In 2001, Shailaja Vishwanath, who had been married just six months, found herself slowly “shunning friends and family”. The rigours of house and office work were taking a toll on the mental and physical health of this English language trainer at a competitive exam training institute in Bengaluru. Vishwanath began a silent descent into depression. The next nine months were harrowing—the depression turned into manic episodes and soon, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
She began a round of psychiatric counselling and therapy. The doctors recommended she do something to keep herself happy—she decided to pen down her thoughts. “All I need to do is pick up my pen or open my laptop and thresh out the thoughts in my mind. They don’t even have to make sense. They just need to get out of my head,” says Vishwanath.
Our thoughts and feelings are influenced by our experiences. A traumatic experience can keep us awake at night as we try to wrap our disturbed minds around it; dwelling on it can lead to anxiety and depression. But when these thoughts and feelings are translated into the written word, we can process and channel the experience to get a better perspective, leading ultimately to a feeling of well-being.
For people recovering from trauma, however, the writing process should be conducted in a guided and controlled environment, for it can evoke negative memories.
“For minor issues, people don’t need to visit the therapist, so writing can help. The existing problem will not disappear, but they can recognize what is troubling them, and figure out how to deal with it. But when people undergo severe trauma, the initial response is to forget the cause of it. They are made to go through the event and write it in a chronological order. It helps revise memory and process the event better,” says Bengaluru-based psychiatrist Ashlesha Bagadia.
Bengaluru-based Priya Pothan, a clinical psychologist, too cautions that though the method has been used for people with terminal illnesses, “one should not be forced to use the expressive writing technique—it is a method of expression and different people can express themselves differently”. In any case, you shouldn’t write about trauma for more than a couple of weeks at most. It should be a temporary short-term exercise that allows the person to “step back and evaluate his/her life”. Also, do remember that writing mainly seems to benefit those who can construct a story and build a narrative around their experience.
In most other situations, studies have shown that expressive writing—writing descriptively about our deepest thoughts and feelings—can improve mood, help cope with trauma and even improve physical health.
James W. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, US, was the first to show scientifically that writing expressively helps. In a study, published in 1999 in the Journal Of Clinical Psychology, Prof. Pennebaker recruited healthy undergraduates and assigned them to one of four groups. Three groups wrote about traumatic life events, while the fourth group wrote about trivial issues. They were instructed to write for 15-20 minutes for four consecutive days and their well-being was tracked over the next six months. It was found that those who wrote about their traumatic events had fewer illnesses, some even saw their grades improve.
In a study, published in 2008 in the journal Oncologist, 71 patients undergoing chemotherapy at a cancer clinic took part in a structured, 20-minute expressive writing task while they waited for their appointment. The task was followed by a post-writing assessment and a three-week follow-up. Immediately after writing, about half the patients reported that it had resulted in a positive change in their thoughts about illness, while about 53% reported the positive change at the three-week follow-up.
As humans, says Pothan, we try to find meaning in our lives and improve our understanding of ourselves and those around us. “Expressive writing is a technique to enhance self-awareness and it can be a cathartic experience whereby pent-up emotions can be released.”
Mahesh Natarajan, co-founder and counsellor, at InnerSight Counselling & Training Centre LLP in Bengaluru, believes that any form of emotional expression, especially writing, helps, especially if one is struggling to make sense of difficult circumstances, or dealing with self-doubt or self-criticism. “Getting to reflect upon one’s thoughts, perceptions and connecting to one’s deeper longings helps facilitate healing through experiencing relief of expression and exploring alternatives. Writing, especially, is a reflective exercise, and given the particularities of writing, makes the activity a lot more mindful and purposeful,” he says.
Here’s what you can do to get started
u A daily journal to start with: Though mindful writing with clarity of purpose tends to be more beneficial, get into the habit of writing daily first. If you are starting a journal, be aware of what its purpose is, so it doesn’t end up merely as a chronicle of events or a repository of grievances. On four consecutive days, write about the most emotional or traumatic experience in your life and explore your deepest thoughts and feelings. Do this for 15-20 minutes daily and explore your relationships with family members/friends through the narration of these experiences.
u Refine your narrative: When angry, confused or upset, write down your thoughts. This will help you air your feelings in a healthy manner. If mourning, write a letter to the lost family member/friend by expressing your feelings and daily experiences. Fictionalize events that are troubling you to create short stories or bits of poetry.
For 20 minutes daily over one-two weeks, you can keep describing your feelings and thoughts. This will help you understand yourself better. Then, write about your aspirations for another week and see how the narratives add up. In every form of expressive writing, focus on expression, not on punctuation or grammar. Write without editing and continue writing till the time is up or you feel there is really nothing more to write.
u Follow a schedule: Write each day about a specific thing or act that brings joy. Take a piece of colourful paper for every such incident noted and store it in a glass jar. Just being able to see a jar full of joyful, colourful bits helps make the not-so-nice days bearable.
—Priya Pothan and Mahesh Natarajan