This post is based on a handout I created for a 2-hour workshop on getting started with writing for wellbeing.
Research shows that writing can benefit your health and wellbeing, but so far no-one knows how it works. No special talent, ability or imagination is needed. Many people would enjoy writing, and benefit from it, if they just had a push to get started. Whatever you write is right for you. Trust yourself to write whatever you need to write.
My advice to people about writing for wellbeing is based on my belief that many kinds of writing can be therapeutic in different ways. For example: you do not have to write about unhappy thoughts for writing to be therapeutic. People can also benefit from writing about happiness or joy, or writing about the world around them.
The types of writing I use and recommend include: mindful writing, writing a journal or diary, writing from a different perspective of some kind, and writing about positive experiences and memories.
Exercise 1: Mindful Expressive Writing
This technique involves writing to describe how you feel right now. Do not add thoughts or associations. Write non-judgementally. Write only about how you feel in this present moment. Sometimes I combine mindful expressive writing with metaphor, for example: “What kind of weather am I right now?”
The workshop exercise (body scan write): (1) Take 5 minutes to write about how you feel physically. Starting at your toes and moving up, write about how each part of you feels – hot or cold? Comfortable or uncomfortable? Tense or relaxed? Tingly? Painful? (2) Now write for 5 more minutes about how you feel emotionally and mentally right now.
Exercise 2: Mindful Descriptive Writing
I think of this as a writing meditation: choose an object, or a photograph of a beautiful place, and write to describe it in some detail. Don’t add thoughts, associations, feelings. Just write a description of the picture or object. Or, better still, notice something in the real world, perhaps the view around you or out of the window, and write to describe it. If possible include description of more than just what you see, for example: the taste of your coffee, the sounds the birds are making, the scents of the flowers, how the garden wall feels under your fingers. Mindful descriptive writing is the therapeutic writing technique that I use more than any other. I recommend a daily journal practice of 5 minutes per day of mindful descriptive writing and 5 minutes per day of mindful expressive writing for general wellbeing benefits and stress relief.
You should practice doing other things mindfully too, like observing the bubbles when you do the washing up, or listening to the birds singing and all the other sounds around you when you wake in the morning.
The workshop exercise (mindful writing about something in the real world): (1) Write for about 6-8 minutes to describe an object in detail – how it looks, smells and feels (this is the mindful writing bit). (2) Optional second part: write for another 6-8 minutes about any thoughts, memories or associations that spring to mind. This second part of the exercise is not mindful writing – so let the writing take you where it will, and write from your imagination if you wish.
Exercise 3: Captured Moments
This is a technique developed by Kathleen Adams and described in her book Journal to the Self: Twenty Two Paths to Personal Growth (see Further Reading). The idea is to write about a moment of your life, for example: a moment of joy, sadness, delight, anguish, exhilaration or serenity, and really bring it to life by including as much detail as you can remember about what you could see, smell, hear, taste and feel at the time.
The workshop exercise: Write for 15 minutes about one of the happiest moments you can remember. Include as much detail as you can about what you could see, hear, taste, smell and feel in that moment. Alternatively you can write about any moment that you remember very strongly.
Exercise 4: Beginnings and Endings
This is a very flexible writing exercise and so it is not really possible to say what type of therapeutic writing technique is involved as that depends on what you decide to write about. For example: you might write about: an emotional ending (Expressive Writing), a memory of the start of something wonderful (Positive Writing), a new that beginning you long for but that hasn’t happened yet (writing from another Perspective), or something completely from your imagination (Creative Writing).
Workshop exercise: Write for 15 minutes about either a beginning or an ending, for example: starting school, moving to a new place, losing a loved one, retiring from work, becoming a parent, meeting someone new. Write from memory or from your imagination. Write about yourself, someone you know or a fictional character.
Exercise 5: Mindful Descriptive Writing (2)
Workshop exercise: write about everything you can see, hear, taste, smell and touch in the room (or wherever you are) right now. As described above, write without adding your own thoughts or judgements or associations.
More handouts and ideas for writing are available on this blog.
Words for Wellbeing, edited by Carol Ross, published by the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Available on Amazon, or direct by post for £9.50 from: Carol Ross, Carleton Clinic, Cumwhinton Drive, Carlisle, CA1 3SX (make cheques payable to Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust).
Journal to the Self: Twenty Two Paths to Personal Growth, by Kathleen Adams, published by Grand Central Publishing.