Some people shy away from writing because they are not comfortable with their grammar and spelling skills. But writing is not just a reflection of academic knowledge. In fact, in the therapeutic sense, writing has nothing to do with spelling and punctuation. What we think of as traditional writing skills are unimportant in the therapeutic application of writing.
You can think of writing therapy as another application of talk therapy. Writing therapy for addiction recovery is like talking to yourself, where you are both the client and the therapist. It gives you a chance to work through negative thoughts and get them out of your head, and you do not necessarily have to share them with anyone.
Writing therapy can be the most private way to express emotions, instead of keeping them bottled up inside. Think of the pressure you feel when you have a secret and you can’t — or don’t want to — tell anyone. You want to get it out, but you cannot risk betraying a confidence. If you write it down, your pressure is relieved, and you still haven’t told anyone. To ensure it remains a secret, you can destroy the paper after you write it.
The Brain Science of Writing
Writing is a unique form of communication and thought processing in the brain. Studies reveal that professional writers use the same areas of their brain professional athletes use when they are working. Amateur writers, however, use a different part of their brains because they are less focused and their writing process is not automated.
As evidence that it is a mental exercise, writing activates several different areas of the brain. Copying down words off a list only involves certain regions of the brain. When writing a story or journal entry, the brain is activated in several different areas. Vision-processing and memory retrieval are two areas that become active when writing. Another is the part of the frontal cortex that handles multiple thoughts or mental multi-tasking.
Writing seems to force the brain to work, even in ways it is not used to. A big part of addiction recovery is replacing habits and old thought patterns with new, healthy ones. A natural feature of the brain is consistency and its desire to maintain stability, despite the changing environment in which it exists.
Addiction is largely a habit that is planted in the brain. The pleasure centers of the brain have been manipulated to maintain certain thought patterns. They become like well-worn ruts that you cannot get out of. Your brain just automatically repeats these same ideas.
Changing the brain is difficult and part of what makes recovering from addiction a challenge. Your brain has to be forced out of those ruts to try out new pathways. When you are not conscientious about your thoughts, they fall back into the old patterns. Writing begins to exercise new thought pathways in the brain and can help make the needed changes.
The other big brain challenge in addiction recovery is processing emotions. Many addicts use the addiction to mask their emotions. Instead of disappearing, though, those emotions just pile up and come out in destructive ways. With the brain cleared of those drugs, it is time to process the hidden emotions and release them.
After years of ignoring emotions, it can be scary to dig into them. Most people do not know where to start and are afraid of what they will uncover. Writing is a way to process emotions and get them out. They end up on the paper, where they become real. You can examine those emotions, organize them, and ultimately throw them away if you like.
Describing an event or your feelings about something in a talk therapy session is different than writing about it. The writing adds another layer of thought and thought retrieval that can help dig out those long-suppressed feelings. Once you have the incident down on paper, it can be easier to discuss with a therapist and referenced as fact. Writing is a way of making your thoughts concrete and tangible.
Benefits of Writing
Because of the unique brain functioning that writing requires, it is an excellent tool for assisting with your addiction recovery. You cannot write your way to overcoming addiction, but the writing can make your journey easier and even faster by making your time more productive.
There are many practical benefits to using writing as a therapeutic tool, including:
- Subconscious Exploration — Getting in touch with your subconscious mind can be easier through writing, and is often necessary to understand the problems you face. Writing in a stream-of-consciousness format, recording every thought that comes up, can be a powerful exercise. When you read back over what you have written, you may better understand what is going on in your subconscious and how it is different than your conscious reality.
- Emotional Outlet — Writing gives emotions a place to go. Getting it out, venting anger or frustration, relieves the pressure that causes stress and anxiety. With the emotions released, you can begin to focus on the facts of a situation and work on the root cause of your problems. Emotions have to be processed to get them out of your way. Processing them on paper can be a safe way to do it.
- Accountability — By creating a record of your intentions, writing can help you remain accountable. It is easy to let thoughts slip away when they become overwhelming. But if you write down your intentions, you can refer back to them often to keep yourself on track. Setting goals is one of the best ways to keep moving through recovery to a happier, healthier lifestyle.
- De-Escalation — Thoughts can run away with themselves, and before you know it, you are wound up so tight about something that you can barely breathe. Writing can be used to stop the swirling thoughts and reduce the panic. Seeing your thoughts on paper makes it easier to determine what the facts are and which ideas are wild speculations. Objectivity and critical thinking are enhanced by using writing to examine thoughts.
- Privacy — Some people might think that writing down your thoughts and feelings makes them more accessible to other people. In fact, writing gives you more control over sharing your thoughts. It can be difficult to open up in recovery with a bunch of other people. Without letting those feelings out, you are no better off than you were before rehab. Writing provides a safe, private way to get your thoughts out so you can clear your head without telling your secrets until you are ready.
- Progress — Writing your thoughts and ideas down in a journal gives you a record you can review. When you look back through your journal, it will remind you of how you’ve changed. Extreme emotions tend to fade over time, and some even fade away. When reading your journal reminds you of these forgotten problems, you will realize even bad situations can be overcome. Whenever you feel like your recovery is stalled, you can look back through your journal and celebrate the milestones you have already passed.
There are really no detriments to writing as a therapeutic tool. The mechanics of your writing do not matter, and no one has to read your writing for it to be effective. You may want to write a letter to someone expressing the anger or hurt you cannot bring yourself to say. Even if you never send the letter, it was a vehicle for you to exorcise those negative emotions from your brain.
Writing Prompts for Drug Addicts
Writing is a great tool for self-reflection and self-discovery. These concepts are at the heart of any addiction recovery program. You need to understand why you do what you do in order to change it. The why is intricately tied to your emotions about past events in your life and your knowledge and confidence in yourself.
Those who are curious and introspective move through recovery a little faster than the rest. Developing self-control comes out of a deeper understanding of yourself, not from ignoring or denying your emotions and urges. You need to dig into your subconscious in recovery and understand what is there.
Writing provides a safe way to explore your mind, but sometimes you need some help directing your attention to the problem areas. Here are some writing prompts that will send you on a productive journey into your subconscious:
- I’d like to live by these words…
- Unconditional love in my life looks like…
- I do not want to think about living without…
- I’d like to tell my teenage self…
- I’ll never forget these two moments in my life…
- These are the top 30 things that make me smile…
- I’d like people to know this about me…
- I would like to say yes to…
- My first love was…
- I am happy in my own skin when…
- My body is telling me…
- All the things I love about life…
- The last time my work was really satisfying to me…
- These 10 words describe me…
- These things inspire me…
- The lesson I take away from my biggest mistake is…
- I would like to say no to…
- I’m most energized when…
Using writing prompts can make it easier to get going on your writing. You can just choose one at random and get started. There are sources of writing prompts all over the Internet if you need more inspiration.
One of the best things about using writing prompts is that there are no right or wrong answers. It does not matter how you complete the prompt. You should go where your brain takes you, and continue writing as long as you can. If it turns out to be a rather complicated story, you can even return to the same topic for subsequent episodes.
Be careful not to use writing prompts to stall your writing. The number of choices can be overwhelming. If you spend too much time deciding which prompt you should use, it can become a means of procrastination. Worrying about what the prompt really means and what it is asking you to write is another stall tactic. If you find yourself fixating on these type of details, your first journal entry should be about exploring your resistance to this exercise.
Journaling Ideas for Addiction Recovery
Journaling is not exactly the same as keeping a diary. With journaling, you can set your own rules and keep track of certain ideas or feelings over time. The good part of a journal is that it is chronological, so you can look back and track your progress over time.
When you are working on self-care, a journal can help you create healthy routines in your life. You could keep a food or fitness journal to track everything you eat or your level of daily activity. Then, you can review these lifestyle choices with a nutritionist or physiologist to see what adjustments you should make for your physical health.
Journaling can provide a huge boost to your mental health, as well. Keeping a gratitude journal may improve your mood. When you’re feeling down, you can review your gratitude journal to remind yourself of all the things you have to be thankful for. Feeling gratitude has been shown to improve both physical and mental health. Try writing down three things you are grateful for each day. Eventually, you will have many more than three.
Ben Franklin famously used journaling to improve what he considered his character flaws. Each week, he’d focus on one flaw and keep a record of his progress. You can use journaling in your recovery to keep you focused on one goal and track your progress.
If you are working on creating more positive self-talk, for example, you would record your self-talk phrases in your journal each time you heard them repeated in your head. Reading back over your journal would show you if your self-talk is becoming more positive.
You could even use your journal to record new phrases you want to incorporate in your self-talk. Read over the negative self-talk messages you have recorded. Then, re-write each one in a more positive way. Read the positive phrases each day to get used to this new use of language.
Another new concept you may embrace during recovery is spirituality. Most people lose their sense of spirituality, if they ever had one, while their addiction is active. In recovery, you begin to rebuild your spiritual life through a complex journey of the mind. Keeping a spiritual journal can document this part of your journey.
In your journal, jot down thoughts and ideas you have of a spiritual nature. You may want to record the spirituality other people share with you. While you are exploring these ideas to see if they work for you, the journal is a good place to think them through in the context of your own existence.
Journaling has many applications in addiction recovery. You can adapt your journaling practice to each stage of recovery and use it in ways that are most helpful to you in your recovery.
Tips for Beginning a Writing Practice in Recovery
Like any other habit, writing takes practice. If you set up your writing routine properly, it should quickly become an enjoyable practice. Here are some tips to getting started:
- Handle Security — You don’t want the added stress of worrying that someone could read your journal. No matter what type of information you record in there, your journal is made up of your own private thoughts which only you can choose to share. If your journal is handwritten, hide it in a secure location, and don’t tell anyone about it. Curiosity is what gets people in trouble sometimes. If nobody knows you’re hiding a journal, they will never look for it. If you keep your journal electronically, be sure to password-protect it.
- Buy a Beautiful Journal — Start with an appealing setup. If you decide to keep your journal on paper, invest in a good-quality notebook and pen. This may seem like an unnecessary step, but it will help you keep your commitment to your new writing habit. If you are an electronic writer, open your file, give it a nice name, and maybe adjust your font and color to make it more inviting or easier to read.
- Schedule Your Writing — Plan a certain hour of the day when you will write in your journal. Some people like to use it to start their day, while others reserve journal writing for the end of the day, just before bed. Pick a time and location to begin your routine, and stick to it. After a few weeks, it will become a habit, and you’ll look forward to this time spent writing and reflecting on your day.
- Skip the Editing — Remind yourself not to be concerned with mechanics. It doesn’t matter if your spelling is perfect or your penmanship is neat. Just get the words out of your head onto the paper. Looking up spelling or correcting grammar can become an excuse to stop writing. Let the errors go and keep writing.
- Write through bad days — When you’re having a bad day, you will want to drop your new writing routine. These are really the days when writing can have the greatest benefit. You can use your writing to analyze what’s going wrong with your day, or you can use it as a pleasant distraction and write about something fun you once experienced. Either way, keep writing — even when you don’t feel like it.
- Start Slowly — People who aren’t in the habit of writing find it very stressful to stare at that blank page. You may not know what to write. Remind yourself there is no right and wrong on this exercise. Just write whatever comes into your head, even if it doesn’t mean anything. Once you start writing, ideas will flow more easily. Write them all down in any order. Don’t worry about organization or even making sense. And don’t re-read while you are writing. Only go back and read what you’ve written when you’re finished.
Don’t be afraid of writing therapy, even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer. Look at it as a new adventure in your recovery process. If you were doing everything right in your life before, you wouldn’t be in recovery. This is a sign you need to try new things and new ways of looking at the world and your life.
Writing is an amazing gift of perception. You may be surprised at what comes out of you. Even creative writing is beneficial. If you cannot remember the details of an incident, it’s OK to make it up. What your fictitious story reveals about your subconscious can be just as valuable as a factual accounting.
12 Keys has journaling ideas for addiction recovery and other resources that could help you on your healing journey. Contact us today to learn more about how we can incorporate writing therapy into an individualized treatment plan that fits your situation and goals for the future. Our holistic approach to addiction recovery embraces writing, art and music for their therapeutic value, as well as recreation and their role in healthy living.