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Expressive Writing and Anchoring Practices by Patricia McAdoo

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Patricia McAdoo

Patricia McAdoo

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‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’ – Annie Dillard

The quote from American writer, Annie Diilard underlines that what we do on a day to day basis defines who we are. In the hyped up fast paced 24/7 environment that most of us live in we may experience our days as whirring past us in a blizzard of busyness. We get to the end of a day or a week and ask ourselves where did it go?

There’s a line towards the end of Elizabeth Strout’s book, Olive Kitteridge, when Olive, living alone in her seventies, comes to realise something important about her own life: ‘it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.’ A large research study conducted in 2010 using a phone app found a clear link between mind wandering (when we are doing something but actually thinking about the past or the future and not focused on the present moment) and being less happy. The same study found that participants reported spending 47% of their time in this unconscious less happy state of mind. That’s a lot of unconsciously squandered time.

In this time of cocooning everything has slowed to such an extent that we are perhaps much more aware of how we spend our time. Day-to-day routines are crucial to our happiness. At least forty per cent of our happiness seems to stem from our own intentional activities rather than genetics or circumstances.  In his short poem Days, Philip Larkin says ‘Days are to be happy in.’ The day you are in right now is all you have. No guarantees on tomorrow, all our yesterdays are gone.

Five Ways to Better Days combines the techniques of expressive writing and anchoring practices, focusing on five key areas of positive psychology to provide a practical guide to making every day a better day.

Expressive writing is an opportunity to stand back and reflect on the story of your own life. We often get stuck in a negative version of our life story in which we may feel trapped, which becomes a self-fulfilling script of failure or abandonment. Such writing offers us a chance to re story our own life and to realise that we don’t have to believe the version of that story we have told ourselves for so long. Writing can set us free to write a different, better version of our story. Expressive writing has been intensively researched for the past thirty years and studies have consistently shown that expressive writing has an impact, not only on our mental wellbeing, but also our physical wellbeing. Some findings have been quite dramatic. For example, a study in New Zealand in 2017 found that when people write their thoughts and feelings for just twenty minutes three days in a row their wounds healed faster after a skin biopsy than those of a control group.

Anchoring practices are practical strategies which help us to hold tight during times of trial and calm us when times are tough like now. They are ways to ground yourself, a set of routines which will steady the ship during stormy times

The field of positive psychology over the past twenty years has focused on the question of what we can do on a regular basis to flourish. The five areas of positive psychology which I focus on are all well researched and proven methods of increasing our wellbeing.

These are:

  • Gratitude:  recognition and appreciation for what you already have in your life
  • Flow: how to immerse yourself in the present moment
  • Flexible thinking: how to appreciate other viewpoints and become more tolerant
  • Goals: how to identify what is most emotionally important and practically achievable in your life
  • Connections: how to value and deepen your connections with others

Over the next five articles. I’m going to suggest some writing and anchoring practices which you might try to adopt in each of these five areas

In this article we start with gratitude because regular expression of appreciation helps us to notice the small day to day good moments in our lives. We have a strong and ancient negativity bias in our brain which makes us focus on what might go wrong in our days. Regular expression of gratitude helps us to refocus our attention away from a negativity bias to actively noticing and appreciating the everyday goodness in our lives. Noting such moments provides us with hard evidence that, even on the worst of days, small good things happen.

Anchoring practice to try:

Taking in the good: Psychologist and neuroscientist Rick Hansen suggests that when you see something wonderful, like when someone smiles at you or you see a lovely sky or  someone you love reaches for your hand, it helps to slow down, stop and drink in the moment for fifteen seconds which allows the moment to register much more fully in our brain. It’s a simple but effective way to overcome the negativity bias and to help you notice small good moments.

Expressive writing exercise:

Capturing the precious moments. Cesar Kuriyami, the designer of the 1 Second Everyday App, quit his advertising job and started recording one second of every day of his own life when he turned 30. He said it helped him to get through tough days, appreciate the good days and prevent all his days from blurring together.

Write a list of captured moments from the past week. From the list pick one and write about it in detail, using all your sense memories, really try to capture the essence of what made this experience worth savouring.

Try keeping a small pocket notebook to capture such moments as they happen.

(c) Patricia McAdoo

About Five Ways to Better Days:

Five Ways to Better Days is a guide to using expressive writing to achieve health and happiness, bringing the reader through a programme of expressive writing and other important practical mental health and wellbeing strategies. In doing so it focuses on five key areas of positive psychology:

Gratitude: recognition and appreciation for what you already have in your life
Flow: how to immerse yourself in the present moment
Flexible thinking: how to appreciate other viewpoints and become more tolerant
Goals: how to identify what is most emotionally important and practically achievable in your life
Connections: how to value and deepen your connections with others

In an exceptionally practical way, each section of the book provides the reader with writing and non-writing suggestions, practices, ideas and activities to deepen their sense of wellbeing.

Linking the fields of expressive writing and positive psychology in a new and dynamic way, this book provides a practical guide for both the general reader and mental health professionals in counselling, health and social care settings. The practicality of the book also makes it an ideal book for workshops and expressive writing/psychology course material. The techniques provided are based on psychological principles but also on the author’s own knowledge and experience of the rich field of expressive writing.

Five Ways to Better Days is for anyone who wants to use writing to enhance their creativity and their sense of wellbeing, health, resilience and happiness.

Order your copy online here.


About the author

Patricia McAdoo is a clinical psychologist and writing facilitator. She provides mental health awareness and wellbeing training in the corporate sector. Patricia is the author of Writing for Wellbeing (Currach Press, 2013) and has experience of print and broadcast media, including interviews on Nationwide and the Last Word, and she has written feature articles for the Sunday Independent and other publications.

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