How to use writing therapy to improve your wellbeing

Leah Larwood, Big C’s Case Study Writer and owner of lifestyle and wellbeing blog, Roots and Toots shares her tips and experience of using writing therapy to improve wellbeing.

Leah writing in her home.
Often, I’d end up writing things I had no idea I was feeling or thinking. It was a way of processing things.

Although I’ve always enjoyed penning short stories, I only started experimenting with poetry while I was pregnant. After the birth, I realised that it was also a manageable form now that I had less time on my hands.  Around six months after having my little girl I started suffering from chronic sleep deprivation and my wellbeing really suffered until my daughter turned two and a half. However, it was those challenging times that brought a wellspring of creativity and inspiration. I was just too exhausted to do very much about it at the time.

Eventually, when I did find a little time to write, I found it an incredibly helpful way to get my feelings down on paper. That page was my space to be heard, it helped me acknowledge what I was going through and was a place I could go to make sense of things. Often, I’d end up writing things I had no idea I was feeling or thinking. It was a way of processing things.

Expressive writing can have a significant healing effect. It’s great for anyone who has experienced a stressful event or some sort of trauma. In fact, participants in a study who wrote about their most traumatic experiences for 15 minutes, four days in a row, experienced better health outcomes up to four months later (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).

Writing therapy is different to journaling, which is more about writing down whatever pops into your head. Therapeutic writing is often more directed and based on prompts of exercises.

Getting started

Before you begin it’s important to remember that it’s perfectly fine to only write a few words, equally, it’s OK if you want to write several pages. Unlearn everything you learnt at school. There are no rules or judgments in this form of writing. Just write at your own pace.

Don’t focus on what to write about, the most valuable aspect is taking the time to write, giving it your full attention. Therapeutic writing isn’t about how well you write; it’s more about what you write down and what makes sense to you. Let it come naturally to you, don’t force it.

Write like nobody’s watching

It’s important to write just for you. If you feel like sharing your writing later, then great, but first of all embark with the mindset that no one will ever see what you’re writing. This will instantly allow you to be free with what you write. You won’t be editing yourself and this way you can be fully true and authentic.

1) One good thing that happened today

Try using mindfulness to connect with the good things that are happening. Pay close attention to when something positive or good happens, even if it’s really small. Consider making a list of all the good things that happen each day, even if it’s just one thing. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude and catalogue a daily list of things you appreciate or love in your life.

2) Writing a letter to yourself or others

Perhaps you know a friend or family member who has recovered fully from cancer or perhaps that person is you. If only you knew then what you know now. One way to reflect on your journey is to write yourself a letter to your then-self, before cancer. What would you say? How would you explain what you would go through? What advice would you give and what reassurance would you bestow?

3) Connect with your inner child

I love this one; it’s an exercise I found online. Connect with your inner child by using your non-dominant hand to write with. Start off by asking your inner child questions about what makes you happy or sad. Tap into your intuition and listen to what comes up, without forcing it. Just gently lean in, as though you’re listening to a small child.

4) Writing a poem

If you enjoy poetry, you could try writing a poem about your experiences. Sometimes writing in this form allows you to distance yourself from what you are experience, whilst being able to still express how you feel. Especially if you write a poem from a different point of view. Perhaps make your narrator a different gender or age.

5) Free writing

This one is a simple technique. Literally just writing everything that comes to mind.  Start by writing down everything that comes into your head without stopping for five minutes to edit or reread your piece. This allows you to tap into your subconscious more. If you ‘edit’ yourself too much, you will often stem the flow of creative ideas.

6) Outside perspective

If you’ve just received some upsetting news or there is an event that’s worrying you, write about it in the third person: “He/she often thought/wondered/dreamt…”.

Using writing to explore what you’re going through can have a positive effect on your life in many ways and help you to improve your wellbeing. I’m by no means a writing therapy expert, although I hope to re-train in this area one day. But I do enjoy writing and I have found the writing therapy I’ve done at home to be extremely cathartic.

If you do start doing some simple writing therapy exercises, it may be useful to have a counsellor or mental health professional to speak to should feelings arise that require attention.

Above all, just approach your writing with a relaxed attitude and if you can’t connect with it at all, try exploring other forms such as collage-making or painting.

Cancer affects us all in different ways. We know it can be difficult and sharing your story could help make a real difference to local people by raising awareness of Big C’s services or providing emotional support for someone going through a similar experience. You can tell Leah your Big C cancer story by emailing her at Leah.Larwood@big-c.co.uk.