Guidelines for Writing Therapy
by Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling,
Writing Therapy Applied to Stress
which manifests as anger, anxiety or depression, or dysfunctional behaviour
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne (2004-2011) – Updated in 2012, and in May 2013 and August 2016
Whether you are struggling with problems of anger, anxiety or depression, you could benefit from writing out your difficulties, so you can see them on paper. Think on paper, as advised by Brian Tracy. Write about two or three pages each day, as recommended by Julia Cameron.
At the very least, try to write for fifteen to twenty minutes each day, for three or four consecutive days, as recommended by Dr James Pennebaker.
Try to make sense of your problems: look for cause and effect; pros and cons; options and possibilities; try to identify possibilities for change or improvement. Try to produce “an empowering narrative” rather than a “de-powering story”.
Develop your awareness: If you are ever going to manage your stress level, then you have to become aware of the external sources of your stress, and your contribution to it. One of the best ways to develop your awareness of the sources of stress in your life is to keep a stress diary. The purpose of the stress diary is to track down the specific stress problem(s) you are confronting.
Get a large notebook to use as your stress diary. Set some quiet time aside, just for you to work on your stress diary. (Since this activity will inevitably improve your productivity, it is legitimate to take this time out of your working day!) Try to identify your problems in this order:
1. What happened, or what happens? What did I feel, and how did I behave?
2. Draw a picture of your life, including the stressful elements; and label each element so you can begin to see how they each relate to the others.
3. Focus on a specific incident or experience of stress. Ask yourself: About this incident, what can I control and what is beyond my control?
Are my expectations in line with reality? (Are they realistic?)
Am I exaggerating the degree of badness of the situation? (How many limbs would I be willing to give up to have this problem removed? If less than one, then your problem is less than 15% bad – so stop telling yourself it’s 100% bad!)
Have I reminded myself that life if difficult for all human beings? (Since it is difficult for all human beings, at least some of the time, why must it not be difficult for me?)
Since life contains difficult bits and non-difficult bits, am I reminding myself of the non-difficult bits of my life? Am I aware of the bits I should feel grateful for? Or do I focus only, or mainly, on the negative aspects of my life?
Write out those questions (above) and attempt to answer them.
4. Look closer at the control issue: About this problem, what can I control today? Can I change the situation? Can I change my self-talk? (Then commit yourself to control what you can control, and to give up trying to control what seems to be beyond your control).
5. Who could help me with this problem? To whom could I talk about it? (Make any appointments that are necessary).
6. How can I relax and unwind, to let go of my tension and stress? (Later you will learn about the importance of exercise and relaxation, including some techniques for you to try).
Initially, write for between three and six minutes.
Then read what you’ve written, and mark all positive and negative words so you can distinguish between them.
For example, you could use different colours, or different types of lines. Then count up the negative and positive words in your diary entry. If there are more negative than positive words, begin to rewrite your statements so that you reduce the number of negative words, and increase the number of positive words. (But do not try to eliminate all the negative words, since you need to be realist about the fact that some aspects of your life are positive and some are negative!) One way to do this is to ask yourself this question: “In what way(s) is my problem less bad than it could have been?” Or: “What could I feel grateful for in this situation?” No matter what you have lost, what threat you face, what frustrations assail you, and so on, it could always be very much worse! So rewrite you diary entry to make it as positive and hopeful as possible – without denying that you are facing a very real problem.
The mere act of writing, on a daily basis, in your stress diary, will help you.
Writing about problematical situations can improve your immune system, and your health. Reflective narrative is best, with lots of ‘causal words’ and explanations, such as: How did it happen? Why did it happen? Who did what? How? What are the connections here? Which bit caused which result? And so on.
Also use emotive words, as long as you do not indulge in exaggeration about potential threats or dangers; avoid self-pity; avoid condemning and damning of yourself, others or the world. (These ideas are based on the findings of the research of Professor James Pennebaker, combined with the insights of E-CENT theory).
And as mentioned above, it is important to rewrite your statement to make it maximally positive in tone, and hopeful in expectation. Always end you diary episode by focusing on ‘coping strategies’, which are things you can do to calm yourself down, or solve practical aspects of your stress problem. (Bolton et al, 2004). As you work on later sections of this book, you will become more skillful at using your diary as a powerful tool for self-reflection and decision making.
When you have written a couple of pages of therapeutic writing, about some current or historic problem of your own, you could also get professional support and feedback, direction, etc., from Dr Jim Byrne, via his Email Counselling service.
For a systematic approach to the use of writing therapy, please see my new eBook on Narrative Therapy and the Writing Solution: The emotive-cognitive approach to feeling better***