A new study by Northumbria University shows that writing about our positive thoughts for 20 minutes a day can reduce stress and anxiety levels. We know that people are encouraged to talk about negative experiences to “get things off their chest” but, as Michael Smith, associate professor of psychology at Northumbria states, not so much has been said about the impact of writing about positive experiences.
It seems so obvious doesn’t it? That talking or writing about positivity allows us to feel more positive. But in reality, it’s hard to discipline yourself to do that.
Think about therapy. How often do we nervously go over the shaky grounds of panic attacks, anxious thoughts, social concerns and everything else that leads us to access counselling in the first place? Really, the ultimate point of therapy isn’t just about freeing ourselves from the symptoms, but about the potential that such freedom opens up in our lives - that’s the positive bit. That’s what my current therapist taught me. My sessions became less about discussing how I felt and where I was when I had my last panic attack, and more about where I was when I felt good.
So I started to think about these more positive moments. I was in Sorrento, sipping a coffee and people watching from the Mona Lisa cafe. I was in the back garden listening to the birds sing and my friend’s children squealing and giggling in the garden next door. It’s training your brain to think about things differently.
Of course, we do need to face our demons and get them out there into the open, belittle them in some ways, and show them up for what they really are. But we shouldn’t become too pre-occupied with them. I think we need to strike a balance - and I’d say that the scales should tip in favour of the positive thinking. It feels much healthier.
As a writer, I often reflect on negative experiences, or how I have overcome negative experiences, and it definitely serves a cathartic purpose. But when I think about my writing, and the chapters of my book that I choose to read to audiences at events, I rarely select the panic attack chapter. It serves a purpose, but it shouldn’t be front and centre. Instead, I choose to read the final chapter of my book, the one that focuses on acceptance and liberation. The moments of positive realisation.
So how can we discipline ourselves to spend more time writing our positive thoughts down? And I say this not just to professional writers or bloggers, but to anybody who has access to a pen and paper, laptop or tablet. I do find it pretty difficult to be inspired to write about positivity, but thanks to a wonderful 40th birthday present from a good friend, I have been practising. I got a mindfulness exercise book for my birthday and it challenges me to note down sounds, sights, smells - so that I take in the moment in every sense. And in taking in the present, we can find positivity and enjoyment. So maybe that’s a good place to start. Instead of always reflecting, just as we often do when writing a diary or a blog, what about writing about right now?
For those of us who need structure to get into the swing of it, try one of the endless mindfulness writing exercises that you can find in your local book store, like I did with my birthday present. For those who don’t, simply try a stream of consciousness that takes in all the senses of the moment. Let birdsong take you on a writing journey... be it journalling or a work of fiction and fantasy. Another practice I love is a regular Twitter conversation that Dr Pooky Knightsmith runs called #3GoodThings. It encourages her followers to follow her lead and think about three positive things they have experienced that day. It’s so refreshing and most definitely carries a feel good vibe.
The point is, anxiety is driven by negative thoughts of what might happen in the future. And as writers, we often reflect on these thoughts. But what if we all try to consider what is happening right now, or what has happened that made us feel good? It brings a sense of calm into the present. And it allows us to focus on the things we should be thankful for.
I can’t pretend I’m a pro when it comes to managing anxiety - I lapse from time to time and that’s not much fun. But the more time I can spend thinking about my potential rather than my inadequacies and my opportunities rather than my risks, the happier I know I’ll be.
Writing these positive things down is a way of reinforcing them and allowing them to influence our mood. So perhaps we should try 20 minutes a day of positive journalling like Northumbria’s research suggests, or joining Pooky’s Twitter chat, or letting the great outdoors take us on a creative writing trip.
I’m pretty confident it will bring us to a much calmer and happier place.
A Series Of Unfortunate Stereotypes, my book about mental health stereotypes and self-stigma, published by charitable mental health publisher Trigger Press, is available now.