What is therapeutic writing (and is it for me?)
We explore the benefits of therapeutic writing and how it could support you
My days tend to have the same bookends. My mornings start with a 10-minute meditation and they end with a 10-minute journaling session. Writing in a journal is something I’ve been doing since I was 12 and, during a particularly tough time when I developed an eating disorder, I believe it was one of the tools that kept me afloat.
Back then I had never heard the term ‘therapeutic writing’ but, when I reflect, I realise that is likely what I was doing – using the humble pen and paper to explore the chaos I was experiencing internally, in a bid to free it from my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I still needed support from mental health services and a therapist, but it certainly helped.
Now we’re all a little more aware of mental health and what can support it, some of us have likely seen the term therapeutic writing tossed around. But what exactly is it?
What is therapeutic writing?
“I passionately believe that any form of writing can be therapeutic and that creative writing for therapeutic purposes encompasses a huge spectrum – from single words to lists, letters, poems, journals, and even the writing of entire books,” counsellor and creative writing for therapeutic purposes (CWTP) practitioner Hazel North tells us.
“Writing is a very safe way of allowing us to explore our thoughts and emotions; our relationships; our life stories; our dreams and aspirations. It can support us to make sense of things, to overcome trauma, to make changes in our lives, to find our voice and to understand ourselves better.”
Hazel goes on to note that therapeutic writing is not about producing work of literary merit. Instead, it’s about freedom from constraints like spelling, punctuation and grammar (though, she explains some therapeutic work may well be crafted and edited for publication).
“Essentially, therapeutic writing is about personal writing to support your own wellbeing. In therapeutic writing it is the process of writing which has the potential to heal not the end product.”
Is there a difference between journaling and therapeutic writing?
When I think back to the way writing supported me when I was struggling, there were two methods that stood out to me; journaling (writing whatever was on my mind) and more structured writing (for example, writing a letter to my eating disorder as advised by my therapist). This led me to question Hazel about any differences between journaling and therapeutic writing.
“Journaling is of course therapeutic and most journaling includes writing. It comes under the huge umbrella of what is known as creative writing for therapeutic purposes (CWTP),” Hazel explains.
“How they may differ is that writing is about words; journalling may also have a strong visual element with pictures, photographs, textiles.”
For me, both forms helped. With more general journaling, I was able to untangle thoughts and scribble visuals, and with the writing exercises given by my therapist, I could find ways of coping with the specific issues I was having.
Is therapeutic writing right for me?
If this all sounds intriguing to you, Hazel’s advice is to pick up a pen and give it a try. “It’s very important to silence the inner critic and to know that there are no rules and that it is safe, fun, and that there is no such thing as ‘doing it wrong’. You are not writing an essay for a critical English teacher.
“Free-form writing where you scribble down whatever comes into your head is a good starting place and if you give yourself a time limit of six minutes it may seem less daunting.”
Hazel also recommends working with a writing for wellbeing tutor, either one-to-one or in a group. She also highlights that some counsellors, like herself, integrate writing into their therapeutic work.
“Writing for wellbeing workshops and courses are also widely available both face-to-face and online. Your local library or Adult Education service may run these and I recommend checking out the Lapidus organisation – an international community for writing for wellbeing. It can be great fun working in a group of like-minded people.”
Ready to delve deeper into the world of therapeutic writing? Here are some resources to get you started:
- 4 journaling techniques to support your mental health
- Uplift your everyday with positivity journaling
- 5 journaling techniques to get to know yourself
- 4 ways to use creative writing for self-care
- 5 creative writing tips to help manage anxiety
- Therapeutic and reflective writing course
If writing is something you know you don’t like, or perhaps you’ve tried it and found it unhelpful, that’s OK. Writing is not for everyone so it’s important that you find what does work for you. You may lean more towards arts, finding it helpful to express yourself through art, dance or drama. Perhaps you process better when you vocalise – why not record a voice note (to yourself or a friend) and see how that makes you feel? It may be that you benefit the most from going out on a long walk with just yourself and your thoughts.
Whatever tool you use, the helpful element here is reflection and tuning into how you’re feeling and what you need. Even though I’m 15 years into my recovery, I continue to use my journal to stay in touch with myself. I’m pleased to say the entries look far brighter today and I know I can thank writing, in part, for that.
If you’re interested in working with a therapist and creating a safe space to explore your inner world, visit Counselling Directory.