Hi, my name is Kelsey and I have anxiety and depression. And I write.
I’ve probably had these issues for most of my life, but I was only diagnosed with a DSM disorder when I was 14. I had inter and intra personal problems in high school, ones which still leave me scars to this day. I’ve seen counsellors, I’ve taken the pills, I’ve tried exercise and I’ve tried diet. The only things that worked for me to deal with my anxiety were self-mutilation and writing. I decided in grade 12 that I couldn’t cut anymore. It wasn’t that simple, but I haven’t cut myself in 2 years. I knew that writing was all I needed.
Writing and bleeding are very similar, in my mind. I see them as physical manifestations of my inner turmoil; messy and inconvenient but a part of my insides that I can take out and show people, so they understand what it is to be me. I write fiction, and I love it, but my main anxiety coping mechanism is poetry. When I’m anxious I write a poem about how I’m feeling. When I feel like cutting I write a poem about it instead.
One day, while my mom and I were out for a walk, she said to me “I bet lots of creative people are like you”. We have this conversation often in my family. It is assumed that creative people are that way because they turned to the arts to deal with their own mental illness. Whether or not that’s true is a conversation for another day, but I figured that was a good starting point. The reality is that the arts significantly reduce symptoms in anxiety and depression sufferers. Today, I’m going to go into creative writing specifically.
Writing therapy is a type of art therapy. Like most things in psychology, art therapy began in Europe, but became solidified in North America. Art therapy was being used informally in the days of Jung and Freud and was brought to the United States in the 1940’s by Dr. Edith Kramer. Art therapy in Europe began in asylums and was mainly the act of giving patients art supplies and letting them loose. Art therapy evolved into structured programs, but the aim has remained the same: “Through staying on the surface of the experience, paying close attention to both process and product (rather than reducing them to some psychological framework), the client can find meaning and direction that can help deal with the difficulties that they initially presented”. The term “art therapy” encompasses dance therapy, painting and drawing therapy, music therapy, and, of course, writing therapy.
The healing powers of journal writing have been researched extensively, but less research has been devoted to creative and more expressive types of writing. The research available, however, speaks volumes to its effectiveness. Unlike other art therapies, research has shown no doubts about the effectiveness of writing therapy. In trauma research, expressive writing is shown to improve both physical and psychological health. Patients who undergo creative therapy for anxiety and depression report that they couldn’t have done as well in traditional talk therapy without writing down their thoughts and feelings first. Patients and doctors alike view writing therapy as a container for excess energy ideal for reducing the pent-up emotions associated with anxiety.
Another benefit is that writing therapy, as with most creative therapies, creates a sense of self-efficacy in a patient, as they produce a product they can hold and touch from their mental state. Therapists in particular embrace art therapy as a potential cross-cultural technique. Two researchers worth looking into are Pennbaker, the grand daddy of writing therapy research, and a study by Graham et al. It is important to note, however, that writing shouldn’t be a substitute for traditional treatments like medication and
To me, the best part of writing therapy is that a therapist isn’t required! When I’m anxious or depressed, writing is there. That’s the most rewarding part of creative writing: you get to be your own therapy. Here’s a therapist-approved exercises that you can try at home.
Mind-dump: for six minutes, just write! Write whatever comes into your head without worrying about grammar, spelling or coherence. Just don’t stop writing! You can also choose to write for six minutes on a theme, or based on a prompt, if you choose. It’s a lot of fun and it’s interesting to see what you come up with! I personally use what I write in this exercise to fuel flash fiction. Here’s a good source of writing prompts: http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts.