If you don’t like to write, consider reading this through anyway! It has helped so many “non-writers” and it may help you too.
My regular clients will tell you that I encourage writing in many forms as part of our counseling process. While I specialize in grief, I also work with clients who have experienced trauma, dysfunctional families, self-sabotaging behaviors, intimacy issues and myriad concerns within their complex lives. For all of these clients and more, writing is a common “prescription.”
Why writing? Writing can impose a structure on otherwise-amorphous thoughts and allow you to articulate and express things that you may not even have identified. Writing provides a mind-body link as the words in our heads come out through our fingers (handwriting can have additional benefits, but typing is good too!). Writing requires temporary focus, and focus clears the mind and settles the nervous system.
Writing exercises can be applied therapeutically in so many ways, and this is not meant to be a comprehensive discussion at all. Instead, I will highlight three of the most useful and widely-applicable writing exercises so that you might experiment with them. All could benefit from discussion with a counselor, but all can be done independently.
- Stream of Consciousness Writing- Based on the concept of “morning pages” presented by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way, stream of consciousness writing provides a “brain dump” to help clear the mind. If you feel overwhelmed, foggy or “paralyzed,” this exercise might be for you. I recommend hand-writing for most people, but type if you need to. I also recommend loose paper that can be destroyed afterwards (or a document that can be deleted easily). Set a timer for 10 minutes and begin writing anything in your mind that can be translated into words. It needn’t have a format, it needn’t make sense. The object is to write what is in your head, regardless. If you get stuck as your are writing and can’t quite identify what to write next, simply rewrite the last written word repeatedly until the next thing gets to the paper. When the timer goes off, you are done. No need to re-read. Shred, tear or crumple the paper and discard it. Do this daily for a week or more to reap the benefits.
- Journaling- A personal journal can serve as a processing outlet or a mere log of your life. Both have value. Privacy tends to be best for journaling, but if your life doesn’t allow that, just write what you can as your people flit about around you. Journaling prompts may help if you are not used to facing a blank page. Or use a simple format like, “Today I did/felt/need/want” and elaborate on those. If sticking to journaling is tough for you but something you want to do, I recommend the book Atomic Habits by James Clear to help you learn how to create a daily habit.
- Letter Writing- Writing actual letters with intention to send them can be a great exercise in and of itself, but generally when I recommend letter-writing, it is for the client to write to a person they can’t talk to. This may be a deceased loved one, an estranged family member, a difficult personality in their life, or a person from their past. These may be hand-written or typed, saved or destroyed- whatever your comfort level. The fact that you won’t send them is key, though. It allows a frankness and vulnerability that makes this exercise worthwhile. You may have no problem scrawling out a letter like this, but if prompts are helpful, some good starting points are: “What I wish you knew is…,” “You impacted me by…” “I hope you feel…,” “My life is different because…,” or “If I could do one thing over again I would…” There are countless ways to write letters and anything goes.
If you are intrigued by writing and want to experiment more, look for online prompts, writing apps, letter templates, fillable journals and other resources to explore.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith
Spiritual Doodles and Mental Leapfrogs by Katherine Q. Revoir (out of print, but available through some second-hand outlets)
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