Writing as therapy

"The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe." Gustav Flaubert


Humans have used 'creative form' to record thoughts, feelings, emotions and ideas since the beginning of time, through symbolic cave paintings, rock carvings, hieroglyphs and writing. This form of communication is at its most primitive as a state of consciousness in wanting to impart innermost ideas to another.

Writing in particular, is a powerful tool in tangibly exploring thoughts and feelings immediately and without the need for any particular training. It allows us to do so without fear of shame, embarrassment or ridicule and is something that is private and free. 

Writing as a form of self-therapy is profound in that it enables the writer to disclose to their notebook or paper, as much, or as little as they wish. It allows the writer to take complete control in what they wish to explore, how far they wish to take it and to stop whenever they wish; a process similar to talking with a therapist but without the financial outlay or time constraints.

Whilst this approach has many advocates, it is important to point out that it is not a substitute for therapy, rather, complementary to therapy, an addition or a 'tool' you can incorporate to gain additional benefit from exploring your concerns with a professional, qualified and experienced therapist.

Writing allows you space and time to be with your thoughts.

In this high-paced world, the majority of people are rushed and find themselves often in debt where time is concerned - often having it taken up by work, family or other commitments. Numerous studies have shown the link between stress and illness because we as a society have lost our sense of boundaries in terms of work/life balance - this doesn't seem to exist in today's fast-paced world.

There is also the intrinsic expectation from employers for employees to offer more and more, often in stark contrast to what their contracts state with employees regularly staying late or taking work home without acknowledgement or remuneration. This and other responsibilities often leave people feeling stressed, anxious, experiencing panic attacks, sleep disturbances and an inability to 'think straight'; personal health, well-being and relationships are often the first casualties of this epidemic.

This is what is known as brain overload, we as human organisms aren't built to process the world at this pace but are forced to do exactly that and cope with the aftermath. People often are unable for a number of reasons to take time out of their lives to just stop in order to recharge, refresh, and restore their minds and spirits. In this current economy, it has become increasingly difficult to 'go out and let your hair down' due to the rising cost of living. Additionally, if you are not able to access professional support like therapy via your GP, through an employer or privately, you are then left to deal with issues alone which can be difficult and daunting. 

It is my intention through this resource, to provide readers with a few tools that they can use regularly to deal with some of the thinking behind the stresses they are experiencing in their lives and to find positive and beneficial outcomes. I have found through my own use of writing as a regular tool of self-reflection, that finding and indeed, regularly making time for stillness and reflection can and does make a vast difference to your state of mind and sense of control in your world. 

Fountain pen placed on paper with flowersWriting as I have stated, is a private and free tool at your disposal and one that is powerful and enlightening. The exercises I want to share will involve your commitment to:

1. Make regular time for yourself at least each week, if not each day, even if this is a mere 10 minutes or a couple of hours, because (to borrow a famous phrase) 'you're worth it!'

2. Be open to exploring what is going on for you truthfully and openly - only you will see your work and know its content - and the impact it is having on you and your life.

3. Take part in any exploration of your 'self' gently and lovingly with lashings of self-compassion and without criticism and self-abusive behaviour.

4. Make a commitment to seeking professional support via your GP or through private counselling if you feel you need to do this. You are your own responsibility.

5. Give yourself as much time and support as necessary, engaging in healing and self-caring behaviours. If you don't know what these are, we will cover them in this article. Start with asking your 'self' - what do I like? What helps me feel good?

Be mindful of what your body is asking of you: nourishing food, rest, relaxation, social time? The list is endless. Beware, however, if you realise your body is asking for, or you are drawn to excessive alcohol or other non-healing substances, bad eating habits, lack of self-care and take immediate action. 

So then, make a lovely cup of your favourite bevvy, and find a comfy place to curl up, and let us begin. Feel free to stop and ponder points as you wish. It will be useful to have a few sheets of paper and a notebook to hand for jotting down some thoughts.


Journaling is often perceived as a concept brought over from the USA. However, there is profound literature from around the work that shows journaling as a method employed by individuals from all walks of life using the humble pen and paper to record their thoughts in perpetuity. The works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Diary of Anne Frank and the prolific diaries of Queen Victoria are all well documented. 

The idea of journaling or keeping a diary specifically in relation to counselling is to allow you time and space to simply be with your thoughts. Today's electronic gadget-led world relies heavily and unhealthily on immediate communication through various forms of social media. People no longer have to think about what they are writing and sending off without a second thought, leaving us bombarded by diatribes of nonsense that take up valuable time and often elicit strong emotions.

This constant 'chatter', whilst seemingly 'fun' causes stress in various forms, part of which is now being seen in increasing levels of self-reported social anxiety and resultant isolation. People no longer have, or make time for themselves to just be quiet and still, allowing themselves to recharge and heal from the demands of the world.

Regular news items tell of increasing illness and diseases, employers pay billions in sick pay due to stress-related illness as we, in the modern Western world, have forgotten the ability and the importance of engaging in individual respite and social communion with our fellow humans. We are the invisible casualties, unseen by our partners, lovers, colleagues as we continue in our individual battles to survive from day to day.

Journal open in the middle

It is for this reason, more than any other, that using the written word had gained prominence. The idea of sitting down, carving out time that may stretch out before us, to find that peace and silence is indeed the search for heaven! When I offer this scenario to many clients they look at me shocked, often exclaiming 'time, what time? I don't even have time to go to the bathroom and you want me to do what?' 

I have found that through my own use of regular writing, having had to carve out time too, I have experienced many positive and life-affirming discoveries. Clients too, who have trusted in me and in themselves to explore writing, have reported positive and beneficial outcomes when they have made time for stillness, self-reflection and have found that it does make a difference.

Writing is both a private and very profound tool that can be used to:

  • 'Download' all that is causing you stress, anxiety and concern (also see 'Brain Dump exercise. below).
  • Identify patterns in your thinking and allow you to challenge your own negative patterns. 
  • Find positive and empowering ways to address problems or problematic people (see also 'Unsent letters' exercise).
  • Learn more about yourself and what makes you tick which is the main point of this section.
  • Most importantly, this is a free, easy and completely flexible way of working - you can do it anywhere!

So, to journaling. Start with a few minutes a day for at least two weeks. You do not have to write about anything specific or be a fantastic writer. This is not a competition and a word of caution; many of my clients in their 40s onwards report bad experiences at school and hate writing. Some were punished for 'not doing it correctly', or for 'being left handed', or for having undiagnosed dyslexia and grew up being called stupid. If this is you, then take it slowly and lovingly.

This exercise is about you and no one else there simply is no right or wrong way of doing it. If it helps, grab a couple of sheets and just go wild on them. Scribble, draw, write some rude words - simply put, do all those writing-related things that may have gotten you into trouble before, because this time around, there will be no one to judge or criticise. You are perfect as you are, because there is only one of you on this earth, even if you are a twin!

Your journal can contain anything you wish. I use mine for jotting down thoughts, ideas, working through problems, concerns, anxieties about something for example and of course, to be creative! I love doodling and writing poetry, so I have a separate journal for these activities. I love writing, it is my time to indulge myself completely. It is my time for me and only me. It is my time to enjoy my pens, my favourite inks and my beautiful journals that I have taken special care to find and purchase as gifts to myself. So you see, if you are able to give this exercise the importance it deserves, it can be very healing and rewarding.

Brain dumping

Brain dumping is a quick and easy exercise especially good to help with managing stress and anxiety. Again, simply get your paper and write. No thinking, no formatting, no worrying about making it pretty or make sense.

A dump is opening the reservoir and allowing all the stuff to flow unhindered. As you do this over days or weeks, you will notice, if you read it back, that patterns emerge from our subconscious that point to what we are worrying about! 

Unsent letters

Unsent letters are a profound way to process things that have been caused by others whom you may not be able to challenge or respond to directly. For example, if the person has died, or you are no longer in touch with them, or you may feel too frightened to approach.

An unsent letter is just that, a letter that you write but don't send. What's the point, then, you might ask? The point is for you to get whatever is unsaid and unprocessed out of your system. A letter may convey your feelings to another, however, firstly, it is for your self. We write to bear witness to our experiences, thoughts and feelings. How others receive it is not that important. This is not about them, it is about you.

Man holding journal and coloured pencilsThe exercise is very simple. Make time. I always allow myself a good hour or two to sit somewhere when I will not be disturbed. Depending on whom I am writing to, I gather my notepad or special writing stationary. And then, put pen to paper and let rip! I mean it, go for it, uncensored, unedited, unrestrained. The whole point here is to have a full-on meltdown, tantrum, give them a piece of your mind, whatever you want to call it - aimed at people who you can't slap without getting arrested. The magic is in documenting it on paper, the flow of the ink on paper as you organically convert a thought, a memory to real, tangible words.

The page is your silent witness. It receives your rage, sadness, grief, or indeed joy, elation, excitement without judgement. Whatever the case, once you have written,  be prepared for a lot of emotion to surface! Have some tissues and chocolate handy, you're absolutely fine even though you may feel like you've been trampled by a herd of elephants.

It hurts because we are releasing sometimes long, pent-up hurt, anger, heartache. But, once you've put pen to paper, it lessens.

You can write one letter or a series of letters. Write until there is nothing that comes up, until your mind is blank and when you think of that memory, you feel more neutral towards it. You know when you've healed when you can't conjure up the raw emotion it had before you did this exercise. I have had clients absolutely reclaim their lives and power through this exercise, and this has happened so frequently over the years that is it not a fluke. This is a proven strategy that has worked for many hundreds of my own clients. For the number crunchers, check out the work of Dr James Pennebaker who has researched the power of writing in the lab! 

Letters to loved ones 

Letters to loved ones, and to yourself, write a letter of appreciation and love. Let them know how you feel about them while they are still in front of you. And if they aren't, still write to them write to their spirit and to the love you have in your heart for them. Just remember, you are safe and all is well.

A letter for many is one of the most sacred gifts there is. The gift of your thoughts, time and love. Think about a time you were given a handwritten note or card that was meaningful, how did you feel, and where do you safely store it to this day?

Happy writing.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Newquay, Cornwall, TR7
Written by Bhavna Raithatha, BSc, MSc, MBACP (Accredited) Highly Experienced & Qualified
Newquay, Cornwall, TR7

Bhavna is a veteran Psychotherapist, Coach, Trainer, Speaker and CI Debriefer with over 25 years in the field of helping people from all walks of life and leadership positions become their most powerful and integrated selves. Bhavna incorporates many approaches in her practice and is led by Heart Centred teachings of Love All, Serve All.

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