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Emotional Benefits of Writing
Julie Russell, MSW, LCSW
Telling a story is widely known to be both entertaining and informative. Fiction and nonfiction allow social traditions and norms to be relayed to others, often a younger generation. A reader may identify with a character in a novel and gain realizations about oneself. In my years as a clinical social worker, I have learned that the writer also gains therapeutic benefits from telling a story.
As a psychotherapist, I understand that emotions are often the driving force for individuals to write. The act of writing promotes healing by providing a process to gain understanding of emotions and events. For others, it gives purpose.
At times I hear from writers that they could not stop writing and/or functioning until the story was out of them. Other people begin by saying they were not able to function to even begin to operate after an event because it impacts all aspects of a life. Whether one feels propelled to share their writing or are reluctant, there is little doubt that by writing, a person gains emotional benefits.
In my practice, I often hear that one is not able to begin to write or that one is not receiving emotional relief from writing. In several instances, clients have stated that they forgot to write or did not have the time. Much like exercise, the benefits of writing may take sustained attempts to appear.
For those who find writing to aid with the healing process difficult, follow these steps:
· Write 15 minutes each day.
· Each written text may be independent of one another.
· Do not feel you must share what has been written with others.
· Stop writing after 15 minutes if difficult – do not feel the text must end.
· Focus on writing constantly without worrying about spelling and grammar.
For individuals in therapy, the purpose of writing or journaling is to gain an understanding of emotions or the memory of an event. The practice of writing allows one to evaluate emotional events using the part of the brain capable of analytical and complex thought. By writing, one is able to begin to tell a story, perhaps of events which have prevented one from feeling whole or engaging in life completely. At times, by writing one’s story or memoirs, a person gains a sense of how events and actions impact one’s sense of self-identity.
For those that have difficulty writing, I ask they write for 15 minutes each day. To begin to identify emotions in association with events does not come naturally to many. By continually journaling, the correlation between emotion and events becomes easier. In short, this exercise allows a person to gain insight into oneself.
As I state that each writing may be independent of one another, I am not asking that a novel be written. Only that an emotion be examined. Most often the emotion is viewed in relation to the event which causes it or the outcome. For instance, one patient wrote of a feeling of loss after a final departure from a foster home. Another writing related how she found a sense of control in the process of organizing one’s home after experiencing sadness and anger following a miscarriage. In both instances, the author is able to examine an emotion in relation to the surrounding events.
For purposes of healing, it may not be necessary to share what one has written. I assure my clients that they may tear up what they have written, soak it in coffee or burn it. If the barrier to writing is fear of others knowing or judging either the content of the writing or the quality, I attempt to take that fear out. While there is a benefit to keeping journals, the fear of the writing being found may outweigh the benefit of keeping it. One may argue that by letting the writing go and destroying it, one regains the power and control previously held by the emotions and events found in the text. The process of acknowledging what occurred through the written word then releasing it in many pieces into the waste basket is positive for some.
For some, they feel the story writes itself. Others may find that they are concerned with completing an exercise in 15 minutes. While the time period is a recommendation, revisiting difficult emotions is hard and the desire to have a conclusion may prevent beginning the process. One may examine part of emotions and events without concern of coming to an end. When writing becomes a continued process, one may begin to find a natural conclusion or leave a narrative mid-sentence.
Writing as part of therapy is to assist in examining emotions and memories so that the event may be recollected without the repeated intense degree of emotional pain. As one gains insight into behaviors, events and emotions, a person is more able to understand them as part of a greater context. In short, no story really has an end, even in “The Wizard of Oz” there is more of Dorothy’s story after she returned home from Oz that the author, Frank Baum, did not include in his 1900 publication.
To begin writing in 15 minute intervals is not to write a memoir—
though it may be the beginning of one. Instead, the 15-minute exercise is to begin to gain control of events and emotions that failing to understand control the person who holds them.
Another guide I provide the client who is desiring to use pen and paper to gain a deeper understanding through writing, is to not to get caught up on spelling, punctuation and details. First, get the content out. The details of the written language hold the potential to interrupt the creative process and the therapeutic flow.
As one begins to gain a greater understanding of self through writing, one may experience strong emotions which impact a person’s ability to function or enjoy previously enjoyed events. Writing is a tool used in the therapeutic process, but if in undertaking this process alone the experience becomes debilitating, it is necessary to step back or get assistance from a healthcare professional licensed to assist individuals experiencing debilitating emotional pain.
Many individuals both in and out of treatment report writing assisted them in understanding emotions, making sense of events and placing emotions and events in a larger context.
ABOUT JULIE RUSSELL, MSW, LCSW: Julie Russell, MSW, LCSW, is a clinical social worker specializing in the treatment of trauma and the scope of emotional and mental disorders that prevent one from achieving a sense of wholeness. Her skill in treating clients who have been victimized by others, as well as those who have experienced other traumatic events, is evident in her passion for her work.She has provided psycho-educational lectures for the public as well as other professionals and infuses humor with facts and insights in her speaking engagements.
After completing graduate school at Tulane University in 1998, she worked at the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, MD, providing therapy to youth with complex emotional and behavior disorders. During this time, she responded to the tragedies of September 11.
Julie Russell has been a supervisor and mentor for other professionals and she is a resource for individuals who are blind. While in her final year of undergraduate studies at Tulane University: Newcomb College, she became blind unexpectedly. She returned to her studies, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1996. She remains a strong advocate for women and individuals with disabilities. In addition to her work as a therapist and a professional speaker, she enjoys outdoor activities including hiking, camping, sailing and attending music and theater productions.
Julie Russell continues to work with individuals experiencing emotional difficulties. She can be contacted at 860-415-9573 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website: www.julierusselllcsw.com