Jessica (not her real name) was anxious and exhausted when she came to see me. She’d never seen a psychologist before. A young mother of two, she enjoyed her work and her children, and for the most part she felt like she had a good life.
But at night she would wake with her heart pounding, and toss and turn. Sometimes she would be on the edge of panic for what seemed like hours. She was losing sleep and felt irritable with her family.
When we began, she felt overwhelmed, out of control. But after she started making some behavior changes—more exercise, some meditation—I taught her automatic writing. Soon she was managing her anxiety, and her sleep, on her own.
With automatic writing, your brain and body can let go of anxiety even when you can’t “fix the problems”. You may be reluctant to do it at first, since it involves confronting thoughts we are trying to stay away from. In fact, though, the work your brain does avoiding those thoughts is the very process causing the anxiety. The thoughts – threatening, looming, terrifying – circle through your brain, with no way to escape. When you pull those thoughts out, and move them through all parts of your brain, you process. You get distance, and a more positive perspective.
Even for things you can’t change.
Releasing anxiety doesn’t just feel better – it also keeps you stay healthy. Living in anxiety means living in a constant state of biochemical stress, and the impact on your body can reach far beyond the pounding heart and tightness you feel. It can create stomach problems, IBS, headaches, and reduction in immune function, even the development of hypertension and chronic pain.
All this, because your body is constantly being bombarded with stress biochemicals.
But when you write the thoughts down, your brain processes them. Releases them. Turns them into something you can work with, live with, and even grow from.
Automatic writing takes 20-30 minutes. I know, that’s hard to find in your busy schedule! But it gives you emotional freedom for greater enjoyment of your life.
Find a time when you won’t be distracted. That may mean getting up early, or staying up late, or getting up in the night when the thoughts wake you. For 20 minutes – no more than 30 – write the most horrible-awful-can’t-stand-it-too-scary-for-words thoughts you can pull up from the depths of your mind. These are the thoughts you usually try to get away from. Just pour out all the negative thoughts hiding in the nooks and crannies of your brain. No worries about spelling or punctuation.
You might find yourself saying things you don’t like to even think, let alone say. That’s ok—you’re just pulling out the thoughts that have been hiding in there, worrying you.
Write them down, even though it will probably make you feel anxious while you do it. Let them be as bad, as scary as they are. You may have horrible thoughts about someone you love. You may be afraid of something you can’t change. No matter. Let your brain do its work.
After 20 minutes, it’s time to stop, though you can finish up a few thoughts if you want to. Be sure you write for the full 20 min, though, or you’ll stop when the scary stuff starts to come out.
When you’re finished – tear it up. Tear it until no two words are together, and they can never be read by anyone. Or burn it. If you’ve done it well, it won’t be something you want anyone to see. It will probably sound extreme even to you!
At the end of your automatic writing, things may look different. Or they may not! But no matter how things look on the outside, you body will begin to feel different on the inside. Your catastrophic thoughts have moved through all parts of your brain, out onto the paper, so your brain can see them, and manage them.
And your body doesn’t have to be afraid.