Saulena Antanaviciene, MS, NCC, LCPC
How to Use the Healing Power of Writing
“Our stories help us understand a terrifyingly confusing and dangerous world, most of which is a riddle. For the world to feel safe, we need to make sense of it, especially when we encounter setbacks and misfortunes that shatter our confidence … How we tell our story influences how we feel about ourselves. Change your story and you change your identity.”
Can writing be helpful and healing? What is therapeutic journaling and in what way it can be effectively utilized in clinical process? Writers, poets, and everybody who kept a journal any time in their lives know that writing can heal. Ground braking research and studies take us way beyond this intuitive knowledge about the power of writing. J. W. Pennebaker (as cit. S. Borkin, 2014) conducted several studies with the assumption that writing down emotions could provide the writing cure or relief. The most surprising finding was that expressive writing had a significant effect on the body “those students who wrote in an emotionally expressive and in-depth way about personal traumatic events fared significantly better physically” (S. Borkin, 2014). J. W. Pennebaker (as cit. S.Borkin, 2014) theorized that inhibiting emotional expression weakens our immune system and expressive writing actually strengthens it.
Other researches also provide more and more information about positive effects of expressive writing on working memory, stress, cognitive functions, emotional health and behavioral self regulation. According S. J. Lepore and others (as cit. S. Borkin, 2014) “expressive writing can provide a mastery experience in which people observe themselves tolerating and diminishing fear and other negative emotions.”
So what is therapeutic journaling more specifically about? Therapeutic writing is any type of writing used for the purpose of growth, self knowledge and psychological healing. Therapeutic journaling, integrated in overall treatment plan, can be very helpful in general and also used to enhance treatment of a wide range of specific issues, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, low self-esteem, grief and addiction (S.Borkin, 2014). The other benefits of therapeutic journaling is more efficient use of session time exploring what client learned from writing and self reflection during the week. Also therapeutic journaling may plays an important role in continually maintaining dialog and building a healthy relationship with ourselves and others as E. Roosevelt (as cit. M. Tartakovsky, 2014) said “Friendship with oneself is all important, because, without it one cannot be friends with anyone else in the word.”
In my clinical work I observed that despite of benefits of therapeutic journaling clients struggle somewhat with expressive writing idea, because of doubts how to journal and express feelings to heal. Using ideas of psychoterapist, speaker and author Susan Borkin who specializes in the therapeutic use of writing in clinical process I created some guidelines to make therapeutic journaling manageble, simple and enjoyable. S. Borkin (2014) developed a mnemonic device ATTENDD to guide the process:
- AWARENESS. Be aware of what is going on in your inner world between sessions. Jot down if you noticed any changes or something seems different in your life.
- TENSION/PHYSICAL SENSATION. Pay attention to your body sensations. Describe sensation or tension in your body.
- THOUGHTS. Write down any unusual or upsetting thoughts that come up. Notice if your thinking chances when you write them down.
- EMOTIONS. Pay attention to your feelings. Notice if you are feeling sad, relieved, elated, anxious, fearful, happy or angry. Notice if you feel differently than you felt before session.
- INTUITION. Be aware of anything that comes up to you intuitively during the week. Notice if you instinctively have a better understanding about your life, relationships, self or anything that was on your mind.
- DREAMS. Write down everything you remember about your dreams, such as people, images, feelings, objects.
- DISTRACTIONS. Pay attention to what distracts you. Do you have any distracting thoughts? Did you notice any pattern of the distractions?
It is important to notice that in therapeutic journaling there is no need to be concerned about grammar, style, spelling or punctuation and there are no specific rules how to express your feelings. According to S. Borkin it is more useful to keep journaling simple.
Another useful exercise to get more comfortable with therapeutic journaling is free-form writing which is also called stream-of consciousness writing. The only thing that you need to do practicing free-form journaling is focus on your thoughts and write down all of them without any selection, i.e. even if you would catch yourself thinking “I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what I am suppose to be doing” just write it down for 5 or 7 minutes.
Writing teacher B. Abercrombie (2013) suggests to use prompt to overcome writing or journaling block such as:
- Write three adjectives that describe you.
- Write about part of yourself that you are avoiding or are afraid to meet.
- Write about a time that you were excessively curious.
- Write three things that you cannot imagine living without.
- Write an idea of an authentic life.
- If I could talk to my teenage self, the one thing I would say is …
- Write about a time your confidence was shattered.
- Write about a time you arrived in a new place.
- Write your biography.
- Write about a time when work felt real to you, necessary and satisfying.
- Write about a time you felt you revealed too much.
- Write a list of “shoulds.”
Don’t let the idea of writing scare you from considering therapeutic journaling! With the guidance of understanding therapist it can greatly enhance your journey to know yourself, and have profound impact on your emotional healing, growth and physical well-being.
Abercrombie, B. Kicking in the Wall. New World Library, 2014.
Borkin, S. A Therapist’s Guide to Using Journaling With Clients. W. W Norton & Company, 2014.
Borkin, S. The Power of Pen in Therapy. Psychotherapy Networker, 2014, September/October.
Tartakivsky M., 30 Journalind Prompts for Self-Reflection and Self-Discovery. .
Saulena Antanaviciene is Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) and a therapist at Elemental Center for Personal Development. She received her Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology from Benedictine University, completed Fellowship Program and postgraduate training in Psychodynamic Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy and is active member of Multicultural Study Group at Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.
Saulena’s areas of interest include anxiety, depression, trauma resolution, effects of dysfunctional families, addictive behaviors, co-dependency, personality disorders and many others. Saulena’s work experience includes working as a therapist with adults, children and adolescents.