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Writing to cope with anxiety in our ‘new normal’: Ideas and prompts from a psychotherapist

Duygu Balan

The lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic are undeniable. The number of patients seeing psychologists for help with anxiety disorders has increased since the start of the pandemic, as per the American Psychological Association. The trauma responses need addressing, and writing can provide an effective coping mechanism, explains Duygu Balan, LPCC. The psychotherapist and co-author of Re-Write: A Trauma Workbook of Creative Writing and Recovery in Our New Normal kindly guest posts today on this topic below.

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Writing to cope with anxiety in pandemic times

Guest post from Duygu Balan, LPCC

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou

For the past three years, we have all experienced uncertainty, stress, and loss. We have been operating based on fear – fear of the unknown, fear of getting sick, and fear of loss. While an instinctual reaction in the face of danger is protective, in the long-term, it can become fear of the fear, which is detrimental. We know that stress worsens inflammation and can lead to physical illnesses.

Creative, expressive writing is a form of self-exploration that can help us make sense of our emotions and decrease our levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. The process allows for increased self-awareness and a sense of control.

Our brain can be thought of as having two parts. The thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) is where we store intellectual data and chronological events, and make predictions and decisions.

The emotional brain (limbic system) is where our thoughts, emotions, and belief systems are formulated. Expressive writing taps into the emotional thinking parts of our minds and over time allows for increased calm and appreciation of the connection between thoughts and feelings.

Setting a time for writing:

I typically recommend my clients to aim for 20 minutes, as it allows enough time to dive into emotions but not too long to get lost in them. It’s important to set a goal that is realistic because a sense of fulfillment will promote expressive writing to become a habit, whereas disappointment or frustration will not.

Dedicate a slot of time in your day that will work for your lifestyle. It might be waking up 30 minutes before the kids, incorporating writing with your bedtime ritual, or using your lunch break. If you find the allocated time doesn’t flow with your schedule, try something else, but do not give up.

Find creative ways to remind and motivate you to write. There are apps that nudge you to drink water – consider setting a phone alert, or a post-it note on your mirror.

Setting the stage:

Dedicate a cozy, quiet place in your home to write. Reduce distractions as much as possible.

If you are using your computer, consider closing all other apps and turning off notifications. If you are using a paper notebook, pick something special. Incorporate soothing rituals such as lighting a candle, making yourself a cup of tea, or putting on light music.

Writing ideas and prompts:

When we think about expressive writing to heal, it is less about the story than it is about your emotions. However, sometimes writing a detailed outline of events may lead you to the emotions. The narrative is not the purpose, but it may be the path.

Writing styles might vary and can be in the form of journaling, poetry, storytelling, letter writing, or even a list of facts of a specific event. Sometimes a small detail can lead to a major revelation.

If nothing comes to your mind, write that. “Nothing comes to my mind.”

Writing prompts can be beneficial tools to start a writing practice. If it works for you, consider incorporating therapeutic workbooks that include writing prompts.

Example writing prompts

  • What did you learn about yourself during the pandemic?
  • What is the most stressful thing about your pandemic life?
  • Describe what anxiety feels like in your body
  • Write a letter to someone who amplifies your anxiety
  • What are you most grateful for?

If you digress, that’s ok. Writing prompts are only initiators; you don’t have to stay on topic. Similarly, don’t be concerned about grammar, spelling, punctuation, or about structure or storytelling rules.

Your writing does not need to have to have a beginning, middle or end. Allow yourself to get deep into the emotion – the form of writing matters less. In other words, don’t hold anything back. Remember, you’re in charge, you can press delete or rip up the page and it’s all gone.

Check in with yourself:

After the writing exercise, check in with yourself.  How do you feel? If you feel heavier, sad, or anxious, that’s ok. It means you reached difficult to reach places. Allow for sadness. Tune in to your feelings and recognize your needs.

Remember, emotions are like clouds; they pass. Grounding exercises such as stretching or deep breathing will support emotional regulation. Incorporating a routine to transition back to your daily tasks, such as taking a brief walk, or a shower, could help to center you.

Re-Write Trauma Book Cover
Re-Write by Duygu Balan and Yener Balan. Click book cover image to get your copy of the workbook.

About Duygu Balan, today’s writer

Author and psychotherapist specializing in intergenerational trauma, Duygu Balan, LPCC developed her expertise in intergenerational trauma while working as a clinical counselor in New York City treating patients on society’s margins. A licensed psychotherapist, she is the co-author of Re-Write: A Trauma Workbook of Creative Writing and Recovery in Our New Normal and a contributor to the best-selling medical textbook, Big Book of Emergency Department Psychiatry: A Guide to Patient Centered Operational Improvement.

Born in Germany and raised in Istanbul, Duygu’s upbringing provides her with a fresh perspective on how to navigate tension between cultures; adverse childhood experiences; and attachment wounding through hope and resilience. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

14 thoughts on “Writing to cope with anxiety in our ‘new normal’: Ideas and prompts from a psychotherapist”

  1. Hi Christy, this is a useful post and helps with any stressful and traumatic period. I am finding the post pandemic period worse. There is a lot of illness around, bad work habits/practices developed over Covid are now innate in the work culture and people are expected to be available 24/7 although lots of other things have started up again which creates a lot of stress and strain.

  2. These are helpful tips and I agree. Writing helped a lot. Although it took me some time to write again after the trauma of pandemic and covid. It took me a year or two to get back to writing again, but I agree that it really helps!

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