National Eating Disorders Association

When Writing Makes You Feel Worse (But Could Help You Feel Better)

Carolyn Jennings

If you sometimes feel worse after you've written, you're not alone.  I've been spending time with journals for about 25 years, and there were times when my beloved blank books weren't good places to bring certain emotions.  If I were angry, upset or down, I would write the story of what had caused the emotion and I would iterate how awful the experience of the emotion was.  I would feel worse.  I had stirred up all the negative feelings by inculcating the story and had merely sunk myself in deeper.

Similarly, Kathleen Adams, founder/director of The Center for Journal Therapy, recalls an early experience as a journal therapist for patients with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.  In “The Journal Ladder: A Developmental Continuum of Journal Therapy,” she tells that these patients wrote regularly and that 96% of them sometimes encountered difficult emotions when journaling. “They told me stories of falling into a deep pit of despair or pain and not being able to get out again.”

Working with these intrepid writers led Adams to develop a ladder of techniques to keep writing for recovery a positive experience by teaching them “how to structure, pace and contain their writing.”  This enabled their journals to become symbols of new lives made by their hands.

I have also found that I feel uplifted after writing when I choose carefully what I write about and how I write.  In addition, I write letters to myself that give me all the love and encouragement I need.

Sentence Stems

Sentence Stems are the first ladder rung, the first step to take in expressive writing. Here are a few of my favorites:
    What I need today is ___________.
    Today I feel ____ years old because _________________.
    I need to express __ (what)__ to __(whom)__.
    When I look ahead ___months, I see myself doing_______ successfully.
    When I look ahead ____ years, I see myself doing_______ successfully.
    If my mood were a weather, it would be _____________________.
    If today were a landscape, it would be ______________________.
    If my feelings were a shape, they would be _____________________.

Either complete the partially constructed sentence briefly or write for a Five-Minute Sprint.  Set a timer for five minutes.  Put pen to paper and keep it going.  Stop when time's up.  Read what you just wrote.  Write a sentence or two about what you noticed or felt as you read your write.

Life-Affirming Writing

Choose topics to cheer you on and lift you up.   It's too easy to spend time off the page with the inner critic, self-doubt or the voice of ED.  This is a chance to break free.  Write about

  • Triumphs of recovery
  • Successes of the week
  • Gratitude
  • Your assets
  • Steps taken forward in your life

Difficult Emotions

As for those times when anger, upset or sadness have me in their grasp, I use a two-part approach.  The first doesn't involve a journal.  I pause, sit kindly with myself, and feel the emotion in my body and psyche.  Curiosity helps.  I focus exclusively on what the experience is, and I bring to it the unconditional love with which I would sit with a wounded friend or child.  

The emotion generally shifts surprisingly quickly, and then I pick up my pen.  My intention is not to write the story as I've been telling it to myself about who or what made me angry or why I'm feeling sad.  Instead, I write out for myself what I need to hear and what makes me feel better.

Letter to Self

I write letters to myself to soothe, commend or encourage me.  No one knows better than you exactly what you need to hear, what you're struggling with, what triumphs need recognition.  If it seems helpful, write from the voice of a loving and supportive friend, family member or support team member, from God or Spirit or Source or from your own heart, higher self or inner knowing.  Sign off with a flourish of professed love.

Just for fun, you can even write it or print it on some pretty paper and mail it to yourself!  In the next day or two, you'll receive a letter from someone dear who cares deeply about you.

Let your writing uplift you.  Close your journal feeling better about yourself and your life.  You and your recovery deserve it. Like the patients Adams helped, I consider my journal a symbol of a new life made by my hands.  It's possible for all of us to have a blossoming relationship with recovery, writing and a new life.