4 Ways Writing Can Help You Stay Sober
Daily writing is one common element of addiction recovery plans. To some people, the reasons for this will be obvious. Others may be skeptical, especially if they don’t think of themselves as writers or they are skeptical of self-expression in general. However, daily writing can be a potent and versatile element of your recovery plan. Here are some different writing exercises and how they can help you stay sober.
The writing exercise most people are familiar with is keeping a simple journal or diary. This is just sitting down for a few minutes every day and writing whatever you feel like. You might just write down what you did that day or what happened that was notable. Or you might go into depth about something you’re thinking about or challenging emotions. This simple practice can help you in several ways.
Most notably, it helps you relieve stress. Instead of stewing over a problem, you get it down on paper where you can think it through. You will probably find that after you write about something that’s been bothering you, you will feel better about it, even if you didn’t come up with a specific solution. Just writing about your day, your thoughts, your emotions, your challenges, and so on will help you spot patterns in your life. And, of course, you can also incorporate any of the following exercises into your daily journaling session.
ABC stands for activating events, beliefs, and consequences. It’s a framework developed by psychologist Albert Ellis, one of the pioneers of cognitive therapy. The central idea is that events only bother us because we have certain beliefs or assumptions about those events. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, there’s no reason to be angry about it for the rest of the day.
That only happens if you have an irrational belief about it. You may think that guy shouldn’t have done that or that it was a deliberate insult to you. In reality, it was probably just a mistake; it happens all the time.
The ABC exercise is a way to practice identifying the beliefs that disturb us. Whenever you feel angry, anxious, depressed, and so on, write down exactly what you’re feeling. This is C, the consequence. Next, identify the activating event, A--the guy cutting you off in traffic or the remark by a coworker, or whatever. Finally, identify the belief, “He shouldn’t do that,” “Everyone at work is against me,” and so on.
This is the trickiest part since we are often unaware of our own assumptions. You may need a therapist to help you identify your irrational beliefs at first. In fact, his exercise is often given as a homework exercise in therapy. You can use it that way or you can try it on your own. Either way, it’s a good way to get in the habit of identifying and challenging irrational thoughts.
In recent years, research in positive psychology has identified a range of benefits of gratitude. It improves relationships, lowers stress, improves sleep, makes people feel more optimistic, increases your sense of wellbeing, and it might even help you live longer. The problem is that when you’re starting out in recovery, you might not feel very grateful. Your life is likely at a low point and you have a lot of work ahead of you. The good news is that there are two easy writing exercises that studies have shown, can boost your gratitude.
The first one is to keep a gratitude journal. This is simple and only takes a couple of minutes. Just write down about three things you were grateful for that day. It’s fine if they’re small--you slept unusually well, the weather was nice, you got a text from a friend you hadn’t talked to in a while. Not life-changing stuff but they make your day a little better.
Since we’re hardwired to notice pain and threats, training yourself to notice more of the good things makes you happier and more optimistic. You might want to do this exercise daily for about two weeks, then switch to doing it weekly so you don’t get overly accustomed to it.
The second exercise is to write a gratitude letter. This one takes a bit longer but research shows the effects last longer too. Think of something someone did for you that you never really thanked them for. Again, it doesn’t have to be huge, just something you truly appreciated. Describe in a letter what they did and what it meant to you. You can deliver the letter or not. Research suggests you get a happiness boost either way.
Writing is an excellent way to relieve anxiety. It takes those amorphous fears that are haunting your mind and gives them some definite form on the page. This is true whether your anxiety is caused by a past or future event. A number of studies have found benefits from expressive writing. This is where you choose a stressful event, one that’s at least six months in the past, and write about it on four consecutive days.
Set a timer for 20 minutes and write the whole time without censoring yourself or worrying about spelling or grammar. No one will read it but you. This exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety and even improve physical health over the following months.
What’s more, an abbreviated version of this exercise can help relieve anxiety about an upcoming challenge. Research has shown that having students spend a few minutes writing about their worries just before a test reduced test anxiety and improved test scores. A similar strategy can help with other tasks, such as going to your first 12-Step meeting or going to a job interview.
Writing alone won’t replace therapy and solve all your problems but it can be a helpful tool to manage your mood, analyze your patterns, and generally understand yourself better. A regular writing practice can be a powerful element in your recovery plan.
At The Foundry, we believe that a strong recovery is built on mental health and self-knowledge. We use a variety of evidence-based methods, including CBT, DBT, family therapy, mindfulness meditation, and others to help our clients understand themselves better, regulate their emotions, and manage their behavior. For more information about our approach to treatment, call us at (844) 955-1066.