The Healing Power of Expressive Writing

 

Wasn't Monday's total solar eclipse spectacular? I sat in front of my large dining room window directly under the sun with a "holy" spatula in my hand, not sure what would emerge in my mind, heart, body, and soul. While sensing the warm sun on my back as it slowly moved behind the New Moon—and imagining it somewhere in the path of totality being fully overshadowed by it—this message entered my heart:

"I got the New Moon's back, and we both got your back. Take in the love and support. Fear not." This was a message not just for me, but for all light and shadow workers. 

 

First, tears of gratitude for being bathed in awe started to well up. Within moments, I sensed a great shift in my body, kind of like a loud clicking that happens with heavy machinery when reset in place. The groundedness I feel in my body is unprecedented, the culmination of so many vectors of growth intersecting in this total eclipse of body and soul. I hope this cosmic climax was magical and felt like a new birth for you too! 

 

For all these reasons, I'm so delighted to share this timely guest post by Nancy L. Seibel, M.Ed., NCC, BCC, of Keys to Change with you. It's chockfull of valuable tools and tips how to commemorate this collective and individual fresh start and change longstanding patterns through expressive writing. With Nancy's help, you can literally rewrite the story of your life (without needing to write a book!). Here goes. Enjoy . . .

 

As a new mental health counselor in the early 1980s, I worked with adults with a variety of mental health needs. I noticed a common thread among them. So many had suffered difficult, traumatic and abusive upbringings, experiences that continued to affect their health and well-being into adulthood.

 

What if, I wondered, I could focus my energies on strengthening early relationships and preventing child abuse and neglect? What if I devoted myself to building a world in which children grow up free to express the full potential each baby is born with? Would that result in more adults thriving, and building a better world for themselves and others? Those questions led to a turning point in my career. I spent the next 30 years working in nonprofit organizations serving very young children and their families. My choices and actions were continually guided by those questions.

 

I'm now a solopreneur, with my own business as a health, wellness and life coach and early childhood consultant. I am still driven by those same questions. In 2013, they led me to take a workshop offered by psychologist Michelle Pearce through the University of Maryland. The description of "Writing for Wellness" intrigued me. It began with these words:

 

"More than 30 years of research have demonstrated that writing is an effective way to release stress and improve health and wellbeing." 

 

This sounded like something that I would enjoy, and that would be good for me, too. Maybe it would even be something I could learn to offer to my coaching clients and workshop participants.

 

It turned out to be all that and more. Let me tell you more about it.

 

Introducing Expressive Writing

 

What if I told you that by writing for up to 20 minutes a day, for four days in row

 (or once a week for four weeks; or writing for up to 20 minutes at a time, four times in one day), you could create an important change in your life, change that could improve your emotional and physical health, your academic and work performance, and your social relationships. Would you be up for it?

 

If you love to write, you might now be thinking, "Yes! Sign me up!" If you've never liked writing, you might be more hesitant, which is totally understandable.

 

While no one approach is for everyone, Expressive Writing, pioneered in the 1980s by psychologist/researcher James Pennebaker, holds great potential for anyone who wants to try it. You don't need great writing skills to benefit from it. You write only for yourself -- no one will care about your grammar, punctuation or your writing style.

 

It helps a lot to "warm up" to writing. Some of my favorite warm-ups involve using other expressive arts, such as collage-making, drawing or doodling -- all things I am not talented at, but which nevertheless help get me in touch with my thoughts and feelings. Other warm-ups include deep-breathing, stretching, yoga, or dance, or reading favorite quotes or short poems.

 

You also can warm with simple writing exercises, such as a listing all the relatives you can think of in three minutes, or by just free writing (writing with no particular purpose or topic) for 3-5 minutes.

 

But what, you may be wondering, are you warming up for? What is Expressive Writing?

 

Expressive Writing involves writing deeply and honestly, expressing your thoughts and feelings truthfully and in your own voice. These may be things you've never said to anyone or been fully aware of yourself.

 

First, some guidelines for self-care during Expressive Writing.

 

Take care of yourself by:

  • Honoring what Pennebaker called the "flip out" rule. If writing about an event will overwhelm you, choose a different topic to write about, one that you can handle. You can write about the issue you're not ready to handle yet at another time, or seek the help of a mental health professional in exploring it.

  • Protecting the privacy of your writing. This writing is not meant to influence, change or inform anyone else. It's for you and your well-being. Make sure others don't find your writing. Question any impulse you have to share it with someone else. Allowing others to read your writing may have negative consequences.

  • Expecting some sadness for a short time. Much as seeing a sad movie can stay with you for a while, you may feel some sadness or other negative emotion for a short time. If that sadness doesn't resolve with a day or two, you may want to seek the help of a mental health professional.

  • Reflecting on your writing. Keep brief notes after each period of writing. Using a scale of 0-10 (zero being least, and ten being greatest), indicate how openly and honestly you expressed your thoughts and feelings, the extent to which you presently feel upset or sad, the extent to which you currently feel happy, and the degree to which your writing was valuable and meaningful. Jot some brief notes about what you learned from your writing. 

 

Directions for your first day of writing

 

First, do a brief warm-up exercise, as described above, or create your own warm-up.

 

Think of a past disruptive or traumatic event that has continued to have some influence on your life. Write about it using your own voice, describing what really happened and how it has affected you. Really let yourself open up and explore your deepest thoughts and feelings about this disruptive event.

 

Begin to make connections between what happened and other areas of your life -- your childhood, your relationships with parents and other relatives, and your relationships with others, including those you have most loved, feared or been angry with. How does this experience connect to your current life, to who you've been, who you are now, and to the future self you would like to be?

 

Write continuously for the full-time period you have set aside. This can be 5 - 20 minutes at a time. If you have more to say than you can finish in the allotted time, take a break and return to it later.

 

Using the directions above, take a few minutes to reflect on what you wrote.

 

Your second day of writing

 

Begin with a warm up exercise. You can repeat the same warm up, or try a different one.

 

Make sure your writing does not repeat the previous day's writing word for word. You will be exploring the event from new perspectives, going deeper, or looking at different aspects of it.

 

Today your focus is really getting deep into your very deepest feelings and thoughts. You can write about the same event you wrote about on day one, or choose a different one. 

 

Try more deeply exploring how the event has impacted other parts of your life. It's important to acknowledge the ways this event influences your relationships with friends and family, how you and others see you, your work, and how you think about your past. Begin thinking about how the event affects the whole of your life. You can also think about how you may be responsible for some of the effects of the trauma.

 

Part way through, try shifting the "voice" you're writing in. If you've been writing in the first person (I), choose the second person (you) or third person (he/she). This will help you see the experience in a different perspective.

 

Write continuously for the entire time you have put aside. If you get stuck, just keep writing about being stuck until your words begin to flow again.  As you write today, your topic may start shifting. This is okay, go with it and see what you learn in the process.

 

Using the directions above, take a few minutes to reflect on what you wrote.

 

Directions for the third day of writing

 

Again, begin with a warm up activity of your choice.

 

Today you will continue to explore your deepest thoughts and feelings and express them honestly. You can choose to write further about the same event as before, or a different aspect of that event, or a different event.

 

Your focus is on the feelings and thoughts about the event that is most affecting your life today. It is important not to repeat what you've already written. Continue to explore it from different perspectives, and in different ways. Allow yourself to face deep issues that may bring up feelings of vulnerability. Describe how you feel and what you're thinking as you write about this event. How has this experience influenced your life and shaped who you are?

 

Using the directions above, take a few minutes to reflect on what you wrote. Compare today's reflections to the previous two days'. Are you noticing certain themes emerging? What emerges as most important? Does anything surprise you? Are thoughts or ideas coming to you during the day, when you're not writing?

 

Directions for the fourth and final day of writing

 

Start out with your chosen warm-up exercise.

 

Today you will be thinking about how you will bring your story to a close. Explore your deepest feelings and thoughts about events and issues in your life that are most troublesome for you. Try to express and tie up anything you haven't yet confronted. Remember not to repeat what you've previously written.

 

How are you feeling, and what are you thinking today as you write? What have you learned, lost and gained as a result of this upheaval in your life? What message would you share with your past self about this experience, to help them deal with it? How will this past experience guide your future thoughts and actions?  Really let go and express all of this honestly and deeply.

 

Do your best to wrap up the entire experience as a meaningful story, one with a beginning, middle and end, that you can take with you into the future.

 

Using the directions above, take a few minutes to reflect on what you wrote.

 

Give yourself a break of a day or two and then reflect on the entire writing experience. Compare today's reflections to the previous three days'. Are you noticing certain themes emerging? What emerges as most important? Does anything surprise you? Are thoughts or ideas coming to you during the day, when you're not writing?

 

Congratulations!

 

You've done something important on behalf of someone who matters - you! Taking care of yourself through expressive writing can improve your health and well-being, and your experiences at work or in school. It can have a positive impact on your relationships. All of this happens because you have freed up energy that you were using to protect yourself from unexpressed feelings and thoughts. That energy is now available to help you cope and thrive in your daily life.

 

For the future

 

You've learned a new strategy you can come back to any time you want to. Give yourself some time to get some distance on any difficult, disruptive or traumatic events that you encounter in the future before using Expressive Writing to help you cope with it. It seems to work best when we have had time to deal with any immediate, pressing issues, and to have gained some distance from the disruptive event.   

 

References

 

Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J.F. (2014). Expressive Writing: Words That Heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor

Seibel, N.L. (2016).  Writing for Well-Being: Guide and Workbook.

Catonsville, MD: author

 

Nancy L. Seibel, M.Ed., NCC, BCC is a National Certified Counselor and a Board Certified Health, Wellness, and Life Coach. She lives just outside Baltimore, MD, where she is Founder and Principal at Keys to Change, LLC. Keys to Change takes you from burned out to fired up, using innovative, creative and time-tested approaches such as learning from your Heart Magnet, discovering Purpose Clarity, and Writing for Resilience. Join our free, closed Keys to Change Facebook Group Facebook for daily prompts and supportive conversation with others committed to writing for well-being. Contact Nancy via her website or by email, Nancy at keystochange.net. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.  

LATEST BOOK REVIEWS

 

There is no relationship as powerful and healing as our relationship with ourselves and our truth. As Nancy says on her website, take care of yourself, then take care of everything else. One way to foster this relationship is through a regular writing practice. The magical secret of this self-care wisdom: you'll start to thrive at an edge where you will achieve two goals for the "price of one." All that you do for your whole, most integrated, liberated, and true self will: 1) accumulate and can never be taken away, and 2) end up serving the greater good. Life becomes so much easier when you can stop the back and forth, and let go of the "self vs other" inner tug-of-war. You start to find common ground on a deep soul level.

It's a bold stance that doesn't permit you to look for constant validation and guidance. That would defeat its integrity. I practiced this while writing Amazon Wisom Keeper and I struggled with heaps of self-doubt at first. Later down the line, this gradually got better, but there always remained a speck, the "what if you are delusional?" that doesn't really ever go away.

 

Or so I thought. The validation from trusted sources below may be game-changing for me. They fortify my stance: Be at least 1 degree more PRESENT in WHOLENESS than in wounding.  Heal the world by healing you. Bring your whole soul where ever you go. Your impact and potential will grow exponentially just by sticking with this process. 

 

"In a memoir that’s braver than most, Loraine Van Tuyl shows how personal and ancestral stories and gifts breathe vitality into our life force. While taking us through a memory portal, she invites us to retrace our steps through our jungles of experiences, and dares us to recognize our own instinctual reactions at interesting crossroads in our lives. Her story of reclaiming and nurturing her awakening life force as a student, in the face of strong resistance, is valuable because it opens the door to how personal, cultural and spiritual truths and traditions can transform traditional Western psychology as well as individual lives.”

 

 - Maria P. P. Root, PhD, Award-winning Psychologist, Reiki Master, Artist, and author of The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier.

 

“A triumph of the heart! Amazon Wisdom Keeper reminds us of the essential need to connect to our authentic wholeness in order to provide service in the world. Loraine Van Tuyl has vulnerably and powerfully laid out her own journey along this path, inspiring growth, faith, and hope along the way.”

 

- Anne Lowe, MSW, Social Work Instructor, Salish Kootenai College

 

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CALENDAR OF EVENTS

Save the date! Amazon Wisdom Keeper Book Talks and Signings

 

October 23, 2017, 4:00 - 5:00 pm, Bringing Inspiration to Earth Radio Show

 www.BITEradio.me interview with Robert Sharpe

 

October 28, 2017, 4:00 - 5:00 pm, BARNES and NOBLES, Dublin, CA

Spiritual Awakenings: How Do You Know if You Are Experiencing One?

 

November 1, 2017, 6:00 - 7:30 pm, BOOK PASSAGE, Sausalito, CA

Preventing Spiritual Emergenc(i)es By Renaturing your Denatured "I"

 

November 2, 2017, 7:00 - 8:30 pm, SACRED STREAM, Berkeley, CA

Preventing Spiritual Emergenc(i)es By Renaturing your Denatured "I"

 

Nov 11, 2017, 6:30 - 7:30 pm, GALLERY BOOKSHOP, Mendocino, CA

The What, Why, Where, Who, and How of Spiritual Awakenings

 

November 16, 2017, 1:00 - 1:50 pm, ALL THINGS THERAPY

 LA Radio interview with Lisa Tahir

 

 

 

 

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