Writing is an externalization of thought. Writing is proven to help process what it is your head and bring wholeness and health to your brain. If you are writing to process, to heal, to promote an integrated brain, there is no wrong way to do it. But there are ways that are more productive than others.
The following is a list of methods I have learned to write over the years as I learn more about the brain. Based on my need for a specific day I will practice the teaching of Dr. Daniel Siegel, Dr. Brene Brown, Dr. Carolyn Leaf, Norman Doidge MD, or the biblical Psalms, among others.
This list is not a comprehensive summary of their strategies, nor exclusively their thought. It is simply what I have learned to put to practice so far.
1. Write honestly
Writing for mental health requires honesty. Our brains like to self-protect and cover what issues really are, and trying to self-prophecy good attitudes just won’t produce lasting change.
If how your family-member spoke to you made you feel like garbage, write that down in all the specifics. Tell the story of their words, your reactions. Tell the story of your emotion. This is the time to not sugar-coat or downplay or try to pretend you’re okay and your relationship is all good. Trying to rationalize or think of the other perspectives in this moment will only cover up how your own brain processed the event.
Your processing opens up the space for you to have genuine empathy, so process first. Let it be raw. This is for nobody else to read. Lay all your cards on the table. And then burn them after if you need to. Feel free to put out the fire with your tears.
Let your hippocampus do its work to file that memory and emotions away in a healthy, resolved place.
2. Practice Gratitude
There is so much research, both action and clinical, to support the practice of gratitude. Being thankful for three things in a gratitude journal at the end of every day is optimal, whatever form that might take.
Maybe life seems too bleak to be thankful for three things every day. Start with one a day. I began posting my gratitude to Instagram to combat post-partum. At the start I struggled to be thankful for anything. But every day I did it, it was a win. I was literally building new goat trails in my brain. And that takes effort. Soon I was posting lists of things, and having to restrict myself so I didn’t post a novel every day. I was noticing the good things as they happened and could sink down into the goodness of life through the day, if only for a couple seconds. My goat trials are becoming freeways. I also have a gratitude journal beside my bed which I write in when I don’t post in a day, or if what I’m thankful for isn’t appropriate for the entire world.
You can look at my online gratitude journey @erika_r_anderson or searching the hashtags #dailythanktitude and #thankfilledlife
You can read more about gratitude here.
3. Make a Web
Sometimes your brain is so full it is like a herd of squirrels darting every direction. If you have this degree of overwhelm, or if you just prefer bullet points as opposed to sentences, make a web.
Link all the thoughts, make new branches, write down everything in your brain. Statements, actions, fears, worries, angers, events, what you want somebody to make you for supper. No thought is insignificant. Maybe your feet hurt. Maybe your heart feels cut in half. The purpose is to capture the thoughts in your brain.
Often just by identifying what’s in your brain the flurry inside will diminish, increasing your focus.
Each bubble can have infinite thoughts branching off of it. Sometimes you will identify a major stress or belief that is a root of many negative reactions. I will explain how to uproot negative beliefs in method 5.
4. Ask why
Asking why is so important. Your brain is brilliant. It actually wants to, and has the ability to, sort itself out. It does not like being stressed, overwhelmed, controlling, anxious or depressed. And your brain, if given the opportunity, will provide healing for itself through a pathway of why’s.
It goes like this: “I need space.” “Why?” “I feel like I’m failing.” “Why?” “My kids don’t listen and they get to bed late. I’m not a good enough parent.” The list of ‘why’ revealed the root of wanting to run away. Or: “I’m lonely.” “Why?” “I’m often in defense mode and pull away from friends.” “Why?” “I’m hurting.” “Why?” “That person hurt me when she did ___.” “Why?” “Her flippancy made it seem like my opinion wasn’t valued.”
Asking why will reveal a lot about the things your brain is trying to sort out. Often you will get to a root statement or belief about yourself or somebody else that simply isn’t true. And then you can counter that false belief with what you learn from method 5 below.
5. Chart of actions, belief and truth
Every single one of your actions throughout every day stems from a belief you hold deep down inside, perhaps unknown to you. If you want to become less angry, less judgmental, less shy, less shameful, less anything, try this.
Say you want to work on becoming less angry. Scan your day or your week for an instance where you got angry. Focus on it. Probe what was said and what was done. Then, more importantly, ask what you were thinking when you got angry. Maybe underneath the anger you’ll find an honest belief statement such as “I’m all alone, I’m a failure, I’m a loser, I’m not good enough,” etc.
For example, when you blow up at your kid when they ask why you forgot your wallet when heading to the store, the anger might expose that you are believing you’re a terrible parent. Or if you blow up at somebody who is trying to solve a problem through asking you questions, you might be believing deep down that you are an insufficient failure. These beliefs may seem severe and ugly and rooted in shame, but I promise we all have at least one. Brene Brown says that if someone can’t acknowledge that they carry shame, they must be a sociopath.
Both of these examples can be addressed with the simple truth: “I am enough.” It’s simply not true that you are a no-good failure. Your worth as a human being elicits more personal value than that. And once you start seeing your value, you will begin acting out of that value. You’ll be different in that area because the truth has kicked out the shame.
Click here to download a visual reminder that you are enough.
Once you have noticed a belief under your anger, you can begin to notice that belief when you get angry again. Then you need work to get out from under that negative and untrue belief, to build a lasting structure in your brain that believes the truth of your worth. Every time you feel yourself going to that place and believing that thought, you can tell yourself, “I am enough.” Soon enough it will become fact and you won’t escalate at the places you normally would.
6. Write on the thing that bugs you daily for a specific length of time
Research shows that writing about a trigger person or event for 20 minutes only 3-4 days in a row significantly reduces the trauma emotionally. You might be more comfortable with never calling up to memory a traumatic event because you don’t want to remember, but if you haven’t processed it, your body still remembers. You still will be prone to anxiety, a rapid heartrate, fatigue, nausea, a foggy brain, among others. In order for your brain to file the person or event away in a healthy way, you need to bring it to mind and roll it around in your hippocampus.
Every time you remember an event you have the power to change it. Instead of remembering with fear, remember with courage. After reading evidence of the same process serendipitously from author doctors such as Susan Forward, Ph.D., Dr. Carolyn Leaf, Brene Brown, Ph.D., and Dr. Daniel Siegel, I gave it a whirl. After two days of writing my head felt clearer, and I literally had more room in my heart.
With the goal being the outcome for that person or event to be dealt with and filed away properly in your brain, for the chance at emotional freedom, try it out. Use all the honesty. Write out all the ways you’re hurt and every specific thing you remember. You might be extra tired and grumpy for those 3-4 days, but I promise it will be worth it. On the other side you will mysteriously have more space for love and empathy in your heart, and more confidence because of your courage to face the past.
I love poetry for when I just don’t have sentences, and my heart needs something more comforting than a web. Free verse. Unrhyming. What comes out of poetry for me is both a clarity of where I’m at in the moment (which we now know helps the hippocampus file things away in a properly integrated brain) as well as some form of hope that this is temporary and I really will be okay. Relief.
Poetry is more flexible and releases more areas of your brain than prose. In removing the focus on sentence structure and spelling (which we do unconsciously) you release your brain into a creative space to heal.
When all else fails, handwrite. The process of handwriting itself has the ability to improve your mental function. In order to handwrite a word rather than print it, you need to hold entire words and phrases in your mind because the letters are connected; printing only requires you to remember one character at a time. Forcing your brain to hold longer pieces of sentences in your mind at a time improves your working memory. So if you feel like you’re losing your mind, start to handwrite again. You might begin to remember to bring your wallet.
You probably will not write in all these ways in one day or even in one month. Sometimes you need to find the root of your internal discomfort or overwhelm and you will use method 1, 3 and then method 5. Sometimes you are building new healthy structures in your brain intentionally, so you use method 2. Sometimes you need to write to vent an emotion to become balanced again, so you use method 6.
Wherever you are at, go for it. Today can be your beginning of wholeness. If you think you’re not a writer, go for it. You have feelings, you know a language, and nobody is checking your spelling.
I’m rooting for you!