Writing with Benefits

Can writing, in its many forms, make us happier? Research tells us that it can be a useful coping mechanism for managing stress. So how does that work?

Most of us like to read and appreciate being able to do so, whether that be for the learning we gain or the gathering of interesting facts; being enthralled by a heart-stopping storyline or simply noting the Emergency Evacuation Notice that might just save our life. But have you ever considered being the writer? You may be thinking what would be the point of that? Or perhaps you already write.

There is the obvious allure of making mega bucks as an author; realistically that only works for a few premier league novelists and I’m very happy for them. But I don’t want to dwell here on money, even though it is undeniably important and clearly can contribute to happiness.

Journaling

Regulars to my blog will know that a few years ago, when I was really struggling emotionally, I began to express myself by writing down my feelings and thoughts, something I’d not done before.

Having recently arrived in Houston on a posting from England, the austere black covered notebook slung carelessly on my bedside table would become a place of refuge, an escape from my isolation. The notebook had begun life as a safe place to store my seemingly endless ‘to do’ lists, but was soon transformed into a journal. In the privacy of my bedroom, alone with my silent friend, I could say absolutely anything; shameful ramblings allowed me to unleash my authentic feelings. Instead of being in transition, I realised, I had become completely stuck – set adrift, marooned in my own head. I discovered that the process of scribbling down the unspeakable was like releasing steam from a pressure cooker!

Months later when daring to look back at my daily entries, I was surprised at the depth of feeling contained in those pages. I didn’t remember feeling them so intensely or writing them in that way and yet there they were, staring right back at me.

I summed up my sense of incredulity:

‘How is it that a formerly together, fulfilled human being can find herself torn down by the simple act of moving from one western country to another?’

Thoughts of that ilk, captured in my journal, galvanized me to write about the process I was going through and my learning from it. So the journal itself remained personal (worth noting as the privacy of knowing you won’t have to share, allows you to write freely) and later it would provide me with the material I needed to write my story as a memoir and thus share it.

What of other types of writing? Essays, articles, blogs, short stories, novels, even tweets; do they help us to move forward therapeutically?

Books and Essays

In March Pico Iyer, a journalist, writer and novelist, was the keynote at the Families in Global Transition Conference (FIGT) in Washington. He also held a Writer’s Forum session (skillfully hosted by Apple Gidley) where he spoke of the “interesting conundrum of writing” and how through imagination and creativity an “alternative self appears in the world”.

Although most of Pico Iyer’s ten books are about travel and “new global people”, it was his words about the joy of “inhabiting the alternative universe” that particularly resonated for me, he was referring to writing fiction – he’s published two novels as well. Most writers experience a sense of escape and being in another world when they are engrossed in the task of writing, I find it still wonderfully restorative and what I want to share with you is that anyone can have a goboy arms up superman

A top tip for writer’s block from Pico Iyer was to write from “the deep place”.  And to help you capture a sense of a place you have visited, he recommends emailing a friend (imaginary or otherwise) describing it from your memory. To help bring your writing to life, Iyer advises scribbling down notes at the time; snippets of dialogue, ideas and the like to refer to later.

Blogging

Unlike journaling, blogging is of course a typically public activity and yet it can still be therapeutic. Particularly if you find the act of sharing and connecting with others has that affect on you.

People blog for many different reasons; something that was also discussed at the FIGT Conference where Linda Janssen (adventuresinexpatland.com), Maria Foley (iwasanexpatwife.com), Norman Viss (theexpatcoachdirectory.com) and Rachel Yates (DefiningMoves.com) – all successful expat bloggers – spoke of sharing and connecting with others through their blogging. Some bloggers do it for personal expression, others for business reasons. My word of caution would be to be mindful of sharing personal content which could impact adversely on people close to you…

Twitter

Twitter is an exciting way to connect instantly (and publicly) with people all over the globe. With its 140 character limitation, it can be a succinct way of expressing yourself and sharing useful information. Twitter can help you hone your writing skills as the challenge of trying to capture what you want to say in a tweet encourages discipline and creativity. Beware; tweeting can be time consuming – Twitter has a reputation for being a hungry bird and is not a great vehicle for expressing difficult emotions or managing your stress levels! I heard someone who advised “If you wouldn’t shout it out in the supermarket then don’t tweet it.”

Getting Started

Wondering how to get started with writing yourself to a happier place? All you need is a blank screen or a sheet of paper and a willingness to try. The benefits of journaling are well documented. One way to begin, is to ask yourself What is going on for me right now? Or you could ask yourself for an image, a thought, a phrase or a single word that represents how you feel. Try not to censor what comes up.

Resources:

There is of course an abundance of material on the internet to help you get started on your writer’s journey; you could search for whatever is most tailored to your needs. Here are some resources I have found helpful:

http://www.juliamccutchen.com/

Write Your Life Stories http://www.joparfitt.com/2013/03/write-your-way-to-a-happier-you/

Books:

Journaling Through: Unleashing the Power of the Authentic Self by Angela Caughlin

Writing memoir: Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Writing Begins with the Breath, Embodying your Authentic Voice by Laraine Herring

Blogging:

On the therapeutic value of blogging: scientificamerican.com

Free Blog tips every blogger should read: weblogs.about.com

Twitter:

A step by step guide to Twitter: blogs.telegraph.co.uk

How to get started with Twitter: support.twitter.com

You can ‘follow’ me on Twitter at @laurajstephens

Your greatest resource might be your time and the giving of it to writing. Good luck and let me know how you get on.

Are you in transition? I hope my 15 survival tips will help…..

Presented at the 2010 Families in Global Transition Conference

www.figt.org

TIPS TO BOOST EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE

I have outlined some pro-active strategies for coping with losses.  Pick the ones that are most relevant to you.

Emotional Outlets:

  1. Try to make a conscious effort to think about how you feel.  Allow yourself 10 minutes to feel it before moving on with your day.  It may help to make time to remember people or places.  Ask yourself “What am I feeling right now?”  You could write about your feelings to help shift them or tell someone how you feel.
  2. Try writing a few lines before you go to sleep each night – keeping a journal of whatever comes into your head.  You might want to thinkabout a) how you felt as your reflect on the day and b) why you think you feel that way?
  3. Meditation– if you’ve no experience you could try one free on line; try Googling “chill meditation podcasts.”
  4. Creative pursuits are a time honoured way of relaxing and communicating.  Is there something you’ve always fancied trying? Why not try painting, photography or writing about your unusual life?
  5. Our sense of smell is most powerful where memories are concerned – bergamot always reminds me of family holidays in France.  Find out which scents energize you or make you feel good and keep them close by.
  6. Listen to music that touches your soul.  Ask yourself what mood you are in and choose something to match it.
  7. Studies have shown that prayer can help people heal, if you believe in a higher power then pray!

What can we do to help maintain a healthy attitude to attachments?

Practical Guidance:

1         Say your goodbyes before you leave to allow for closure, in doing so you will be providing your children with a great role model.  You can follow up by writing a note or call someone you wish you had said goodbye to but didn’t.

2         Take photographs of places which have been special or you have simply visited regularly.  Children will benefit from being able to see the images of the place where they once lived and the people who inhabited it.

Create a memory box or scrapbook and fill it with photographs, souvenirs and mementos.

3         If possible, make regular visits (at least annually for young children) to stay in touch with family/ long term friends, as well as the places and culture that you wish to be connected with.

4         Talk about important people, such as grandparents, to keep their presence alive.  Encourage correspondence – this doesn’t have to be a letter, try sending artwork, press cuttings, school magazines etc.

5         If possible stay connected by maintaining electronic/IT provision for yourself and your children with:

Telephone calls.

Email

MS Messenger and Skype allow use of a webcam so that the two parties can see each other while chatting (both are free).

Facebook  is a way of supporting networking, particularly amongst teens. You could help your child set it up to ensure appropriate use of security functions.

6         Teenagers

Teenagers are at an exciting stage of their life.  The changes are profound – being physical, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual.  It can be exhilarating and also overwhelming as they sit between their childhood and adulthood.

Accepting a major life change which has been imposed upon them can be tough and cause mood swings and a feeling of being out of control of their life.  They might be angry and feel lost or deserted, depressed even.  These are natural feelings that need expression.

If the move was unexpected or sudden, they may experience shock and disbelief as part of their adjustment process.

As for all ages of children, parents need to encourage an open dialogue with them and other trusted adults, possibly teachers or counselors.  Help arrange introductions to friends of a similar age group.  Expression through creative pursuits may be another outlet eg music, literature, writing, poetry and art.

7 Children Aged 6 – 12

Children will need to be ‘held’ emotionally as their world changes beyond recognition.  Chat to them about what might happen as the move is impending.

Once you know something for certain communicate it to them, for example, some facts about the kind of destination you are going to.  Be honest about unknowns and ambiguities; if possible offer some idea of when you will be able to tell them more information.  The objective is to encourage trust and a feeling that they are stakeholders in the move.

Some uncertainties can be discussed in an exciting way, for example, the opportunity to visit interesting places and making new friends.

When a child is sad or grieving allow them to express this fully without pressure to feel cheerful.  Acknowledge that there will be endings and losses for all of you.

8 Young Children Under 6

It is often said that young children and infants are easy to move around as they don’t really know what’s happening.   Perhaps because an infant’s communication skills are not developed and their ability to understand and express what is going on is limited.  But we now know through scientific research on the function of the brain, that bonds/attachments are formed after a baby is a few weeks old.  Infants may be aware of changes to their environment and feel unsettled and likewise young children may be experiencing losses but are unable to communicate their feelings to you.

In young children, making time for physical interactive play helps to stimulate the emotion-regulating areas in the brain.

When your child is distressed, prompt cuddling and soothing will calm them by releasing anti anxiety hormones (Gamma-aminobutyric acid).  This approach has been shown to help avoid oversensitivity to stress later in life, such as separation anxiety and panic attacks.

Maintaining habits and elements of predictability in their life will make the child feel safe and secure.