How to write your way to happiness and reflect on your emotions
Make writing a sanctuary and you’ll find that your jottings help to cultivate inner calm and wellbeing, says Jo Bisseker Barr
Writing expressively captures things in black and white. It encourages us to slow down, to breathe a little more deeply, and to reflect on authentic feelings.
The poet William Wordsworth certainly understood something of the restorative power of expressive writing when he said: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
Lots of people have already discovered how reflective writing can help to calm the mind and increase feelings of wellbeing, particularly at times when life’s challenges, such as loss or change, can threaten to throw us off-kilter.
With regular practice, the act of writing can be both a surprising and illuminating route towards our self-development, helping us to explore and clarify personal issues, what we think and feel, how we understand ourselves, and how we can move towards healthy growth.
I have worked creatively with words all my life, and I try to write every day. I first discovered the pleasure of escaping into fiction as a child.
When my dad got up to go to work each morning, my younger sister would climb into bed with my mum, while I burrowed back into my blankets with a book.
Although they developed a closeness that persists today, I was perhaps experiencing a different kind of emotional connection through the written word, escaping into the fictional world of its characters. I soon began writing myself, producing little handmade books with drawings to illustrate them, and moving on to write a diary for many years.
How does writing help you to heal?
In reading back my diaries now, I’m able to chart how, as I grew older, the content shifted. Mainly factual entries (“went to school again, had sausages for dinner”) soon evolved into something more akin to those “breathings of the heart” that Wordsworth talked about.
As a teenager, many of us can recall how getting things down in black and white had a soothing effect, pouring out painful feelings into a secret journal kept under lock and key, only to be read by another on pain of death.
There was something about that process of learning how to both feel and express what I was feeling, within a safe space, that felt cathartic – a little bit of self-therapy.
Working as a talking therapist today, I always encourage my clients to keep a journal. It’s another way of unburdening, sorting and making meaning of what goes on in the therapy room.
But we don’t need to have a mental health problem to benefit from reflective writing. It’s a healthy habit to identify and track everything we are feeling and going through, just as a way of processing stuff that happens in everyday life. I also kept a dream diary for a while.
Reading it back now, later in life, allows for fascinating connections to be made. At the time, much of it seemed laugh-out-loud, a crazy mixture of reality and fantasy, such as surfing the Severn-bore tidal wave past my house with my family.
But delve a little bit deeper and, as many of my clients have found, over time it can be eye-opening. It’s a way of tapping into an unconscious world that sits just below the surface, of charting psychological growth through the years towards the present day.
Getting into the habit of writing our dreams down can feel therapeutic in itself, but it can also be an invaluable tool for reflective thinking, shedding light on old, unhelpful patterns and revealing something new about ourselves.
Then there are my book reviews. I’ve written a review of every single book I’ve read since I was 13. I recall the thrill of being given a large, burgundy, leather-effect writing book from an uncle – the first book I reviewed in its pages was Flambards by KM Peyton.
At the back there is a page where I recorded those few books which were lucky enough to receive the accolade of ‘Best Reads’ – those truly knock-out works that you constantly want to return to, yet also can’t bear to finish because you will miss them.
How writing mindfully can improve your life
So what is it all about, this desire to chart and map these details of my life in written form? It has persisted in one way or another through the years, like a seam of metal running through different layers of rock. Expressive writing, for me, seems to be a means to cultivating regular, attentive space and time towards the self.
It acts as punctuation in my ever-busy life; a safe, grounding place that I can take myself to. It can tick all the boxes that other self-care rituals such as yoga, running or mindful meditation practice provide, encouraging me to carve out a calm space where I can quieten my busy minds for just a while, slowing down and tuning into my inner world.
Expressive writing, then, can be seen as a form of mindfulness. It takes us away from angsting over the “what ifs” of what might happen, and blocks out our regretful “if onlys” from the past, disengaging us from dwelling on our stresses and anxieties.
Take advantage of this mindful activity by investing in a beautiful notebook, picking up your pen and writing a little reflective space into your day. The more we can retrain our brain in rituals like this, the better- equipped we will be for life’s dips and knocks.
7 steps to bring more writing into your life
Set aside five quiet minutes each day, and write non-stop. Write whatever’s in your head, trying not to plan, or censor yourself. Don’t worry about structure, spelling or sentences. Give yourself permission to write anything – it’s impossible to get it wrong! This is a bit like warming up before a workout.
Write down your dreams
Research shows that the more we try to recall our dreams, the more dreams we remember. Create a heading in your journal to remind you to do it, and keep it by your bed for easy access as you awaken.
Invest in some beautiful stationery
Accumulate gorgeous notelets, thank-you cards or good old-fashioned writing paper. Connect with some of the people you love by sending heart-felt written messages – receiving something like this in the post feels so special!
Write letters that will never be sent
Next time someone hurts you, sit down and write everything you think and feel in a letter to them. This can be cathartic, helping to sort out what you really think and feel, because you know it’s for your eyes only.
The more you read, the more you will be inspired to write. Read travelogues, then write your own. Include tickets, mementos and photos. Read biographies – in your journal, you are writing your own! Join a book group, and talk about others’ writing that you love.
Keep a talisman
Find a small object that’s meaningful to you – I have a tiny pig given by a friend that sits in a coat pocket. Think of it being a bit like a guardian angel. Respond to things you write in your journal with a paragraph in the voice of your talisman. What might it say? This can help bring perspective and shift entrenched thinking.
Lists are not only for groceries! Start ones up that are personal to you; what makes you happy, a bucket list, friends, ambitions – your choice!
Make a personalised notebook
We love discovering new, creative things to do with our journal covers, and this simple hand-stitched look has caught our eye. Created by Anna Alicia, these simple graphic patterns are perfect for making a statement journal cover. They’re so simple, no previous stitching experience is required!
Photos by Ella Jardim, Patrick Tomasso, Hannah Olinger, Angelina Litvin and rawpixel on Unsplash.
This article was first published in In The Moment issue 5.