There’s a quote by Anne Frank that goes “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today we’re discussing Writing Therapy with Courtney Ackerman, a researcher, the author of three published books on positive psychology-related topics, and a regular contributor to the Positive Psychology program. In her independent work, she mostly focuses on compassion, well-being, and survey research.
Courtney- Hi, Valerie. Thank you so much for having me.
Valerie- Thank you. Why don’t you start by telling us how writing has an impact on our mental health?
Courtney- Absolutely. It’s a big question because there are tons of positive impacts of writing on our health. Not only do we sort of get to know ourselves better but we get to understand the world around us and other people better. When we start to write down our thoughts and feelings, it helps us process them, get a hold of them and work through them in a way that we normally don’t, if we don’t write it down or discuss them or investigate them with curiosity. Writing can help with a ton of different things.
Just a few of the research findings have shown that it leads to better health outcomes in terms of lower blood pressure, improvement in lung function, reductions in symptoms in all different kinds of illness, better immune system functioning, even improvements in things like anxiety and depression and substance abuse, eating disorders and post traumatic stress. On top of all that, it gives you those really great insights about yourself, it helps you get shifts in your perspective that can help you interact with yourself and with the world around you, which can result in better relationships, both with yourself and with the people around you. It might be quicker to answer “What doesn’t writing help you with?”!
Valerie- Right. Could you tell us what Writing Therapy is and how it compares to conventional Psychotherapy?
Courtney- Writing Therapy is just another form of therapy. Just like all the other forms, it’s something that’s focused on the client’s mental and emotional well-being. It’s focused on healing and so it’s got the same usual goals of improving the client’s functioning and helping them with their problems and helping them feel better. It’s sort of a typical working relationship between the client and the therapist but the difference with Writing Therapy is that it’s very focused on journaling, on writing.
It’s sometimes also called “Expressive Disclosure” or “Expressive Writing”, which I really like because it focuses on what you’re doing, when you’re doing Writing Therapy, and that’s not just writing anything but you’re writing expressively. You’re expressing yourself, you’re diving into things that are difficult or things that are going on in your head. It allows you to express and exercise those negative emotions to get things off your chest. Just that act of writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you process them in a much simpler and more straightforward way. It helps you to identify what it is that’s wrong so that you can then work on it with a qualified mental health professional.
Valerie- When you were telling us about this, you did mention that Writing Therapy is all about expressing your thoughts through the way you write and gaining a better insight on your surroundings. Is there a significant difference between Writing Therapy and journaling?
Courtney- There is a difference. They are very related and of course one can complement the other but there are a few major differences between Writing Therapy and journaling. The first one is that Writing Therapy is led by a licensed mental health professional so you can do all the journaling you like on your own and that can be really great but Writing Therapy in particular is when that process is guided by someone who has been trained and is licensed in this arena and can help you with exercises and prompts and ideas and can help you work through the things that you’ve written down, so there’s that component that’s different.
Another difference between Writing Therapy and journaling is that journaling is usually sort of off the cuff. You write about what happened in your day and what you’re feeling. Therapeutic writing is more directed- it’s usually guided by prompts or exercises. It;s not necessarily free-form where you write about whatever you’d like. It’s more guided. Third, journaling is more about what happened in your day and how you’re feeling about that while Writing Therapy is actually engaging with your thoughts and feelings. Not necessarily recording them or responding to events that are happening in your life but actually diving deep, thinking about and analysing your own thoughts and feelings. It’s this sort of meta activity where you’re thinking about thinking and you’re feeling about feeling, and you’re really diving in on a deeper level than most people usually do when they journal.
Valerie- Right. So journaling would basically be an outlet to your thoughts and a way for you to express yourself through that whereas Writing Therapy might be engaging with your thoughts and analysing it and trying to understand what you feel. Is that right?
Courtney- Right, exactly. You can journal however you like so usually some people would journal in this way but generally, people just sort of journal writing about what happened in their day, what they think about it, what they’re looking forward to. Writing Therapy would be more like – this thing happened, these are the thoughts that occurred after, this is why I think I’m having these thoughts, this is what I feel about having these thoughts, it’s just sort of peeling back a layer, getting a little bit deeper into engaging with those thoughts and those feelings that you’re having.
Valerie- Courtney, what got you interested in writing and journaling, and authoring three published books?
Courtney- You know, actually that number is upto five! My fifth came out in December. Clearly I’m a fan of writing, I like writing a lot. I’ve actually always really liked writing but for a long time, I never really did it regularly and I never really sat down with an intention for myself. Of course you sit down with an intention to write papers and to write books or articles but I never really sat down and wrote with an intention for myself, just sort of writing for me. When I discovered that this is sort of a way of doing things and that there are a lot of Writing Therapy exercises and things you can do in that arena, it really resonated with me. It helped me let go of these things that I was holding down to, things that are frustrating or difficult or negative, the things that can weigh you down. I found that writing them down was the best way for me personally, to let them go.
For me, journaling is an excellent way to relieve stress, an excellent way to get those thoughts and feelings down, to let go of the more negative or unpleasant ones, or to sort of record the more positive ones. I don’t just journal about the negatives, I also jurnal about what’s going right, what’s great in my life, what I’m grateful for. It makes it feel more real when it’s down on paper. It’s such an excellent way of dealing with your thoughts and feelings. When it’s in your head, it’s all a big jumble. When you write it down, things can start to make a lot more sense. One of my favourite things about journaling as a mental health activity is that there are virtually no barriers to entry. If you can write, you can have a direct active role in your own healing. You don’t need anything else. If you have paper and a pen, you can journal!
Valerie- It’s so wonderful that you found writing to be a way for you to let go of things that you’ve been holding onto and the things that have been weighing you down, and you took that personal experience, knowing that it works for you, to write books to help people as well. You wrote books on positive psychology and I think that’s wonderful, taking an experience and using it to help people.
Courtney- Thank you. When you find something that works for you, you want to share it with people. That’s my goal. If even one person finds my books and enjoys the exercises or the techniques in there or finds them useful, then it was totally worth it. I’m a helper! I like to help people So whenever I find something that really works for me, I wonder who else this could work for, I wonder who else this could help, and I try to find a way to get it down on paper and get it out to people.
Valerie- You did mention when you talked about Writing Therapy, that it’s something that’s usually prompted. It’s not free form writing. What I wanted to ask you is that are there different types of writing practices under therapy that help give an outlet to one’s emotions or what they’re feeling?
Courtney- Absolutely. There are a lot of different techniques and you’d sort of have to dive into the different exercises and prompts and techniques out there in Writing Therapy but some of the main ones are writing about traumatic or stressful events. That’s used a lot for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or any kind of reaction to a stressful event. It doesn’t necessarily need to be diagnosed PTSD to help you deal with stress but that’s one of the most common things that you’ll find. You’ll be guided to write about the stressful or traumatic experience that you suffered, and kind of work through it, process through it, work with a qualified mental health professional to process it, and it can help make the whole experience a little bit less salient, a little bit less impactful on you today. The more that you go through it and write about it in a safe space, the less impact it has on your day to day life. So that’s a pretty common exercise for people in Writing Therapy.
There are tons of different techniques to follow thoughts, deconstruct them. Say you’re dealing with low self-esteem and you’re not feeling great about yourself. Writing Therapy might help you figure out one particular reason that you’re not feeling good about yourself. Maybe feeling like “I’m not successful”. Then it’ll help you walk back from that thought, all the way to the core. So you’ll start with “I’m not successful”, and then you’ll ask “Why does that matter?” Then you’ll walk back to thinking “There’s this rule that you must be successful to be happy.” Then you’ll ask yourself, “Well, do you really need to be successful to be happy?” And so it’s this step by step process where you’re following a thought or a feeling all the way back to a core belief and then figuring out whether you like that core belief. Whether that’s something that you want to hold onto, whether it’s helping you or hurting you, and if it’s hurting you then create a new one in its place. Instead of “You must be successful to be happy”, it can be “I deserve to be happy now, whether I’m successful or not”.
Valerie- That’s actually really interesting, that you would work backwards from something as simple as a sentence and then you’d use that to introspect and see whether what’s being said in the world is something that you actually believe or whether it’s something that works for you. It’s such a beautiful way that something can help you. You start with something so small and you can end up in learning so much about yourself.
Courtney- Absolutely. That’s why I love it too. It gives you tools to really dive in because we all have these core beliefs but if you ask someone on the street what their core beliefs are, they’re probably not going to be able to say much. When you sit with your thoughts and write them down, and ask yourself questions and introspect, this stuff comes up. There’s pretty much nobody out there that has a set of beliefs that have completely been analysed or agreed with, without any issues. We all have those core beliefs we are unsure of, that come from our parents or society, that maybe we don’t like or believe anymore and you don’t really think about those core beliefs until you start writing them down and engaging with them.
Valerie- True. Courtney, what’s a simple way to get started? Does one need to have a flair for writing to try out Writing Therapy or journaling?
Courtney- Absolute not! You do not need to be a writer to write in a journal. Like I said earlier, one of my favorite things about journaling and Writing Therapy is that you don’t need anything in particular. You don’t need any skills. As long as you can write, you can engage in this kind of stuff. It’s best to engage with a professional if you want to do actual directed Writing Therapy but there are definitely tons of steps that you can take on your own and a lot of my books are focused on that. There are exercises that you can do on your own, at home or at work or wherever you are, and just dive into this stuff. There’s one easy acronym that I really like, to get started and it’s the WRITE method, that comes from Cathleen Adams at the Centre for Journal Therapy. She’s brilliant, you should go check out that website if you want to know more. As an easy way to get started, think WRITE:
W – What do you want to write about? Name it, label it. Give it a name.
R- Review or reflect on it. Write it down and just think about it, toss it around, feel it out. Reflect on this thing that you want to write about.
I – Investigate your thoughts and feelings. You start writing and you just keep writing, and approach it with curiosity. Approach it as if you’re a researcher, researching your own thoughts and feelings. Get curious and ask questions and keep writing.
T – Timer. Use a timer, set it from anywhere between two minutes to thirty minutes, and then just keep writing until the timer goes off. Usually people think that ten minutes is a lot and before they know it, the time is gone!
E – Exit the journaling session by re-reading what you’ve written after that timer goes off and then just reflect on it with one or two sentences. You may reflect on it by saying “Wow! I had a lot more to write about than I thought. It’s interesting that this came up”. Just closing it out by looking at what you’ve written and giving it a little summary.
Valerie- It’s so nice that you said that at the end of it, after you start writing and you reflect on it and you set a timer and you keep writing, at the end of it you sit down and reflect on what you’ve written, you see what you can take away from it. You don’t just write and let it be, it’s a way of understanding yourself better so you sit with it, you understand what you’ve written and where you can go from there. I think that’s such a good thing to do and such a good thing to put into practice.
Courtney- Right. I totally agree. Usually when we journal, we don’t usually re-read what we’ve written. We kind of journal, close the book and put it away and maybe open it the next day and journal again, which is great but taking that time to review it at the end and to really think about it, that’s what takes it to a next level.
Valerie- Makes sense. Courtney, thank you so much for talking to us today about Writing Therapy. We’ve learnt so much from you and gained a better insight into what Writing Therapy is. We’ve learnt that we get to know ourselves better, we get to know the world around us better, and we can just sit and engage with our thoughts and express ourselves in a way that whatever we feel in weighing us down or something we’re holding onto, we can exercise releasing those negative emotions. Thank you for letting us know that and for the work you do when it comes to writing and psychology and positivity.
Courtney- Thank you! And you’re welcome. I’m happy to do it. I’m happy that people are engaging with these subjects. It’s really exciting.
Valerie- Thank you so much.