The Therapeutic Effects of Writing during Addiction Recovery
Sadness, anger and pain: these are three emotions that can overtake body and mind during the challenging process of addiction recovery. Sadness because we can suddenly realise the magnitude of the things we may have lost along the way (friends, our workplace, vital family relationships). Anger because it can be hard to forgive ourselves for hurt caused to ourselves and others. Pain when we admit that there are many things we may have to say goodbye to in addition to drugs or alcohol, when we commit to recovery.
Top rehabilitation centers across the globe are waking up to the utility of ‘holistic’ therapies for recovery. There has been a tremendous upsurge in yoga, Tai Chi and mindfulness meditation – all of which help the person in recovery to keep the mind ‘in the here and now’, safe from the type of negative, cyclical thinking that can sometimes result in relapse.
Writing, too, has proven to be a powerful aid during recovery. One study by researchers at the University of California – Los Angeles, found that writing what we feel actually reduces the intensity of our sadness, anger and pain. The secret lies in the effect that labelling emotions has on our brain. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that when we label an emotion – for instance, by using the word ‘angry’ to describe a photograph of a person with an angry expression, there is a decreased response in our amygdala (a section of the brain which is responsible for detecting fear and preparing the body for an emergency).
By contrast, when we simply see a photography of an angry face but do not label the emotion conveyed, there is an increased response in the amygdala. In the study, 30 participants were shown photographs of people with different facial expressions. Beneath each photo there were two adjectives – for instance, ‘disappointed’ and ‘frustrated’. The participants were asked to pick one of the adjectives to describe the emotion expressed.
The researchers noted that it was important to use the process of journaling, to label our emotions. By writing down our negative feelings, we overcome them naturally, without forcing ourselves to be falsely positive. One of the study authors noted, “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”
How, then, should we start using a journal during recovery? There are many different types of journal we can start, each of which has its own purpose. We might keep a diary, for instance, to write down the events of each day – the ups and downs, challenges and unexpected joys. In this case it is important to write down how these events and experiences made us feel. To add a mindfulness equation into our writing process, we should also try and label how we feel at the moment of writing, to enjoy the stress busting effects of mindfulness.
Some persons in recovery use an evening reflection journal, which also lists important events of the day, but suggests ways in which outcomes may have changed, had we thought about a person or situation differently, or behaved in a different way. This type of journal reaps the benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – which centers on the important relationship between how we think, behave and feel.
Gratitude journals are a particularly positive way to approach the process of writing. Every evening, list down the things you are grateful for, good things that have happened during the day, any acts of kindness you have received. They are a great way to stay focused on the many good reasons to stick to your resolve, to not give in to temptations to drink or use drugs.
Those who are competitive by nature, meanwhile, might like to start a goal-focused journal. Here, the aim is to jot down specific goals and to take note of the steps you are taking to achieve them.
To get the most out of your journal, it is important to be constant. Find a nice, quiet spot where you feel comfortable; play inspiring music while you write and make sure the lighting is conducive to creativity. Try to set aside a time for writing every day and spend at least half an hour on this activity. Every week or two, read past entries to see how you have progressed and to analyse valuable information such as possible stressors, triggers for relapse, and positive experiences.
Article kindly contributed by Helen Freeman