I learned about expressive writing in David Hanscomb’s book, Back In Control.
He got it from David Burns’s book Feeling Good, which I’ve also now read a lot of.
Both books herald expressive writing as an effective cure for anxiety, depression and physical pain.
Hanscomb wrote, “It’s not if it works, it’s why it works.”
So, I tried it. And I want to share exactly what happened and the kinds of things I wrote.
What Is Expressive Writing?
Expressive writing is free form writing about anything that’s on your mind that’s bothering you.
The idea behind it is to get what’s bugging you OUT of your mind and down on paper – to separate it from your brain. Then throw it away.
It’s not a journal. You’re not keeping it, no matter how profound you think it may be.
I think this is the most important part – the ripping out of the page and throwing it away.
In my experience, it works.
My Expressive Writing Experience
When my mind is idol and I don’t have anything going on, I can tend to feel depressed. I’ve had several anxiety attacks in my life.
At the time before I started expressive writing, I was having regular tingling on the left side of my face and neck, probably due to some disc issue in my neck.
I committed to writing 2x per day, for 15 minutes each. I wrote when I got up and I wrote before I went to bed.
I wrote whatever whatever was on my mind at the time and usually it was a bitch session.
I used expressive writing to “express” myself. I wrote about relationships, my life, my body, work and things I needed to do. I wrote about frustrations and fears. Anything was fair game. I never held back. I wrote things I might never share with anyone.
Then when the 15-minute timer went off, I ripped out the page and threw it away. Most days, I’d write about a page and a half.
Sometimes I’d catch my mind wandering in the middle of the writing. So, I’d just return to the writing.
Sometimes, I had no idea what to write about when I started, so I’d write about that: “I don’t have anything to write about today. Things have been good lately….”
Invariably, my mind would eventually land on something new. Often, it might just be a list of things I needed to do.
There are no rules. Usually, a review of the last 24 hours gave me plenty of things to write about. Maybe I was bored that day or didn’t do something I told myself I was going to do.
The point is to get it out, get it down, and then throw it away.
Within 2 weeks, I felt a shift. Instead of ruminating over a negative thought, I’d catch myself and tell myself, “Hold on, let’s take this to the paper tonight.”
Then I’d let the negative thought go and my mind would move on to something else.
As I learned from David Burns, “Our thoughts determine how we feel.”
What I didn’t realize was I was laboring over negative thoughts, so of course I felt bad. Of course, I felt depressed.
Once I broke that connection, I started to feel a lot better.
David Hanscomb says, “The pain pathways are permanent. But over time, we can create new pathways.”
That’s EXACTLY what I wanted to do.
I wanted to create new paths in my brain. I wanted to undo the wiring that had been instilled in me as a child.
Expressive Writing Wrapup
Two months after I started expressive writing, the tingling sensation was almost gone and a month after that, it had ceased completely.
But more importantly to me, I am feeling better emotionally and mentally since I started expressive writing.
After around 3-4 months, I reduced to once a day writing sessions. Six months later, I don’t write much at all, unless I feel I need to.
Hanscomb says when he’s getting all worked up, his wife will ask him, “Have you been doing your writing?”
He’ll start again and as a result begin to relax again.
So, when I start feeling off, or particularly agitated by things in life, I know its time to take it back to the paper.
David Hanscomb also says you can use verbal release and I’ll do this, too.
I’ll talk outloud with no one else around and just say what’s bothering me. I find I get an immediate bump in mood after I get it out.
The thing I’ve learned is thoughts are things. When I hold onto negative thoughts, I feel bad. I get depressed. I feel bad about myself.
When I get those negative thoughts out, I feel better – sometimes immediately. There really is something interesting about the “separation,” the “getting it out.”
And the act of ripping out the paper and throwing it away is like a ritual. I look forward to it.
I’m not trying to hold onto all these bad thoughts. I want them to be gone. I feel better when they’re gone.