Writing as a form of therapy
Throughout history, writing has been used as a way of exploring our relationship with others and ourselves. Writing is particularly helpful in processing difficult feelings of anger, grief, sadness, and it also allows us to connect to the world around us. Structured therapies in creative disciplines, such as art, music, drama, dance, and now creative writing are developing rapidly and are becoming more acknowledged as a legitimate form of treatment.
I’ve worked in various clinical settings using creative writing as a therapeutic tool and resource. It’s been especially helpful for clients facing difficult emotions such as bereavement, recovery from trauma, illness, and difficult family dynamics. It works well for both group and individual therapy. For clients who are feeling overwhelmed and lack a safe space, whether physical or emotional, writing helps create an environment where they can vent complex feelings and create new perspectives and outlooks.
While the writing process may be different for everyone, the process itself is what’s cathartic. Writing is a powerful process of translating thoughts in the subconscious into the conscious, enhancing your self-awareness and creating meaning around experience.
In a group setting, it is important to establish ground rules for safe and creative exploration from the onset. Boundaries such as confidentiality must be clearly stated and enforced. Throughout the sessions, the group practices respectful listening, avoiding criticism. Over time, the group advances to more creative exercises. There are also opportunities for reflection, sharing, and feedback on what we have written and experienced, but only for those who are comfortable sharing.
In Flow:The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi explores the theory that, “people are happiest when they are in a state of flow, or a state of complete concentration. A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”
For many, writing is an activity that you can completely engross yourself in and lose yourself for a small amount of time.
In both individual and group sessions, the act of writing is more important than the end product. For some, putting thoughts onto paper helps create a separation between their thoughts and themselves, allowing their current experience to be observed from a new perspective.
Freewriting involves a “brain dump”—writing for a period of time without stopping—allowing your writing to take any shape, away from a structured form and grammatical rules. This can seem somewhat uncomfortable at first, considering the nonsensical format. The key is to avoid any personal judgements and inner voice critiquing your work. For well-structured writers, this can be somewhat difficult, since it feels disorganised and chaotic. But trust the process. The chaos is where creativity and the catheratic release manifests. The content of freewriting can be somewhat surprising, too, often bringing transparency to the original intended meaning or changing the meaning entirely.
Different styles of writing can also be just as therapeutic. Writing stories and fiction can engage our emotions and connect us to others. Fiction is not about expressing your own feelings, but bringing out these emotions in your readers. Writing fiction in a therapeutic manner gives the writer the safety to explore themes she may not be ready talk about just yet. Writing a letter to someone knowing that it will never be read, or even writing a simple mundane to-do list can change your mood, making tasks more manageable and making you feel more in more control.
Writing is an empowering tool where you are your own ally, a place where you can feel heard, and supported. This creates a space for you to gain powerful insights. Writing for yourself and reading it back can put an experience in perspective, distance the pain, or help you explore how others in the situation might have viewed it.
Whatever style you choose to experiment with, be brave enough to write something terrible, something not impressive, and, quite frankly, embarrassing—a work that’s unpublishable. Because when we shift from the product of the writing to the act of writing itself, that is where the healing happens.