Do you want to grow in self-awareness? Do you want help breaking self-destructive thought patterns? Do you want help facing overwhelming emotions? If you answered “yes” to any of these, expressive writing is a simple yet powerful way for you to move in that direction. As a college student, you may be fully aware of how writing is a way of thinking and reasoning. However, writing can be more than a way of thinking about academics: it can be a way of thinking about life. This article will give you some tips on how to use writing as a tool for self-care.
What is expressive writing?
Expressive writing is exactly what it sounds like. It is using writing as a way to express emotions––to record, describe and process them as they arise or in retrospect––with little regard for things like grammar or organization. Expressive writing becomes a form of reflection which allows you to deepen your understanding of yourself and cultivate a greater awareness of the external variables around you and their impact on you. Consequently, you may feel stronger in your ability to face uncomfortable situations and nurture resiliency.
Why expressive writing?
You could write about an upsetting experience, a positive experience, or both! Expression is crucial to the human experience. Without it, we turn inward and become isolated from other people, as we become consumed with our thoughts and feelings and they become our tyranny. Expressive writing is unique in that it allows us to externalize thoughts, ideas, feelings, conflict, and impressions, without having to engage directly with another person. Unlike traditional therapy, expressive writing allows you to engage with your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with honesty and directness that you might not be able to achieve through other means. Ideally, your expressive writing can serve as a launching pad for discussion with other people.
When to practice expressive writing?
Expressive writing is a personal practice and it will look different for everyone. It may take place in the moment of an overwhelming emotional experience; however, this is not always an option. Whenever you have the emotional and physical space to revisit such an experience, try writing about it. Maybe you could set aside a few minutes to sit down and process in a focused way. Otherwise, it may be helpful to jot down ideas and thoughts as they arise spontaneously. Any expressive writing––scheduled or sporadic, brief or lengthy––can help.
How do I write about my feelings and experiences?
The idea of giving language to such ambiguous and confusing parts of your life––like emotions––may seem a bit foreign or at the least uncomfortable. The acronym ARC is a helpful guide to get you started.
What is ARC?
ARC stands for Antecedents, Reaction/Response, and Consequences. This framework can be used to make sense of an experience that you feel deserves some thought and reflection.
The Steps of ARC
- Make three columns, one for each letter.
- Under “A-Antecedents,” identify the precipitations or the foreground that surrounds the experience you are reflecting on.
- For the next column under “R-Reaction/Response”, describe the emotions, physical sensations, urges, and/or behaviors that occurred.
- Under the third column “C-Consequences” write about any results and effects. This is not necessarily positive or negative, it is simply whatever followed.
An example might look like this:
|I had a job interview for a position I really want||I wanted to call in sick||I went to the interview. I feel relieved that it’s now over. |
|In prep for the interview, I remembered the tips from my university’s career seminars and read a bunch of materials about interview prep||I felt nervous and worried and aggressively yelled at my sister for drinking all of the milk (even though I couldn’t eat anything)|
My sister isn’t speaking to me because of how I treated her when I felt stressed.
|My parents commented earlier this week on their disappointment in my lack of academic accomplishments.||My palms were sweating all day. |
My parents’ comments kept coming to mind.
|I feel proud of myself for pushing through my discomfort and going to the interview.|
ARC is effective in how it allows you to gain perspective on a situation. You can begin to see why you reacted the way you did and then, moving forward, anticipate how you can respond differently in similar situations in the future. Think of a time you felt caught up in an experience so much so that your emotional and/or mental capacity became completely occupied. You may have lost all sight of how your thoughts and feelings were determining your behaviors. That’s where ARC comes in.
ARC can help you develop your ability to sense when you are approaching an emotional or mental threshold. You may experience greater awareness of why certain things affect you the way that they do and you may even be able to develop strategies on how to deescalate the situation or develop tolerance and acceptance.
Other Methods of Expressive Writing
- Morning Pages
Immediately upon waking, write until you fill 3 pages. Write whatever comes to mind. If nothing comes, literally write “I have no idea” until ideas begin to flow. You would be surprised how many repressed beliefs or worries may surface. New York Times writer and artist Julia Cameron can sell you on Morning Pages.
Journaling is the practice of writing consistently on a particular topic of your choosing. Journaling can be a type of record keeping. This could look like writing every day, or only once a week, about key moments that happened that day/week. After a while, you will be able to look back at your journal entries and make connections between particular days/weeks/months.
- A fellow Wheaton student shared with me how journaling has functioned in her life, particularly with how she lives with depression. She described that in past intense mental states, “I felt an inability to trust myself…because you’re not safe with yourself…but journaling really gave me space to explore what I was experiencing. And become more rooted in reality and more rooted to myself. Journaling became this space where I could really respect myself and my experiences.” Journaling enabled her to record her recovery.
- Reappraising and Reframing
Reappraising and reframing can be helpful for identifying self-destructive thought patterns or false beliefs about yourself.
- Begin by writing a narrative about an experience. Then write a parallel narrative, telling the same experience but from a different perspective. You could literally choose another person in the room during the experience itself or you could imagine how the most integrated and healthy version of yourself would interpret the experience.
- This can be as simple as writing a To-Do list and reframing it as “This is What I Get To-Do-List”
This method can also be great for practicing gratitude.
- Find a Prompt––then Write!
Writer and designer Kate Arends has several prompts that can serve you in expressing and externalizing that which you may or may not be aware of.
Expressive writing, where the goal is not a polished or perfect piece but a free and open means of reflection, is an avenue for self-awareness. Self-awareness enables personal freedom as you understand why things affect you the way they do, and that you do not need to be determined by your thoughts and feelings.
Expressive writing is to care for yourself and it is also a crucial step in caring for others. As we become more aware of our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and our experiences through expressive writing, we can live in greater harmony within ourselves and with other people in our lives. Whether you haven’t journaled since that diary in fourth grade, or personal writing is a part of your daily routine, I hope this has inspired you to use writing as a way to care for yourself.