When I was hospitalised 7 years ago for severe depression, my husband used to give me three words a day and I had to write a poem for each word. He used to give me words that were meant to lift me such as ‘Love’ (yet in my despair I still managed to make them dark and negative). However, they did help me immensely.
The words and poems served as a distraction and a sense of achievement. I had always enjoyed writing and I believe that this daily exercise was what got me through my hospital stay. Since then I have started up two blogs and currently write one about mental wellbeing. This writing is what keeps me going (apart from my daughter). I have one day a week when my daughter is in nursery to write, to do something that makes me happy.
Writing Therapy is an expressive therapy classified in the same group as Drama Therapy, Music Therapy and Art Therapy. Yet it is not as common as these aforementioned therapies and is not generally used in NHS settings. It is however becoming more popular. Writing therapy can be face-to-face through normal counselling sessions either one-to-one or in groups sessions, remotely via email and/or video chat or one can attend specific therapeutic writing workshops.
Writing therapy can also be carried out by an individual without having to seek any professional help, thus making it highly accessible. A person could simply keep a journal of their feelings or they could pick up a book on writing therapy at their local library or bookshop for guidance.
The thought of writing can be very daunting for some people, it is therefore vital to point out that spelling and grammar is not important. You are not writing an essay and it does not have to be shown to anyone else if you do not wish to do so. The aim of the writing is to be cathartic and to build up one’s confidence. Gillie Bolton (2004), a pioneer of therapeutic writing suggests that the focus of the writing should be on the process and not the end product.
Writing therapy is a broad term covering a number of differing techniques. Kathleen Adams (2011), founder and director of The Therapeutic Writing Institute in the USA, created a therapeutic writing continuum that she named The Journal Ladder. The ‘ladder’ ranges from more structured techniques that are accessible to the majority of people such as ‘clustering’ to less structured techniques such as ‘free writing’ that may be challenging to some people. For more information on The Journal Ladder please see the bottom of this article where I have included a link to a PDF on the Center for Journal Therapy website.
Below are some of the techniques used in therapeutic writing, both by therapists and in self-help books;
Journaling – this is the therapeutic writing technique that most people are familiar with. The idea is for one to write down their feelings in a journal. The concept can be taken further and does not just have to merely take the form of a ‘Dear Diary’. The journal can be used to record your dreams, write a short story or write a letter to your future self. This is a book that is dedicated to your self-discovery
Mind dump (also known as free writing) – unstructured writing where one literally dumps all of the things in their brain onto paper. There is no need for full stops or capital letters, the idea is to keep writing until you have nothing left in your mind, or if time limited, until the end of the time allocated.
Poetry therapy – is used as a way of expressing oneself. Therapy can begin with an existing poem or an individual can be asked to write a poem on a specific theme.
Although my husband and I did not know it at the time, this was the form of therapy that we used when I was hospitalised years ago.
Narrative – this is a form of therapy in its own right but can also be used in writing therapy. The approach is based on looking at an event or situation from the outside as a third party. One often gets caught up in the emotions of an event and it can often help to see the situation as an unbiased bystander.
Letter writing – this is where individuals are encouraged to write a letter to either someone else that may have hurt them or maybe even to themselves. The letter is often unsent as it is the process of writing it that makes the person feel better. It could also be an email.
I have written many an unsent email. It feels good to get your feelings about a person and/or event out there, even if the person they are directed at never reads it.
Lists – the idea is to write a list of things on a predetermined subject; Things I would like to change in my life, Positive things in my life, Things I am sad about. This helps individuals identify areas for further therapy.
Clustering (also known as mind mapping) – the individual starts off with a word or phrase in the centre of a page. Any words that come to mind associated with said word are written around the central word connected by lines.
Dialogue – an imaginary conversation. This is like a role play on paper. The individual has the power to carry out a conversation with whoever they want without fear of any repercussions or consequences.
Although the above are some of the more typical forms of therapeutic writing, the idea is that the individual receives some form of benefit from writing. This can also be writing for enjoyment as in my case. Everyone is different and therefore every treatment should be different. Try out some of the techniques and find what works for you or your patient/client.
Some suggested writing exercises to try:
Put pen to paper and write anything that comes to mind (and I mean anything, even if it doesn’t make sense) for 10 minutes.
Ask someone who is not in a negative state of mind to give you a positive word and write a poem about it.
Write about what ‘happiness’ means to you.
Choose an event that has happened in your life and write it as a story in the third person.
Write a list of as many things as possible using the subject heading ‘Things that make me sad’.
Vikky Leaney is a blogger and Mental Health advocate. Vikky has experienced mental health issues her entire adult life and was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 years ago. Vikky aims to make mental illness fathomable to the average person and inspire those who have experience of it with her blog at www.unfathomblog.wordpress.com
For further information follow the link to The Journal Ladder: A Developmental Continuum of Journal Therapy
References Bolton, G., Howlett, S., Lago, C., Wright, J.K. (2004). Writing Cures: An introductory handbook of writing in counselling and therapy. Hove: Routledge
Adams, K. (2011). The Journal Ladder: A Developmental Continuum of Journal Therapy. Wheat Ridge: Center for Journal Therapy
Fox, R. (2013). 365 Journal Writing Ideas: A year of daily journal writing prompts, questions & actions to fill your journal with memories, self-reflection, creativity & direction. Rossi Fox
Holder, J. (2013). 49 Ways to Write Yourself Well: The Science and Wisdom of Writing and Journaling. Brighton: Step Beach Press Ltd
Books for therapists
Bolton, G., Howlett, S., Lago, C., Wright, J.K. (2004). Writing Cures: An introductory handbook of writing in counselling and therapy. Hove: Routledge
Bolton, G., Field, V., Thompson, K., Morrison, B. (2006). Writing Works: A Resource Handbook for Therapeutic Writing Workshops and Activities. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers