Words for Wellbeing

Have you ever thrown yourself into something and then just when it’s too late to draw back, you panic? That’s how I felt when I started a weekly writing group for patients in a mental health unit. I was motivated to start the sessions by my own personal experience of the enjoyment and therapy that writing can bring, and by the large amount of research evidence I’d read showing that writing can be of therapeutic benefit – both psychologically and physically. But I was nervous – would I enjoy the sessions or hate them? Did I have the right skills? Would the patients gain any benefit? Fortunately the answers to those questions were: yes I loved doing the sessions from the beginning; yes I had prepared enough beforehand so that my skills were up to the job (but I am still learning all the time); and yes patients do tell me that they gain benefit from the sessions.

At the time of writing I’m leading weekly groups in a mental health ward and a psychiatric intensive care unit, and a monthly group. In my writing groups I do not feel like a therapist or a teacher (I am neither), I feel I just sit down with some people, we get to know each other a little, and we write together. I believe that writing does you good, whatever you write, but that different people need to write different things and in different styles, for example: thoughts and feelings, memories, imaginative stories, poems. What I aim to do is help people discover what they need (or want) to write and inspire them to keep writing – and they inspire me right back!

Freewriting is a powerful writing technique that can draw out unexpected thoughts and feelings. When working in a mental health unit I feel it’s helpful to use prompts for Freewriting, such as sets of words: pool, moon, sky, cloud; or snow, cave, mountain, river; or red, blue, green, yellow. Freewriting is just one of the techniques I use; others include writing about postcards of beautiful landscapes, and photographs of people. For example, writing a detailed description of a beautiful or interesting place, from life or from a picture postcard, is calming when someone is feeling anxious or distressed. It’s a sort of writing meditation.

Sometimes a patient has something going on in their life that I can see would be a good thing for them to write about, for example, I suggested to one patient she write a letter from her future self (a time when she is well) to her small grandson to tell him how much he inspired her to get well. Her daughter has put the letter away in a box until the little boy is old enough to read it.

Another woman told me part way through a writing session that her mother had sadly just died, and that she’d been unable to get out of the psychiatric ward to say goodbye. She mentioned that she had happy memories of her mother. So I abandoned the writing exercise I’d planned and suggested instead that she write about one of her happy memories, which she did. She said afterwards how surprised she was that she hadn’t cried when writing the memory about her mother and that she’d found doing the writing a great comfort.

Writing about painful thoughts and feelings can sometimes be helpful, for example, to achieve clarity or catharsis. But it’s important not to write down your negative thoughts if all your thoughts are negative. And please believe me – writing does not have to hurt to do you good. Writing about happy memories is good for your wellbeing, writing imaginative stories and poems is good for your wellbeing. Write whatever you want to write, and why not write a little every day?

I’ve edited/co-authored and published a not-for-profit book, WORDS FOR WELLBEING, to encourage people to write for their wellbeing. It’s an uplifting read and packed with writing ideas and personal stories. To find out more follow this link: http://trioross.wordpress.com/new-words-for-wellbeing-book-extract/

Best wishes and get writing! Carol.

Carol Ross was born in Ryhill in West Yorkshire and is married with a 15-year-old son. She has lived and worked (in the NHS) in Cumbria since 1995. If you would like to know more about Carol’s work, and get further writing ideas and inspiration: look on her blog http://trioross.wordpress.com/, Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/WordsForWellbeing?ref=hl and National Health Service web page http://www.cumbriapartnership.nhs.uk/words-for-wellbeing.htm. Carol is on Twitter as Trio33.

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16 thoughts on “Words for Wellbeing

  1. Hi Carol, thank you for contributing our 100th blog, your writing project seems so valuable to the people in the settings you work, I think there is a lot of therapeutic value in writing, I like the fact you recognise the need not to immerse oneself in recording all our negative stuff, during a period of recovery from mental ill health I found a creative writing group I attended too distressing but writing for the LWB blog over the last month has been very enjoyable.
    Su

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    • I didn’t know I’d written your 100th blog post.. how exciting 🙂

      I’m glad you are enjoying writing for LWB blog.

      I believe that it’s important to do the kind of writing that’s right for how you are thinking and feeling at the time. For anyone at the start of a mh hospital admission, for example, writing about a beautiful landscape photo, or another sort of descriptive writing, can be best. Everyone is different, so in a group I bring very flexible writing ideas to allow different people to write in different ways.

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  2. I’ve always loved writing too, and found it very healing both in terms of getting my feelings out, and also creating some kind of order when it’s been a bit chaotic in here. It’s true that it can be disturbing too. I think it’s like music, it’s open ended and a bit unpredictable where it will take you, but the journey is always interesting…….

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    • I’ve tried to work out how writing can bring order out of chaos and I think part of the answer is that when we write our thoughts are forced into one stream in order to get a flow of words and sentences down on paper. And the paper bit is important too .. writing on paper has a different effect on the brain than typing on a computer.

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      • That’s fascinating. I feel intuitively that it’s true – it feels a very different process handwriting to typing, but is there actually research evidence for it?

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      • I think there will be some research evidence about the effects of handwriting on the brain and on learning. Some work done by an American neuroscientist called Lieberman springs to mind as an example.

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  3. I don’t know about the research but I think there is something in it, I’ve read somewhere about TV/Computer sreen producing alpha states in the brain whereas interacting with the printed media produces a high amount of beta wave activity, I know if I use the computer for long stretches at a time my mind goes absolutely blank, also as I’ve found out over the last few weeks intense concentrated use ofcomputers can cause eye strain…….pens and papers please or a good old fashioned typewriter.
    Su

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      • I like the feel of writing on paper with an ink pen, the pleasure I feel each September when the stationery shops have their new stock of writing implements, the smell of a newly sharpened pencil, paper and brightly coloured card, but I do like some of what the word processing part of the computer does, the spell check, the on line dictionary and thesaurus, without which many dyslexic folk would be hampered and embarrassed in their attempts to write.
        Every best wish in your very worthwhile work.
        Su

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      • I love the feel of pen on paper too, although I use ballpoint pens these days. Perhaps I should fill my old Waterman fountain pen again. I love nice smmoth paper too – especially Oxford notebooks which have lovely paper. I like to do Freewriting on paper and often do the first draft of short stories on paper. Poems to as I love to see all the scribbling out as I amend and amend. But then I type up the first draft, leave it for a while and then edit on my laptop. All the great features of Word like spell checker, cut and paste and undo make editing so much easier. I am in any case a big fan of computers and have been for more years than I care to mention!

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  4. I’ve always found writing a good way of expressing myself and helping me to make sense of things. I wrote diaries throughout my troubled teenage years in which I let my pains and pleasures tumble out onto the page. I found that writing about distressing thoughts and experiences was better for me than holding them all inside to just go round and round in my head. These were uncensored thoughts, spilling onto the page, and not meant for sharing, though, later, I did go on to write things I wanted to share. Yes, people have different needs in a creative writing class for well-being, and the kind of writing that helps one person might increase distress for another. I agree that flexibility is important so that people can write what they want to write and what they feel ready to write about, whether they choose to write about pleasure or pain.

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    • Thanks for your comments and sharing your experience about what writing means to you and how therapeutic it’s been over the years, writing has been therapeutic for me to some extent but as I related earlier the group setting was not a helpful place for me to write anything personal. When I was acutely unwell, writing was part of ordering my thoughts, a way of making some sense of the chaos of ‘psychosis’ but it was a private activity, I still have those lists from my first ‘altered state’ in 2001 I think they could be described as ‘stream of consciousness’ writing, I don’t think there is any doubt writing can be beneficial for some, it’s good to see it being used within mainstream provision.

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  5. Thanks Carol,
    Lovely post and I’m interested in trying to write something positive and see where it takes me, something positive and magical. At present I only write a journal, but haven’t touched it for ages and it’a analytical. So I think it could be a really nice experience to sit a write something positive especially without any stress attached, eg. deadline or audience!! I will try this.
    I wrote my journal by hand, and it feels right that way, not sure why.. I think I look at a computer screen too much anyway – it’s addictive! Writing it down on paper is more peaceful. Also we used to write on paper at school.. does it tap into that?
    THANKS AGAIN vicky

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    • I hadn’t thought about writing on paper tapping in to our memories of school. There could be something in that, although some of the people I write with have bad memories of school so that would not work for them. I do think, and I am sure I have read, that writing by hand somehow affects the creation of pathways in the brain, but I need to find the research to back that up.

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