would finally be able to find friends, because he said everyone deserves friends, and that he could live a life that was fun, meaningful, and that he could be proud of.
Trey wasn’t the only patient who saw the benefits of writing therapy. One young woman said, “I thought this was gonna be really stupid at first. But then as I got into it, it started to make sense. And I felt my brain start to relax. Like – I was calming down. Just by writing about this stuff.” Another woman shared, “It was really hard for me to write that. But it also felt like such a relief to finally get it out.”
Is It Really That Simple?
Researchers have found that one of the reasons writing works in therapy is through the use of introspection. Introspection, or self-awareness, gives you access to understanding yourself and allows you to process your feelings and experiences. Through introspection, you come to know yourself better and recognize triggers that can set you off. This specific type of mindfulness training can be accessed through writing therapy. When practiced on a regular basis, you become less likely to veer off track when difficult emotions surface – or when uncontrollable world events come tumbling down around you.
What is Writing Therapy?
Writing therapy is very similar to keeping a journal, but there are some key differences. Journaling is an activity where you jot down whatever comes to mind without editing or judgment. Keeping a journal generally focuses on recording events as they occurred, but not always analyzing your feelings about the events. Therapeutic writing is more directed and often based on writing prompts or exercises. Writing therapy is focused on thinking about, interacting with, and analyzing the events, thoughts, and feelings around the events in your life – including past traumas. Both tools are personal exercises and effective ways to help you organize your thoughts and make sense of what you’re feeling.
Benefits of Writing Therapy
Writing can have significant positive effects on helping you to process traumatic or extremely stressful events, and can help you feel a sense of empowerment and control over your life. Writing can help you work through uncomfortable feelings such as depression, anxiety, or the urge to drink to alleviate stress. Writing also helps you to find meaning in your experiences and view things from a new perspective, and can help lead you to important insights about yourself and your behaviors.
When practiced on a regular basis, writing therapy has been shown to help many conditions including stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, grief and loss, chronic illness, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship issues, low self-esteem, and body image issues. By understanding your past, writing allows you to take charge of changing the course of your future.
How To Do It
You can write by hand, on your computer, or do a combination of both. You can write on anything you like – loose leaf paper, a notepad, index cards or a nice journal. They key is to find what best works for you.
Writing is a solitary activity, so be sure to set aside some time in a quiet place and make yourself comfortable. Get yourself something to drink and maybe a snack. Fell free to light a candle or play quiet music. This is your body’s way of letting you know this is a special time to help take care of yourself.
Be completely honest with yourself about your feelings. Write quickly and don’t worry about editing yourself. Write as if no one will ever read your writing. This type of freeflow writing is completely for you, to help you figure out what you’re thinking.
It doesn’t matter what you write about; what matters is that you take the time to do it. If you need to, set a timer for five to ten minutes, and aim to write three to five times a week. Regular reflection keeps the psyche open.
There are hundreds of writing prompts available to cover all areas of your life, from health and well being to family, relationships, and business success. A few prompts I’ve worked with include the following:
Earliest Memory: Describe your earliest happy memory. Close your eyes for a moment and focus on what you remember feeling. Where were you? Who were you with? How did you feel? What did you see around you? What did you smell? Were you eating something? What were you wearing?
About You: What are some things that you really wish others knew about you? Think about your talents, your fears, what you’re proud of, your accomplishments. Make a list of ten things you wish people knew about you.
In This Moment: Write about where you are in life at this moment. How do you feel about being here in this place? How did you get here? What do you enjoy about this moment in time? What troubles you or gives you anxiety about this time? Do you feel scared, hopeful, anxious, excited?
Grief and Loss: Think about a special someone you’ve lost or are no longer close to. This can be someone who has died, a beloved pet, or a broken relationship that you’re grieving over. Write about what it feels like to no longer have this person in your life and what you would say to them if you could be together again.
Hope: What are you most hopeful for in the future? Think of three things that you hope you are able to achieve in the next phase of your life. Be as specific as possible. How do you see yourself accomplishing these goals? What steps will you take to make them happen? Do you believe that change is possible?
Writing is one tool you can use to help yourself on a regular basis or to work through a difficult season of life. While writing might not be for everyone, I encourage you to give it a try. There are also many other tools and activities available to help with anxiety and depression. The key is to keep working to find the right mix that works for you.
Taking care of your mental health is always important, but it’s especially critical during periods of high stress. Along with good nutrition, exercise, proper sleep, and limiting alcohol use, writing can help you stay mentally strong and ready to take on whatever challenges life throws at you.
I would love to answer any questions you have about the writing therapy process and hear how this is working for you. Feel free to contact me at Kris@MartinezCreativeGroup.com
This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 edition of Enterprising Women Magazine. Please click the logo to go to Enterprising Women Magazine: