Write Your Way Out of Stress

Writing as a form of therapy

Life is full of stressors, from work to finances to family. Sometimes it seems like all our troubles are piling up with no escape. Most of us might welcome an opportunity to break down on a psychologist’s couch.

But take heart! Writing is another, often overlooked coping mechanism.

We all know that the written word, whether poetry, creative essay, novel or short story, can express the most deeply felt human emotions. However, we often assume that writing is best left for people who have made it their life’s work.

Not so. Anyone can use writing as a tool for serious introspection to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and create a more fulfilling future.

Progressive companies may take this form of therapy a step further by employing a writer-in- residence — a professional writer who can lead the workforce. An effective writer in residence can help bring out the writer in reluctant employees or encourage them to use writing as a tool for their own healing.

Through writing, we can release any negative emotions and prevent the buildup of stress that leads to serious mental or even physical illness. According to the 2005 article, “Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing”, in the Advances in Psychiatric Treatment magazine, Karen A. Baikie and Kay Wilhelm explain that writing for therapeutic purposes, in particular, has been proven to boost the functioning of the immune system, reduce blood pressure, improve mood and reduce absenteeism from work, among other benefits.

Dr. J. B. Peterson, psychologist and co-founder of the Self-Authoring Suite says writing provides an indispensable means of reflection and goal-setting. He adds, “It’s important to write because writing is like thinking.”

He shares the following writing exercises:

Exercise 1: Reflecting on the past

To understand your present circumstances, explore how you got here and why. Start by breaking your life down into seven epochs or sequences of time that you can remember. For example, elementary school, high school, college and the first five years of marriage. Then list in detail up to six significant experiences within these epochs. Note the types of experiences that keep reoccurring — particularly failure. That is your brain telling you, “You’d better figure this one out!” Reflect on how each of these experiences has helped shape you. Expect this process to take a few hours, since reviewing your entire life is not easy.

Exercise 2: Analyze the present

Answer the questions, “What’s good about me?” “What do I bring to the world that I can capitalize on in such a way that I get what I want?”

People often struggle with this exercise, but it is critical to understand your best traits so you can make good use of them in the future. Don’t neglect to also ask yourself which of your faults reemerge and are continual sources of stress. Think and write about how to get a handle on these issues and what could have been done differently?

Exercise 3: Imagine the future

This exercise has the most powerful effect on individual productivity. First, imagine what your life will look like three to five years down the road. Consider all aspects of your future life — career, family, friendships, etc. Which elements would you need to have in the future to feel like you have succeeded? Whose life do you really admire?

Use these answers as clues to determine how your life would look ideally. Then ask yourself how your life would look in three to five years if you let all of your bad habits and poor choices take control. While most people do not like to go into this dark place, doing so will point out the things you need to do better or differently to avoid that outcome.

Using this information, establish eight future goals in order of priority. For each goal, ask yourself, “What if I did this? Why does it matter? What would happen to my family if I did this? Or to my community? What would happen if I didn’t do it?” Jot down these arguments for reference.

Writer in Residence at Mt. Sinai Hospital

Employees at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto are fortunate to have writer-in-residence, Ronna Bloom, who is also a psychotherapist and the author of five books.

Bloom uses poetry — hers and others — to help people bring their whole selves to work. She has instituted poetry booths around the hospital where she writes poems on demand after brief chats with staff. She proactively engages busy nurses and leads them in writing workshops rather than waiting for them to come to her. As well, she attends meetings and produces poetry while carefully observing. This poem Bloom created after in a meeting on “organizational trust”:

Civility Among the Metrics
When you institute the necessary leanness.
When the tough standard comes in
on its dark road. How do we respond?
How to generate a light that’s inviting?
That makes it possible to see
amid the curves and cut-offs?
How to travel the road in a way
that’s clear, and gives back
We need civility,
and not by protocol
by heart. To remember
that the journey is not without passengers
and ask how to carry ourselves and each other with courage
and gently.

At the 2014 Conference Board of Canada’s, Workplace Wellness and Mental Health conference, Bloom aptly displayed her ability to lead diverse individuals in writing their own poetry. There, participants shared poems on issues close to their hearts, including procrastination, motherhood and love.

Poetry as therapy transcends cadence, finding rhyming words to end phrases or looking for the most flowery descriptions. Rather, it involves writing from your heart about events, people or experiences that have had a significant impact on your life.

Melissa Barton, Director of Occupational Health, Wellness and Safety at Mt. Sinai, explained that issues plaguing Mt. Sinai employees included compassion fatigue, emotional exhaustion and burnout. Prior to Bloom’s arrival, improving emotional well-being was part of the hospital’s overarching organizational strategy. After all, healthy employees are more productive and can better serve customers, or patients in this case.

The inclusion of a writer-in-residence is one of the key initiatives toward improving employee well-being and their perception that the organization supports them. Something as intriguing as poetry has crafted a culture of reflection at Mt. Sinai, also leading the hospital to lower levels of absenteeism, burnout and turnover while improving employee engagement.

Writing can change lives. It provides a means of taking control of our emotions and our lives in the face of various pressures and challenges. It also brings with it the impetus and commitment to change what is not working in our lives and focus on doing more of what is working.

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