Expressive writing - also known as therapeutic writing - is the process of letting your thoughts and feelings flood onto the page, without stopping to censor, judge or perfect. It's a free-flow process that allows the thoughts and feelings to pour out, like water from a tap.
The power of expressive writing is that it doesn't have to be perfect. You can write from the heart without worrying about spelling, punctuation or grammar. No one is leaning over your shoulder and tutting. No one ever has to read it apart from yourself. There is a freedom that comes with releasing your feelings onto the page.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I encourage my clients to keep a journal - or at least to allow themselves to write freely when they have pent-up emotions that need to be aired. "Better out than in" is my mantra.
Getting started with expressive writing
Find a pen, some paper and a quiet space. Pick an image: this can be the view from your window, a picture in a newspaper, or an old photo. Take five minutes to write in detail about what you see. As you write, tune into your feelings and stay present with them. In the next five minutes, open up to what the scene is triggering in you. Write down any thoughts and feelings that emerge from our emotional response to the image. Trust what emerges. Don't go back and edit anything. Allow your words their own space.
Expressive writing can support your mental health and emotional wellbeing in the following ways:
1. If you've expressed your feelings by writing them down, they don't have the same power to run rampage in your psyche. The page can hold the feelings so you don't have to. You can separate from the emotion rather than letting it take hold.
2. Writing expressively is a mindful process that keeps you fully engaged in the moment. Being mindful keeps you present, so you worry less about the 'what ifs' in the future, and stress less about the 'should haves' from your past.
3. Expressive writing takes your feelings seriously. You can delve as deeply as you like into current stressors or past traumas. The pen and page will acknowledge your feelings and meet you where you are. This process is especially healing if you grew up in an environment where you had to conform to survive, and your true feelings were never allowed space. Not being seen for who you truly were can be a factor in depression. Saying what you were never able to say - especially your hurt and angry feelings - can help alleviate depressive symptoms.
4. The act of writing expressively relieves stress and anxiety. If you have become hyper-aroused by events of the day, or are feeling triggered emotionally, pick up a pen. Writing down your experience in that moment - with all its detail - can drain your stresses away and soothe your anxious thoughts.
5. Much like talking therapy, expressive writing helps you build emotional resilience to cope with what life has to throw at you. The page is always there for you as an opportunity to process the complexities, the stresses and the joys of life.
6. Writing things down brings clarity and frees up your energies to be more creative with your life.
Karen Dempsey will be hosting a writing for wellbeing workshop on Wednesday 13 September as part of the Mental Wealth Festival at City Lit.
The Mental Wealth Festival - organised by City Lit and Beyond Words - is a three-day festival of talks, debates and seminars, celebrating many aspects of life that contribute to people's mental wellbeing. This year the event takes place in venues at City Lit in Covent Garden and The National Gallery (13-14 September) and Houses of Parliament (12 September). With contributions from award-winning mental health campaigners Jonny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn, Bryony Gordon, Mandy Stevens, Rachel Kelly, Ed Balls, Jeremy Swain, Sean Fletcher, Hope Virgo and many others...