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HOW TO START WRITING FOR SELF-HELP THERAPY | by BK Bergman | Jun, 2024

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Writing as therapy has been proven in numerous studies to improve overall mental and physical health for people who use it. The best thing about writing as therapy is that it is free and there are no real limits or restrictions on what you need to do to feel better. There are plenty of articles and studies that demonstrate specific guidelines or options for how to do it if needed. However, you should not limit yourself to these suggested options. Write what feels most comfortable to you.

SPELLING, GRAMMAR, OR GETTING IT ‘RIGHT’ DOESN’T COUNT

Don’t worry about how things are spelled, what the sentence structure or formatting looks like, or how it sounds. That doesn’t matter. No one is going to read this. So be honest and be authentic with what you write. You’re the only audience for what you are writing, so there is no reason to spruce it up, exaggerate, or embellish what you are writing. If you find yourself doing that STOP! You need to take a break and get yourself back on course. When we focus on how what we are writing sounds, our mind is trying to derail our efforts and is working to avoid what we need to be looking at.

Our mind is very crafty at protecting us from the pain it sees. Our brain knows that when we feel emotional pain it affects our body. Stress, sadness, and emotional pain have physical effects on our bodies. Our brain knows our personal history and tries to avoid painful emotions. It is a fight or flight reaction that tells us we are in danger, and we are naturally designed to avoid any danger we come across. Our brain thinks it is protecting us. Unfortunately, in the case of our mental health, it is only prolonging the pain we need to address.

Another thing we try to tell ourselves is that we can’t write but the truth is we can. We do it every day in texts, emails, and social media posts. “Those don’t count,” you say. The truth is they do. In writing for therapy, the first rule is to forget all the grammar rules and forget about judging your writing style. What does matter is you writing uninhibited. No spell check. No grammar checker. No flowery prose as if you were Hemingway or any other beloved author.

NOT JUST “DEAR DIARY”

Don’t dwell on the event or issues that plague you as if you are writing it as a news report (“just the facts”). The goal is not to relive the event over and over again. Instead, you need to express how you feel about what happened. Feel free to write the specifics of the event once but then focus on how you feel about what happened. Look at it from different emotional levels (sadness, anger, disgust, etc.). You need to connect with your emotional state when writing. More so than giving a simple blow-by-blow of what has happened over and over again. That isn’t going to help you move forward.

Don’t think of this as a “dear diary” essay. This is where therapeutic writing differs from simple writing in a diary. Writing in a diary is usually a recounting of the events that happened. “Today I did this…Today he said this…Today she didn’t do this.” It isn’t helpful to re-examine the same incident repeatedly.

Don’t overthink this. Start with wherever you feel most comfortable. Be willing at some point to push yourself when you feel more comfortable to push yourself further into the emotional reaction from the event. “Today, he said this, and it pissed me off.” How were you pissed off? How did you express that feeling? How did that feel?

If you write “Today, she told me she didn’t care.” Ask yourself how her saying that makes you feel? Rejected? Angry? Sad? What are you feeling and why? “I’m angry because I put three years into this relationship and wasted my time. I feel like a loser.” Why a loser?

If you find yourself just repeating the event over and over, it likely means you are afraid to go deeper. Expression of feelings or emotions, even to yourself, can be challenging. We know what pain feels like and we avoid it as much as possible. However, you’re not helping yourself by holding back. The only way to get over something is to push through it, feel it completely, and move on.

SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS

Here’s a tip if you find yourself just repeating the same things over and over again. Put aside a good amount of time (maybe up to 2 hours). “Two hours?? I don’t have 2 hours to give up?” Yes, you have the time. Set aside two episodes of binge-watching time. This will do you better anyway.

Setting aside time allows us to focus. Sometimes when we start and stop and start again because of life’s interruptions (like going to work, taking care of the kids or household, or all the other things that come with life), our brain has to restart itself down the path again and writing is hard with constant interruptions. It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day” where you find yourself covering the same ground over and over again.

I generally encourage people to write non-stop for as long as they can without stopping. It is best to set aside a few or even several hours in a day (maybe on a weekend or at night) and simply write whatever comes to mind without stopping. The goal is to just write for as long as you can non-stop until you cannot think of anything else to write about.

START “FREE-WRITING” & GO WHERE IT WANTS TO TAKE YOU

This non-stop writing exercise, also called “free-writing,” will take you several hours to complete if you dedicate the time to it. The idea is to give yourself as much time as possible to clear out all the garbage, trivial, unimportant things that will pop into your mind when you start. We will do anything to prevent ourselves from going deeper. Emotions hide behind much of our daily thoughts. Trivial thoughts are an easy cover for what lies beneath.

HERE’S HOW TO DO IT

To do this, set aside several hours (at least 2 or up to 6–8 hours). Grab a snack (apple, granola bar) and drink (coffee, water, tea) to put next to you. When pressed to think about emotions, emotions can hide behind our “need” for something to eat or drink or even go to the restroom. Like I said, we will do anything to avoid having to push ourselves deeper into our emotions.

Next grab a blank notebook, journal, or pad of paper, your favorite pen, and a couple of backup pens or pencils. We want to avoid the excuses of running out of ink, paper, and even “I hate the way this pen writes” (more excuses to avoid emotion).

Typically, “free-writing” will start something like this: “I’m writing because I was told to start writing but I have nothing to write about…I am just thinking about what I should write about and nothing is coming to my mind. I know I need to do laundry tomorrow because I have nothing to wear. I wonder where my blue sweatshirt went? Did I leave it somewhere? With someone? Or is it in my car or did I leave it at someone’s house? I should probably take some time to clean out my car. It’s a mess. I always let it get out of hand when I am feeling down about myself. What a loser. I’m sitting here writing about what stupid chores I have and that is all I can think about. I have no life. That is the problem. What is life to me? What does having a life look like? Hmm. Having a life to me looks like…”

CLEAR THE CLUTTER, TRIVIAL TO-DO LISTS

You let your brain take you where it wants you to go. Often we have many small things in our head that clog our connection to our deeper thoughts. Chores, errands, and grocery lists dance at the front of our minds telling us not to forget about them. It becomes easy to push what is meaningful or truly necessary to the back of our minds behind small things that cushion us from what we may be avoiding.

When starting a path of writing for your mental health, start by writing a “to-do” list of those things at the forefront of your mind. Clean out as much as you can of the frivolous stuff like errands, reminders, and lists. Get that out of the way and let your hand/mind connection work its magic without you having to put much thought into it. Continue to write whatever comes to the forefront. Eventually, you will have nothing else blocking you from getting to what needs to be dealt with.

I’m sure some of you are saying, “I’m ready to get rolling. I don’t need to empty my head off anyway. I just need to get going!” That’s great. I just ask that you keep in mind this as an option. Sometimes we can start on our writing journey and think we are ready, but we at some point may come up against writer’s block. We may get to a point where we’re stuck and we can’t write anymore. Use this non-stop free writing strategy if or when that happens.

Again, it doesn’t matter what you write, the important thing is to write down what comes into your head and let the thoughts flow naturally.

STILL CAN’T GET STARTED?

If you feel like you can’t quite get started or the thought of writing have you frozen, there are plenty of guided journals available for different specific problems which can be very helpful. Guided journaling will provide prompts that focus your attention on something specific as it relates to the issue you need to work through or get over.

In addition, mental health professionals trained in the various forms of writing therapies can be very helpful in your journey of recovery. Whether a marriage and family therapist or mental health coach, there are good options available.

With that said, I am here to tell you starting yourself down a journey of writing for your health is an easy first step. Stop talking yourself out of doing it. Stop saying, “I can’t write. I don’t know what to say. It won’t help me. My problems are too big.” That’s nonsense.

Ultimately, writing therapy is something most can work through on their own. It is an easy and economical way to start working through whatever is holding you back or you can’t get over it. There are plenty of articles available designed to help you start writing therapy on your own. Working with a therapist or coach remains an option if you are finding the issues you are facing are more than you can work through on your own. However, I suggest you start the work yourself and see where it takes you. There can be immediate gratification through taking small steps now. Writing can be a very positive experience.

You have nothing to lose. Writing isn’t going to pain you more than you already are. Get over it, grab a piece of paper and pen, and write now!

For additional information on writing therapy go to WRITE NOW THERAPY!



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