Getting Started with Mindful Writing
For most of my life, I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with my brother. I loved him fiercely, and knew he felt the same, yet somehow our encounters were frequently followed by drama and misunderstandings. After a challenging conversation, I’d often pull out paper and pen and write my feelings down. Thoughts would swirl and emotions would spill out onto the page, my right hand sometimes aching from all that poured out of me. Airing my feelings through writing allows me to not only “blow off steam” when I feel sad, frustrated, or angry, but also to take pause and see, with a bit of distance, a clearer view of my experience.
Why Mindful Writing is so Cathartic
Mindful writing, also known as expressive writing, is a healing form of writing that involves expressing your deepest thoughts and feelings. It’s an opportunity to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), free yourself of your inner critic and editor, and pay attention to the narrative of your experience and how you understand it.
Many of us have a natural tendency to tell ourselves stories about how we think and feel, which typically shapes the way we make sense of our life and the world. But sometimes, the thoughts and emotions we attach to an experience—a challenge, an interaction, a loss, or a memory, for example—change over time. And on occasion, the way we tell our stories isn’t exactly right. Mindful writing puts just enough distance between you and a “story,” which may help you see it with more clarity.
A mindful writing practice can brighten your quality of awareness, helping you to make sense of your thoughts, feelings, and perspectives.
Thanks to the space and sense of curiosity that mindfulness provides, a mindful writing practice can brighten your quality of awareness, helping you to make sense of your thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. It’s a chance to slow down, breathe, turn to a fresh page, and open up to what you’re thinking and feeling. Ultimately, it’s a path to making sense of an experience, and then seeing, and understanding, how you relate to it.
Science Agrees: Write it Out
Much of the research on expressive writing has been done by James W. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who suggests thinking about this type of writing as a “life-course correction.” By writing and then reflecting on our own stories, his research shows, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of emotional wellness.
Pennebaker believes that written expression not only helps us make sense of negative experiences, but can also lift a burden. His research shows that writing not just facts but feelings, and not just what happened but how you felt about it, helps you put together a coherent story that helps you better understand yourself. Once feelings and thoughts are a part of the written narrative, there can be a sense of relief—it’s as if you’ve released them from your heart and mind onto the page. There’s no need to share your writing with anyone unless you choose, but you also no longer have to keep your experience held inside.
“One way to understand how these benefits come about is that the very act of writing takes information that is often only dimly perceived, such as quick judgments, fears, worries, and concretizes by putting them in written form on paper,” says Zindel Segal, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology in Mood Disorders at the University of Toronto and a pioneering specialist in the use of mindfulness to treat mood disorders. “It requires that they are formed in language and also, once seen ‘on the page,’ they may be experienced with less of an emotional charge than when they were only ‘in the head.’” Tailored programs such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) incorporate elements of expressive writing in an effort to help participants externalize their experience, rendering it more available for mindful investigation. “Whether it involves writing about pleasant or unpleasant moments in MBCT or journaling in MBSR, the goals are the same. Make that which is fleeting more vivid, and bring a kind curiosity to what is revealed,” Segal says.
It isn’t uncommon to feel sad after writing about a negative or painful experience, but Pennebaker’s research shows that these reactions are short-lived. Writing about an upsetting experience—even a few times—can ultimately help decrease a tendency to ruminate.
Expand Your Perspective
From daily challenges to distressing events, mindful writing serves as both an emotional outlet and a chance to gain understanding about the stories we carry. Studies conducted over recent decades find that writing can offer a number of emotional and psychological benefits, such as improved mood, less anxiety, reduced blood pressure, and overall greater well-being. It can also improve sleep, increase self-confidence, and strengthen your immune system.
Without the need to focus on restrictions like spelling, grammar, and punctuation, a mindful writing practice offers an invitation to describe experiences, understand thoughts, work through emotions, expand your perspective, discover meaning, and possibly, notice what approaches may or may not be working. Sometimes, through writing
about even the most stressful and negative experience, we can uncover another way to relate it that we hadn’t considered before.
Sometimes, through writing about even the most stressful and negative experience, we can uncover another way to relate it that we hadn’t considered before.
Mindful writing can even benefit our romantic relationships. A 2006 study published in Psychological Science looked at 86 dating couples and found that those who were assigned to write about their emotions for three consecutive days were more likely to express positive feelings in conversations with their partner in the days that followed.
A writing practice, particularly when it comes to negative experiences, can also give birth to self-compassion, offering you the space to show up for your emotions—joy, anxiety, anger, exhilaration, even boredom—and just be with them for a little while, without pushing them away. Writing in this way provides a place where you can let go of judging yourself to freely explore what you notice and feel.
How to Begin Your Mindful Writing Practice
Most of the studies on expressive writing use Pennebaker’s straightforward approach, which is to have participants write about their thoughts and feelings about a particular topic for 20 minutes, for three or four days in a row. Here is a modified version of his writing rules:
- Set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Open up a notebook (or begin a document on your computer) and write your thoughts and feelings about some important emotional event or issue that has affected you.
- In your writing, let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others; to your past, your present, or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now.
- Write only for yourself. Do not worry about spelling, sentence structure, or grammar.
- Continue writing until the time is up. You have begun the process of stepping out from your experience to gain perspective on it.
Mindful writing can take on different forms, but the essential ingredients remain the same—write down your thoughts and feelings, notice the narrative, and approach your reflection with a sense of curiosity and an open mind. You can also try beginning with a brief mindfulness practice to welcome a sense of calm and grounding before writing.
Start by settling into the body, noticing any felt sensations, such as tension, pressure, warmth, or coolness. You can close your eyes if that feels comfortable, and take a few slow, deep breaths. Bring your awareness to the flow of the breath, following the movement of the air as it enters through the nose, making its way into the chest and abdomen. Allow the mind and body to rest for as long as you like, opening up to whatever emotions and thoughts arise. When you feel ready, you can open your eyes and reconnect with your surroundings. Now you can begin writing with a sense of acceptance and deep self-compassion about any topic that surfaces. After you’re done writing, and reading, ask yourself:
- How did I experience this event or experience?
- Did I see it clearly and accurately, or was it impacted by my emotions?
- What were the specific circumstances and how did they make me feel?
- Do I feel differently now?
- Have my thoughts and emotions shifted?
- What have I learned from reading what I wrote?
If you’d prefer to not read what you’ve written, that’s OK too. Just expressing yourself through writing—allowing your thinking and feeling experience to emerge—can initiate a greater perspective on any situation.
When things got ugly between my brother and me, writing down my emotions always made me feel better. Sometimes it simply helped to clear my head and heart; sometimes it offered clarity about where we’d misunderstood one another. And always, my writing practice has offered a path forward—one that frequently leads to healing.
4 Mindful Writing Prompts to Get Started
I invite you to consider a specific topic that inspires you to look inward, tap into present-moment emotions and thoughts, and release whatever arises in the form of written words. Set your timer for an amount of time that feels comfortable, drop in, and write what you’re feeling. Then call up that curiosity and see how you relate to what you’ve written.
1) Vulnerability. It’s not uncommon to feel increased fear and self-doubt when trying something new or choosing to make a shift in life—times when the risk of getting rejected or criticized is real. We all face obstacles and challenges, yet it’s the things we do outside of our comfort zone that help us develop and grow. I offer you these words from “A Morning Offering,” by the poet John O’Donohue for inspiration.
May I have the courage today to live the life that I would love To postpone my dream no longer But do at last what I came here for And waste my heart on my fear no more.
Try it: Write about a time when you were afraid to do something and did it anyway. How did it feel before and after? What did you learn from that experience?
2) Self-Compassion is the idea that you can actually be kind to yourself and accept your own faults. We all make mistakes, face frustrations, experience loss, and are forced to realize our limitations. This is a part of being a human being. But somehow, we’re very good at beating ourselves up. What if you could treat yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a hard time—whatever the circumstance? That is self-compassion.
Try it: Think about a time when you’ve struggled in some way—felt inadequate, failed at something, had a hardship. Write down some details about the event and how it made you feel. What would you tell a friend who experienced that situation? What tone would you use? What actions would you suggest they take?
If you ever feel yourself getting lost while writing, come back to your breath and the intention to be truthful and kind with yourself. Spending this time with what arises, what is present for you, and holding compassion for it all, is at the heart of mindful writing.
3) Resilience is the ability to navigate adversity, to bounce back and even grow in the face of the difficult moments and struggles that life inevitably throws our way. While it feels like so much of our lives is not in our control—and there are obviously things that are beyond our control—we can choose how we respond to the stressors that impact us.
Research has shown that we can cultivate resilience, seen often in our capacity to rise in dark times. Just think for a minute about all we’ve been through, and the uncertainty we’ve navigated, in the past three years. That is resilience!
Try it: Write about one of the more difficult or stressful events of your life. How did you get through it and what did you learn? How would you face that situation today?
4) Gratitude. Giving thanks is said to be the mother of all virtues and is consistently shown to increase our happiness and make us kinder. Yet in these tumultuous and technology-charged times, we sometimes forget to stop and express our gratitude—especially to the people we love and care for—which deepens our relationships and social bonds.
Try it: Think about someone to whom you feel closely connected. Write about the gifts they bring to your life and how you can (and perhaps will) express your gratitude to this person.
Poetry can be a kind of meditation, explains Rashid Hughes. He explores how the art of haiku can bring a sense of peaceful, awe-inspired expressiveness into your practice.
The invitation is to connect with your senses in a real or imagined setting. What do you hear? What do you smell? Note the emotional content of the space. And when you’re done, take what you learned to the page in whatever way suits you.