Just write it down

Many years ago when I was working as a marriage counsellor I was faced by complex patterns of issues within a marriage. Not only were there different issues but these interlocked in several ways. How to sort all this out or, more importantly, how could the dysfunctional couple understand what was happening and what had to change?

I adopted the technique of Mind Maps (to which I had been introduced by Tony Buzan in his book Use Your Head). Put simply, you grabbed a sheet of paper and scribbled the major issues down – each within its box. You could add new issues as they came to mind. Then, thinking about an issue , you could put in the elements, and sometimes the elements in the elements. But the effect went beyond increasing clarity, it seemed that the very process of writing it down enabled the clients to observe and mark the connections between the issues and free their brain sufficiently to start
tackling the problems.

Some years later, when such cognitive behavioural methods had become orthodoxy, I noted that writing things down (keeping a diary of relevant incidents, for example) was often the means through which the client could grasp the essence of the problem in a new and constructive way. It has become a major element in therapy, and has its own name: Journaling. It appears, though I do not know the process yet, that somehow the brain understands or reacts in a different way when a record is actually written down. (Anyone have ideas on this?)

I have had recent personal experience. I found that I was not getting easily to sleep. When I turned my light off, various little activities required for the next day would crowd into my mind. Pointless, of course, since I could do nothing about them from my bed at night. Even though commonsense told me that they were not threatening, they still threatened. The worst threat was that my consequent loss of sleep would make the tasks harder.

It then occurred to me that what I had used to help others might actually help me. So I grabbed a lined pad and a pencil and I speedily wrote my thoughts on the matter in the random order they came to me. I censored nothing. There were 11 statements but it could not have taken more than five minutes.

The result was amazing. That night, clicking off my light clicked off my brain. If I sensed a thought coming I rejected it before my brain could even formulate it. But more importantly, this was several weeks ago. Throughout those weeks I have fallen asleep almost immediately every night. Looking at my old scribbled list I note two thoughts which seemed most important.

1 Anxiety about sleep prevents sleep.
2 I cannot fall asleep as long as I am watching for sleep to come.

Neither of these were news to me but it seems that deliberately specifying and writing them down made them stick and become realities in my brain.

I would be interested to read contributors’ experiences of not falling asleep or of reducing insomnia.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Neuroscience, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Just write it down

  1. galerimo says:

    Thought provoking Quentin, as usual – thank you.

    I agree. There is a therapeutic effect to writing things down.
    At its heart it is a sacramental process. Symbol making for conveying grace.

    The eighth of the twelve steps recovery program recommends to the recovering person the step of making “a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all”. The physical task of committing personal memories in list form appears as an essential stage in the process of improving functional behavior. And there are many testimonies to the effectiveness of that particular program.

    I think it is no different to drawing or painting in any medium, to making notation in the composition of music or the making of a mark in glass or stone or even on a tree trunk or school desk.

    It is a simple, profoundly human and deeply spiritual process. A connection with what transcends our physical reality and a manifesting of that connection in a way that brings it symbolically to life. The purpose is to give life – sometimes to the author, sometimes to others and sometimes to both.

    Jesus is God’s movie and as a Pharisaic type teacher He must have written things down that helped develop his imagination and assist him in demonstrating and arguing ideas. I like to think he had space for being human in this important way, privately and personally.

    My suggestion for helping to get to sleep – I recommend listening to discussion of any sort on late night or early morning radio. The more interesting the discussion the more rapidly sleep arrives!

  2. G.D. says:

    For me it’s the freedom of ‘letting it all out’ as and when. Knowing it’s a personal ‘log’ for my eyes only, anything goes. And in a reflective state, without too much thought involved, the flow is often surprisingly revealing of unconscious materials. Both wonderful and disconcerting at varying times. But always a developmental growth process.
    It’s all done on the PC nowadays, Had to burn 10 years worth of hard copy as they were taking up too much space. Wish i hadn’t! Now 11 years on, with a USB stick no space at all.
    But I don’t go so far as Oscar Wilde : “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” and take them with me everywhere!

    Still write with pen and paper sometimes, and copy to PC after. There is sometimes when typing just won’t do. A decent pen and paper adds something extra for me. Maybe it’s cause my typing is so lousy and breaks the flow!

    As for sleep …. i used to write an entry or two when i couldn’t, but didn’t seem to make any difference. Just say a ‘mantra’ now most of the time. Sometimes it works some not. Always been a ‘problem’ for me.
    One drastic solution …. stay awake for a whole night (usually when the following day is a lazy day) stay awake the whole of the following day, being so tired the following night sleep is inevitable.

  3. John Thomas says:

    – Certainly, I have a list of things I will NOT allow myself to think about, when insomnia strikes (usually, for me, it’s when I awake at 4.00ish; I actually get to sleep easily, most nights) – I call them my “4 o’clock fears”, you know, like abortion, same-sex “marriage”, the death of democracy, etc. Yes, I’m a list-maker, and list (on paper) what I have to do each day (but I don’t do it until the day in question, not at night). I’ve often read that it pays to keep paper & pencil near you, when trying to meditate, and distracting things flit into your mind. Writing them down is supposed to dismiss them (it doesn’t work for me).

  4. John Nolan says:

    Half a bottle of decent claret usually does the trick.

  5. John Candido says:

    Writing is a well-known way of clarifying one’s thoughts. The very act of using one’s mind to find words to in effect ‘label’ a thought or an emotion with a series of words or even a single word is liberating and therapeutic.

    This is especially the case when writing is used to ‘nail’ an emotion when real clarity can occur for some individuals.

    Writing is not quite like meditation but there are similar elements to both activities. You are usually alone, and you are not overtly physically active. Your breath may slow as you focus on the writing that must occur.

    People can feel emotions and not be aware of them. Writing can help to rectify this issue by their delineation on ‘paper’ in some cases.

    Someone with a predatory sexual maladjustment such as Harvey Weinstein, may even benefit from writing therapy, assuming that he is determined to understand what triggers his sexual assaulting of women, why he does it, what does he hope to gain from this activity, is it just sex, or power or an amalgam of both and does he even perceive anything untoward with such behaviour?

    Whether or not Mr Weinstein can make good use of writing therapy would depend on his capacity for humility, objectivity, his flexibility of thinking and his need for this to be guided by an experienced counsellor in the judicious use of one form of therapy or another in conjunction with writing therapy.
    Writing therapy was experimentally examined by a study conducted by James W. Pannebaker & Sandra K. Beall called,

    ‘Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease,’ In the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 95(3), Aug 1986, 274-281. Of course, there are other studies to consult as well as this one.

    Psychology students were asked to write about whatever traumas they had experienced with a group of students that had those experiences and were guided to write about them and a control group that had similar experiences but were not given instructions to write about them.

    The findings were an odd mixture of short-term higher blood pressure and more negative moods following writing therapy, but fewer visits to health professionals after six months were fewer than those of the control group. In addition, there does not seem to be any correlation between unexpressed writing or inhibition on the one hand, and good outcomes on the other, leading to viewing writing therapy or journaling, as a helpful adjunct to other therapies.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writing_therapy

  6. Iona says:

    Like John T, I usually get to sleep quickly but wake up later and am bombarded by “4 o’clock fears”. I would be hesitant about switching on a light and writing things down, as light tends to banish sleep (the light emitted by electronic screens is particularly bad in this respect, and insomniacs are often advised to avoid all such for a couple of hours before they go to bed). However, I might give it a try, after all what have I got to lose apart from sleep?
    What I do – and it usually (but not always) “works” – is say the rosary. I feel a bit guilty about this, wondering if it’s a misuse of the rosary, so I make a point of completing the rosary during the following day (I can nearly always remember which “mystery” I had reached before I lost consciousness). Also I tell myself that Our Lady is our mother, and mothers are usually more than ready to lull their children to sleep. St. Therese of Lisieux used to fall asleep while praying, but she didn’t let it bother her as she said parents love their children just as much when they’re asleep as when they’re awake.

    • G.D. says:

      No guilt attached to that, Iona. Excellent thoughts about it from you.
      Reminds me of night prayer ‘Sleep then our eyes but never sleep the heaven watchful directed heart’. No better way of entering into that.

    • Quentin says:

      Iona, I think you may have misunderstood. You shouldn’t be writing down at the time it happens – I imagine the effect of that would be negative. Do your writing during the day. For example, someone’s first remark might be ‘I know these are only fears.’ Or ‘I find the rosary helps’ etc. Aim to write several remarks in any order, without censoring yourself. They are likely to be mainly thoughts already in your mind.

  7. Iona says:

    As far as writing is concerned, I have always found it clarifies my ideas. Once something is committed to writing, I can “move on” from it, whereas when it’s just an idea it tends to go round and round in my head, going nowhere.
    I have read somewhere (possibly in one of Guy Deutscher’s books) that a language without a written form changes much more rapidly than a language which can be written as well as spoken. This is hardly surprising; spoken words are not preserved except in people’s memories, which are notoriously unreliable. Once written, the words don’t change. But whether or not this is relevant to Quentin’s point I don’t know.

  8. Peter Foster says:

    In engineering design calculations comprised of many steps and details, it is necessary to write them down in a clear fashion to be able to check against errors and to review their science and logic. If things do not turn out well they are a record to inform an inquiry. I suppose the same factors apply in general. Or as Iona says it serves to clarify ideas.

    In the opposite direction, current British culture moves to destroy the structure and detail of knowledge in several ways one of which is by aggregation, for example when discussing abuse, by counting the most trivial to the utmost vile acts under one label without qualification. Again in the mental health frenzy serious problems of schizophrenia or anorexia are classified with the normal problems of those who feel they have had a bad day.

  9. Martha says:

    I have found writing very helpful in sorting out the many factors that are involved in trying to understand difficult family situations. As they are listed and described, and the sequence of events can be seen on the page, connections and reasons can become clearer and I get better ideas about why they have happened, and what, if anything, can be done. I have especially tried to see the whole picture, and and say how sorry I am for what has been my fault or lack of understanding in any issues, and to share thoughts about the best way forward.

    Sometimes it has been helpful to share with those who are involved, but not always, perhaps it has been too soon, and more time should elapse. At this stage of my life I am finding it rather difficult to decide how much to keep, on paper and on the computer, and whether they should be put with our wills, or whether I should not keep them at all.

    • Quentin says:

      Martha, looking at your first para I wonder if you use the same format as I do. I start with a box in the centre – showing the title of the problem. I then put possible issues in their own boxes on the perimeter connected to the centre. I do this in no order as they come into my mind. Then I draw sub boxes from each issue etc. And sub boxes from the sub boxes. I then use lines to mark connections between the issues. (can be helpful to use a coloured pencil for this.) I can of course add extra issue boxes as they spring to mind.

      The method can be used for anything: complex problems, organising family holiday, thinking out a moral issue, even planning a Catholic Herald column!) etc.

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