It’s difficult to pin down a precise moment when writing for therapy began. People have used diaries or poetry or literature for centuries as a means of self-expression. As for a more structured approach specifically geared to the relief of anxiety or stress, James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, stands out as a forerunner in expressive writing. I last mentioned Pennebaker’s approach in a Sharepost I published in 2009. In this post I thought it might be useful to introduce you to just two approaches to expressive writing.
There’s an approach that some writers and authors use that has parallels with the first example. The writer grabs a pen and paper and simply uses up four sheets to record whatever comes into their head. They do it first thing after they wake up. The idea being that it gives less time to put up defences or ruminate on previous days experiences. Once done, they throw the stuff away.
This may seem a bit odd but there is method. For a writer it is used as an exercise to free the mind and think creatively. In a therapeutic self-help context the idea is to provide just a little focus. This may be a traumatic or particularly stressful event you’ve been experiencing. Then you give yourself a time. Around 20 minutes should be fine. You bring to mind the event and then you write. You don’t stop to check your spelling, you don’t worry about sentence structure or grammar, you simply get down what’s in your head. You can be as personal as you wish and say whatever you want because once you’ve finished you’ll rip it up and throw it away. And the next day you’ll do the same and the day after that. Missing a day doesn’t matter, just pick up when you can. Try to get a minimum of four consecutive days. This is the simplest expressive writing technique and is proven to reduce anxiety symptoms and help recovery. You throw the papers away because the exercise is for you and about you. Nobody else should be involved.
Some people prefer a little structure, so here is just one example of a structured technique.
Session 1 (20 mins) Describe the event and how those involved behaved. Say what the worst emotional moment was and what you wished you’d done differently.
Session 2 (20 mins) Look back at session 1 and expand on those feelings. Have they changed over time? What effects have they had on your work, your relationships, your family, your friendships?
Session 3 (20 mins) Go over the material you wrote for the previous sessions. Write again about the worst moments and the effects you feel they had on you. Don’t worry if you feel you’re repeating yourself. Often when we’re troubled we repeat stories to relieve tension.
Session 4 (20 mins) This is the wrap up and move forward session. You have written three times about the stress event or trauma and now you need to explore possible positives to come out of it. Maybe this will be a better understanding of the issues and how they affected you. Maybe there will be some clarity? Of all the sessions this may feel the hardest, but stick to the task and focus only on the positives, even if they feel a little uncertain to you.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.