"Write Your Way to a Calmer, Happier You"
Make writing your sanctuary and you'll find that your jottings and journals can help you cultivate inner calm and wellbeing,
says Jo Bisseker Barr
Writing expressively captures things in black and white. It encourages us to slow down, to breathe a little more deeply, and to reflect on authentic feelings The poet William Wordsworth certainly understood something of the restorative power of expressive writing when he said: "Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart".
Lots of people have already discovered how reflective writing can help to calm the mind and increase feelings of wellbeing, particularly at times when life's challenges, such as loss or change, threaten to throw us off-kilter. With regular practice, the act of writing can be both a surprising and illuminating route towards our self-development, helping us to explore and clarify personal issues, what we think and feel, how we understand ourselves, and how we can move towards healthy growth.
I’ve worked creatively with words all my life, and try to write every day. I first found the pleasure of escaping into fiction as a child; when my dad got up to go to work each day, my younger sister would climb into bed with my mum and while they developed a closeness that persists today, I was perhaps experiencing a different kind of emotional connection through the written word, burrowing back into the blankets with a book and escaping into the fictional world of its characters. I soon began writing myself, producing little handmade books with drawings to illustrate them, moving on to write a diary for many years. In reading back my diaries now, I’m able to chart how, as I grew older, the content shifted from being mainly factual: ‘went to school again, had sausages for dinner… etc’ to something more akin to Wordsworth’s breathings of the heart.
As a teenager, many of us can recall how getting things down in black and white had a soothing effect, pouring out painful feelings into a secret journal kept under lock and key, to be read by another on pain of death! There was something about that process of learning how to express and to feel what I was feeling, within a safe space, that felt cathartic - like a bit of self-therapy. Working as a talking therapist today, I encourage clients to keep a journal; it’s another way of unburdening, sorting and making meaning of what goes on in the therapy room. But we don’t need to have a mental health problem to be benefitting from reflective writing. It’s a healthy habit to identify and track everything we are feeling and going through, just as a way of processing stuff that happens in everyday life.
I also kept a dream diary for a while, and reading it back in later life allows for fascinating connections to be made. At the time, much of it seemed laugh out loud, a crazy mixture of reality and fantasy such as surfing the Severn-bore tidal wave past my house with my family! But delve a bit deeper and, as many of my clients have found, over time it can be eye-opening, a way of tapping into an unconscious world that sits just below the surface and charting psychological growth through the years towards the present day. Getting into the habit of writing our dreams down can feel therapeutic in itself, but it can be an invaluable tool for reflective thinking, perhaps helping shed light on old, unhelpful patterns, revealing something new to us about ourselves.
I’ve written a review of every single book read since I was 13. I recall the thrill of being given a large burgundy leather-effect writing book from an uncle - the first book I reviewed was ‘Flambards’ by KM Peyton. At the back is a page where I record those few books which receive the accolade of ‘Best Reads’ – those truly knock-out ones that you constantly want to return to, yet also can’t bear to finish because you will miss them!
So what is it all about, this desire to chart and map these details of my life in written form that has persisted in one way or another through the years, like a seam of metal running through different layers of rock? Expressive writing seems to be a means to cultivating regular, attentive space and time towards the self as punctuation to our ever-busy lives, a safe grounding place we can take ourselves to. Writing can tick all the boxes that other self-care rituals such as yoga, running or mindful meditation practice provide, encouraging us to carve out calm space where we quieten our busy minds for just a while, slow down and tune into our inner world.
Expressive writing is a form of mindfulness. It takes us away from angsting over the ‘what if’s’ of what might happen, and blocks out our regretful ‘if only’s’ from the past, disengaging us from dwelling on our stresses and anxieties. So why not try investing in a beautiful notebook, taking up your pen, and writing a little reflective space into your day? The more we can ‘retrain our brain’ in rituals like this, the better-equipped we will be for life’s dips and knocks. Time set aside for writing, just like time given to mindfulness practice or yoga, cycling or baking – can become another tool in our ‘virtual toolbox’ for self-care.
5 suggestions for simple, practical ways to bring more writing into your life:
1. Start free-writing
Set aside five quiet minutes each day, and write non-stop. Write whatever’s in your head, trying not to plan, or censor yourself. Don’t worry about structure, spelling or sentences.
Give yourself permission to write anything, it’s impossible to get it wrong! This is a bit like stretching before a work-out.
2. Write down your dreams
Research shows that the more we try to recall our dreams – the more dreams we remember. Create a heading in your journal to remind you, and keep it by your bed.
3. Invest in some beautiful stationery
Accumulate gorgeous notelets, thank-you cards or good old-fashioned writing paper. Connect with some of the people you love by sending heart-felt written messages – receiving something like this in the post feels special!
4. Write letters that will never be sent
Next time someone hurts you, sit down and write everything you think and feel in a letter to them. This can be cathartic, helping to sort out what you really think and feel, because you know it’s for your eyes only.
5. Keep a talisman
Find a small object that’s meaningful to you - I have a tiny pig given by a friend, that sits in a coat pocket. Think of it being a bit like a Guardian Angel. Respond to things you write in your journal with a paragraph in the voice of your talisman. What might it say? This can help bring perspective and shift entrenched thinking.
6. Write lists
Lists are not only for groceries! Start ones up that are personal to you; what makes you happy, a Bucket List, friends, ambitions – your choice!
7. Read more
The more you read, the more you will be inspired to write! Read travelogues, then write your own. Include tickets, mementos, photos. Read biographies – in your journal, you are writing your own! Join a Book Group, and talk about others’ writing that you love.
Committing to dedicated time to write in a group makes it easier to leave outside stresses and concerns behind, and focus on personal expression and exploration of self.
With an Honours degree in English including Creative Writing, I am a qualified and experienced psychodynamic counsellor, working within my private practice.
To book yourself a place at one of the writing workshops or to find out anything else you would like to know about the Write Your Mind workshops - please get in touch.