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How Writing Cultivates Emotional Wellness

When my husband of 33 years of marriage asked for a divorce, I flashed back to the embittered women I had known who had been left by their spouses. I decided I would not be taken down by his actions and become depressed, as some of them had. Rather, I would focus on my emotional well-being, have my period of grief, and eventually find recovery.

When I took pen in hand minutes after he walked out of our house and our marriage, I knew that very act would be cathartic. I would get all my feelings of rejection and abandonment, my emotions surrounding betrayal, and the hurt and pain onto paper. I’d push them out of my psyche, giving them no chance to fester inside and cause stress-related illness—making certain not to internalize any of it.

Emotional wellness is a state of well-being associated with an awareness and acceptance of self and an optimistic feeling of general contentment.

October is Emotional Wellness Month, a good time to—if we haven't already—concentrate on acquiring a positive mindset. To accomplish that, however, we must have the explicit desire to become mentally healthier, purposefully including strategies in our everyday focus. What better way to explore who we are than through the journaling process, where our honesty and truth are meant for our eyes alone.

Adapting to stressful situations, dealing with adversity when it rises in front of us, and fighting to resist being taken down are examples of resilience.

The ability to overcome hardship contributes to a positive outlook. Knowing I will eventually climb over and reach the other side of those hard bumps, hills, or mountains that catastrophically drop in front of me provides the hope that fuels my continual movement along the path to recovery.

When a second tragedy occurred in my family's life, the mountain seemed insurmountable. Yet, I forced myself to take the first steps on the trail of that sky-reaching peak and renewed my vow to heal and maintain my mental health. Writing allowed me to set aside time to focus on and face the emotions surrounding the traumatic event that interrupted my daughters' and my life, giving me the opportunity to explore and express my feelings. At the same time, I was able to manage the intensity of the stress levels I was experiencing since I tended to feel calmer after a heavy writing session. Sometimes I cried and the release of tears provided relief.

Through the process of written expression, I was able to openly look at my situation, analyze the events that had occurred, and gain insight and understanding. A peaceful resolution followed.

The Write Way to Heal

I cannot overstress the value of writing and encourage others to take pen in hand and find the “write way” to move toward healing.

If life hands you an unexpected, unplanned event and you are confused, bewildered, in pain, and at a loss for words, consider the writing process. It is a cathartic exercise, and it can bring you to greater awareness, to better understanding. To acceptance. It can allow you to get your feelings out. Talking—and therapy—can do this also, but sometimes we are not ready to share our secrets or feelings with others. Or we don’t have the words. Somehow, writing brings the words out.

Don’t plan out what you will write, just go to it, sit quietly, and let the words flow.

If writing does not feel natural to you, don’t let that stress you. Sit in the silence and relax. Words will come. How do you know what you are feeling if you don’t know what you’re thinking? Whatever thought comes to mind, let the pen make the strokes, printing the symbols representing the letters that form the words. Or touch the computer keys for that same result.

Write whatever you are feeling, whatever thoughts or ideas arise, getting it on the paper or the computer screen, knowing there will be no judgment. There will be no audience. You can tell your deepest, darkest secrets without fear of retaliation.

Processing our emotions and thoughts on paper can lead to outcomes such as enhancing our self-awareness, changing our outlook, and improving our mental and physical well-being. More importantly, the progression of written expression can result in an emotional and personal transformation.

We begin forming words with the pen on paper, or fingers on the keyboard, with our minds filled with cloudy thinking, in an over-alert, hyperemotional state, with multiple questions surrounding our angst and confusion. Through the process of writing, we come out of the clouds and ultimately move to the point where insight and understanding intersect with meaning and learning. At this juncture, emotional growth and healing take place.

Changing our Self-talk Through Writing

We all have had the negative self-talk that stops us in our tracks and prevents us from taking the next step. When our anxiety heightens with the thought of moving onward and our fear mounts, it can leave us in a stalemate. We are virtually motionless. With our fear holding us back, we can’t move forward nor does our discomfort allow any backward movement.

With negative thinking, we become bogged down in the uncomfortable feeling that accompanies the messages we send to ourselves. This discomfort may have its origination at the hand of another individual or individuals whose disparaging comments resulted in a degradation of our self-concept and led to our self-doubt. And sometimes we can misinterpret another person’s intentions based on that historical data. What we expect from others has its base in our formative years, matching the foundation previously set. Unfortunately, out of that belittling sphere we emerge with the tendency to feed ourselves the same denigrating judgments.

How do we stop the discouraging, anxiety-arousing messages we send to ourselves?

Writing can help with that.

Through the process of written expression, we can explore our thoughts and feelings and gain insight into the view we have of ourselves. We can unwrap the situations that contributed to our confidence and self-worth levels, review the various components including the individuals involved, and gain an understanding of the why. Writing about the possible influences on their personality and behavior reminds us that their action or reaction had nothing to do with us. Had we received positive communication regarding who we are, we'd be telling ourselves a different story.

Knowing that, we are now empowered to take the steps to move toward a more favorable conceptualization of our sense of self. How? By simply changing the messages.

By replacing those harmful statements that bring us down with ones that lift us up, our comfort level, self-concept, and mood change accordingly.

Our lives are busy, and with tasks or events needing our attention occurring one after the other, we don’t always have time to focus on our discomfort and the reason for it. Furthermore, it is difficult to concentrate and dig deeper while immersed in gloomy thoughts when another family task, social event, or personal need interrupts our time of reflection.

However, if we can set aside five minutes to sit, find calm, and release our thoughts onto paper, we can place intentional direction on our concerns in the here and now, uninterrupted.

In addition, we can spend time exploring any related feelings.

I have found the best way I can do this is to sit quietly and start writing whatever comes to mind. If no thoughts emerge, I write “I don’t know what to write,” and I repeat this line until something else turns up. In a matter of seconds, ideas start to flow, and I am in the throes of writing. If this is still difficult for you, add prompts or invest in journals that have sentence stems to stimulate responses.

The beauty of writing is that you can capture feelings you may not realize existed.

Another upshot is that you can read through your previous passages and find consistent themes. This can be a real eye-opener for some of us. As you continue to write, you will see changes in the way you see things, in the way you react, and how you feel over time. By going back and reflecting on your earlier words, you can gain a better understanding of yourself, your needs, and how you view the world. You can also recognize your growth.

Once you have established the practice and notice the recurring themes, it is time to replace negative thoughts that have contributed to any self-doubt, poor self-esteem, and low confidence with statements that create the opposite effect.

Brain Circuitry and Positive Feelings

Affirmations and positive thoughts are beneficial to those who find themselves in negative spirals.

Positive thinking can produce pleasant emotional states, contributing to one’s resilience and ability to push through life-changing events.

Affirmations are specific cues, steering us toward a positive mindset. If you experience anxiety, fear, or depression, affirmations can help transmute the negative mental activity into encouraging messages filled with hope and the promise of a more joyful way of being.

Some of us become attached to our negative self-image, allowing our discouraging mindset to be our story. The way our brain works contributes to this. To quote from the article “Stress Management and Resilience” on the Emotional Wellness page of my website:

“Brain research tells us that when you elicit the memory of a specific event, your brain reacts the same way as it did when the event first occurred. Therefore, remembering the incident brings back the emotional reaction that accompanied it. If a circumstance causes sadness, later memories of that occurrence will trigger melancholy. Likewise, recalling happy occasions will yield pleasant feelings. This same brain work can be applied to affirmations. If you say and believe an encouraging statement, your brain responds with an optimistic outlook, enabling you to adopt a smiling disposition and a more cheerful view of the world around you.”

Affirmations are useful methods for making the brain switch from the negative cellular circuitry to the uplifting, positive cell connections.

If you have ever looked upon an astounding scenic view of earth’s natural formations or a photo of a joyful toddler and reacted with a smile and a pleasurable feeling, you have experienced this brain connection. By seeking and engaging in these delightful moments, you can evoke positive feelings, paving the way to pleasant thinking.

To gain more enjoyment, along with a positive sense of well-being, you can:

  1. Find a quiet place where you can be alone for a few minutes, and spend time in a relaxed state, writing without interruption; if five minutes is all you have, so be it. If you can spare ten to fifteen minutes, that may allow time for self-reflection.

  2. Replace the negative statements you have been telling yourself with those that lift and enable you to be the true you. Write them as they come up and repeat them to yourself as needed during the day.

  3. Recall moments when you felt good about yourself because of the messages you received from others and write those accounts out. Remind yourself of your true worth.

  4. If a situation occurs that brings you angst, write out the details and explore your thoughts and feelings about it. Express your anger through the written word and seek resolution. You may only accomplish addressing the need to emote and vent, but that is a start. As time goes on, you can revisit your words and gain other insights.

  5. Find pictures that bring you joy and place them within the pages of your journal; after a period of somber writing, you can look through these and right yourself before you reenter your external world.

  6. Write affirmations that encourage you, enhance your sense of self, and bolster your confidence. Include loving messages to yourself.

  7. In your writing, show gratitude for this life, the lessons you are learning, the opportunities you are given, and the insights you have gained. Also, show grateful thanks for the love you are finding for yourself and, because of it, for others.

To internalize our thinking and consequently the empowering words we have written, we must believe the printed statements that convey self-validation.

All I can say is believe.

Believe that you, too, can take pen in hand or keys under your fingertips and find your own internal discoveries, leading the way to heightened self-awareness, gained insight, and a more peaceful quality of life.


Martha Louise is a retired school psychologist and author. Her first publication, a memoir of her personal journey with a Vietnam veteran with post-war trauma, preceded the publishing of the first book she wrote, a children's story about a gymnast. When she is not busy with her adult children’s families (including three grandchildren) and friends, she spends time walking, reading, traveling, writing, and enjoying new adventures.

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