Holistic medicine

Therapeutic writing

Therapeutic writing

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A writer is the most beautiful profession in the world: if my house burns down, my partner leaves me, or I am in a hospital after a car accident, I can still write a story about it. Writing can help. In many ways.

But isn't it cynical to say to someone who has been traumatized: Just write? On the contrary: famous authors started to write about traumatic experiences, and for many it was the only way to deal with terrible experiences. For example, J.R. Tolkien's “Lord of the Rings” also reflects the author's experience in the mass murders of the First World War.

"How long has it been since you wrote a story of putting your true love or overwhelming hatred on paper? When was the last time you dared to let out a beloved prejudice so that it struck your side like lightning? What's the best or worst in your life and when are you ready to whisper or shout it out? ” (Ray Bradbury)

Writing helps express feelings, especially unconscious, repressed or embarrassing ones. But the feelings can not only be expressed in this way, they can also be brought into a form and willingly shaped in the next step.

Writing in therapies is so important because in psychological crises the gaze narrows: all doors seem closed, everything beautiful falls out of perception, the world is gray in gray. Writing is often the first way to break out of the inner prison, to widen your gaze again and yet not be helplessly exposed to fears and psychological injuries.

The therapist initially plays the role of a careful guide. Unresolved questions often trigger a writer's block, mentally challenged people are afraid to write down tabooed words and thoughts, people in a crisis are afraid of their inner images that depress them; frozen feelings only break up in fragments, and a mental chaos confuses the client when writing.

First, the therapist takes away the fear of failure from the client. Writing as a cure does not serve to win the Nobel Prize, but to clarify the chaos of the psyche.

Note: If you yourself suffer from psychological problems and would like to try therapeutic writing, please discuss in advance with your treating doctor or your therapist whether this therapeutic approach is suitable for you.

Creative writing

Creative writing is originally from the USA and is an integral part of every university there. In Germany, this free writing was initially rejected because the solid structure of the literary genres represented the tools of the writer. It was only in the wake of the reform processes after 1968 that creative writing entered pedagogy. In the United States, it was professional writers who developed it, while in Germany it was primarily intended for personal development.

Creative writing techniques have been around since ancient times. Dadaism, surrealism and modern art later discovered playing with language and real or supposed nonsense as a form of expression.

Creative writing includes techniques that get the flow of thought going. This includes writing without inner scissors, i.e. writing down what I can think of without thinking about the end product. This process is difficult to separate from brainstorming, writing in connection with other activities such as dancing or painting or observing. The goal is not to have a fixed goal, but to engage in the writing.

This creative writing serves different purposes. The first, and perhaps most important, is to have fun. That sounds banal, but it is also a main motive for professional writers. Ray Bradbury, author of Slaughterhouse 5, said that the fun of writing is the foundation of writing. What sounds banal can drive healing for people suffering from severe psychological problems: they have just lost the fun of life.

Creative writing can develop into an important therapeutic process: The person concerned writes from the soul what is rumbling inside and deals with the problems imaginatively. Nobody brakes: Implementing anger, grief, or hate creatively does not hurt anyone and constructively stages situations from which one suffers. This way you get to know yourself better.

Those affected often sit in front of what they have written and think: "Wow, was that really me?" They process experiences and experiences in writing, because designing language is an essential moment of being human.

Regular writing brings your own unconscious into your consciousness. Which topics, which problems do I encounter, which keywords come to mind? Those who write are active and can also view their activity from a distance. The inner writer becomes the observing ego.

Therapeutic writing

Writing in case of serious traumatization and mental illness should always be learned together with a trained writing therapist and should continue to be accompanied therapeutically afterwards. However, if the writer does not suffer from severe traumas, this is usually not necessary.

Writing can take me out of a deep black hole. Because if I think it can't go on, I can write about it; and then it goes on, first on paper and later in life. I can only capture the thoughts in these bad moods, they are part of my life, and if I feel better, they may become an exciting story.

Creative writing is important for everyone who works professionally with language: it makes business letters more lively and improves communication with other people. The more I write creatively, the more creative I get. Creative writing runs without evaluation. When I publish an article, a novel or the minutes of the volunteer fire department meeting, I structure the text.

But creative writing is not the point at first. That is why I do not need any previous knowledge when writing creatively. The only thing that matters is curiosity. I playfully get to know aspects of myself that were buried deep in the subconscious. Especially when I am dissatisfied, positive imaginations arise of how I could be, and by writing it down, I become more and more.

In therapy, writing also helps to master supposedly hopeless situations by offering unconventional solutions. When writing, there is always something of my own, something completely different from what I planned. In this process, the writer changes, mostly without even noticing it at first.

First of all, and this applies in particular to people with deep psychological injuries, in a fictional story I can allow all of my hate, anger and grief, and live it out without restrictions, and also not express or express exactly what I learned to be allowed.

Writing in therapy

Writing is a therapy to express yourself. In therapeutic writing, the text remains as a product, which firstly activates the self-worth of those affected and secondly enables the next steps in healing.

Writing focuses on those affected. Even in creative writing you can see your thoughts in black and white, so you can't avoid them. Writing thus provides a framework and a structure, and it helps only if there is chaos in the emotional life. Texts also offer protection: between the person concerned and the outside world, and also between the person concerned and the therapist, there is paper or the laptop.

Writing alone, regardless of the content, sets in motion a creative and structured process: expression follows reflection of what is expressed, and this process can also be developed further or started again. The inner pictures come to light through the words. Simply by expressing their unconscious in terms of what they are concerned, they grasp it and begin to work with it.

First, the writers go into their unconscious by identifying with what they have written, but second, they also go out again: when reading their own text, one sees one's inner images from a distance.

Writing and dreaming

Creative writing and dreaming overlap, because both are the language of the unconscious and therefore our way of life.

Many religious cultures considered dreams to be revelations of otherworldly realities, future predictions and prophecies. This is not entirely true, nor is it entirely wrong: dream images do not denote an external, scientific reality, but an internal, a subjective reality. They are symbols, and in this sense they show mental processes and dangers. Literature also consists of such symbols.

For example, death dreams rarely announce a real death. Although this is also possible and repeatedly proven, normally death in a dream is a transference: be it that our feelings for another person die, or that we let an aspect of ourselves die because we neglect him it is that a friendship breaks up.

Killing in a dream also does not necessarily mean that the dreaming becomes a murderer, but is an expression of our anger at someone. Suicide dreams can show that we are unhappy, feel lonely, are at a dead end in our lives, and can also give us a serious warning.

Our own death is the most important picture of death, because it shows the death of an old and outdated self-image and the need to develop to a higher state of consciousness. In particular, dreams are widespread in which someone watches his own death, his own funeral.

The direction in which development is possible is indicated in the details of the dream images: an execution, for example, can show that others do not like their own development, that other people exercise constraints from which someone suffers. Or it indicates which social environment has to be left. For example, if a dreamer dies in the village he comes from while studying in a distant city, the dream language is simple. The old self no longer exists, and in the new phase of life there are other tasks to do - man is no longer the old, whether he likes it or not.

Dreams of meeting people who are already dead do not point to a real life of the souls of these deceased, but explain the belief in an afterlife. Because in the dream these "ghosts" really appear. Rather, these deceased stand for something important, be it that there were open questions with the deceased grandmother, or that we symbolically reconcile ourselves with a deceased in a dream.

Few death dreams are actually warnings of dangers in the outside world. Even mothers who dream that their children will drown in a lake or be run over by a car, for example, usually have a psychological motivation. Be it the fear that the mother does not correspond to her own ideal of parents or hidden tensions between mother and child.

However, for dream interpretation it is true that dream symbols always speak an individual language and not every dream means the same thing for every person.

Dreams as predictions

Dreams work much like fairy tales. Many fairy tales could appear in the dream in almost unchanged form. The idea that dreams predict the future is ancient. The ability of the soul to overcome the laws of science, time and logic promotes the desire to use these unrecognized possibilities of knowledge.

Research on so-called true dreams, i.e. reading thoughts in dreams, seeing future events in dreams, has not really progressed in recent decades. There is general agreement that dreams are usually based on clues that we have picked up in the subconscious during the day and process at night "with the wisdom of the heart" and without the control of critical thinking.

As a rule, dreams do not come true directly, but symbolically: Thousands of dreams in which friends die or people die in a car accident result in one in which this really happens as in a dream. The psychic reality is much more common: a dream in which the lover flies away and two weeks later tells him that he is moving to another city and ends the relationship takes on unconscious clues. The question was probably already in the room without us wanting to admit it.

Ann Faraday calls dreams the "guard dogs of the psyche" who are constantly on the lookout for signs that escape the mind. It is only dreams that draw our attention to these hidden feelings and problems. Dreams are always "true" because they reflect the life, problems, feelings and questions of the dreaming. So whether there are paranormal dreams, dreams that describe external realities, can only be judged if we are very familiar with this "language of the heart" and can separate these different levels. In cultures, dreams were anyway a sign of Looked at ghosts, gods, or higher divinations, not the case.

Most of the alleged predictions are in this area of ​​tension: we often imagine afterwards that we would have dreamed of something that had happened, and that “clairvoyants” often related their influence to others simply from such claims.

Many dreams are so extensive in their statement that, like astrology, they always seem to come true: if I dream of a ship's sinking or a storm, the probability that a ship will go down somewhere in the world at this time, or a storm wreaks havoc, very big. And I also notice news about my dream.

It is therefore more an indication that dream images influence our behavior than that they provide information about an event that takes place independently of us. A dream diary can help here, in which the details and the time of the dream are precisely noted.

The dream diary

The dream diary combines dreaming with writing. For this we need a notebook and a pen. We forget most of our dream content within a few minutes. But in order to interpret what a dream means for us, small details are also important.

That is why we put the dream diary right on our bed: while we fall asleep, we write down as long as it is possible which images appear in our heads. When we wake up we pick up the book and immediately write down our dreams. Even if we wake up at night, we immediately write down the dream pictures.

In the notebook, we create tables or clusters in which we note which elements occurred in which dreams, when, which actions happened and how these set pieces could be related to each other: what happened on the day in the outside world, what happened in the world Dream? We leave free space for interpretations: what can this action mean, what problems does the dream show, what solution does it offer?

Real life: If we find a reference to everyday life, we should definitely write it down. What is analogous to what happens in a dream? What are the differences between dream and waking events? The dream often shows solutions to a problem with precisely these differences, alternative decisions that make sense, or it stumbles across what is stressful for us. If we have written down such references, we can reflect on them and perhaps gain new insights. These references, however, often appear encrypted in dreams.

A dream diary makes sense because we often only notice the importance of a dream picture with a time delay. Days, even weeks after a dream, it “falls like scales off our eyes”. We often only recognize years later which dream symbols had which meaning in which time.

A dream diary helps to discover recurring dream symbols and thus “our topics”. This applies in particular to people with mental health problems for nightmares in which figures, whether spiders, cats, dogs, certain men, clowns or insects, point to the core of fear; this can, for example, lie in unresolved conflicts. But these topics are also positive: Which characters in the dream protect us? Do we let them come to consciousness or do they continue to vegetate in the shade?

The next step is to work with these recurring characters, by falling asleep to the events of the previous and coming dreams, raising awareness of these images and keeping a record of how dreams change.

Even more: dreams and thus fears can be influenced. If we are afraid of one figure and identify with another, then in our waking or half-asleep thoughts we can let our alter ego mature into a hero or heroine who faces the challenge or shrinks the danger.

We can also use the dream diary as a basis for developing stories from our dreams. This is how we write ourselves free of them, and in the best case this results in literature that other people like to read. Developing fictional stories from dreams greatly eases the burden on those whose dreams deal with serious problems.

History creates a distance from your own experience and suffering and puts it on a general level. The fictional characters develop from an aspect of the self, but at some point they are no longer, but lead a life of their own. If we can observe these “plots” regardless of our psychological state of mind, we have released ourselves from our fears.

Writers with mood disorders

Writers are the most likely to suffer from mood disorders among all professions: Jack London, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ernest Hemmingway both suffered from bipolar disorder, and borderline disorder was probably associated with Hemmingway. Virginia Woolf, Heinrich Heine, Charles Baudelaire, Sylvia Plath and Friedrich Hölderlin suffered from depression.

Whether the hen came first or the egg can sometimes not be said: Do writers with their complex fantasies overload the brain, and that reacts with psychological problems? Or do you have the mood disorders beforehand and are therefore particularly suitable for the job?

In a study with one hundred Anglo-American authors, psychiatrist Felix Post found that 80.5 percent of them suffered from psychoses and depression; every third person was an alcoholic. The writers were also characterized by extreme mood swings - whether clinical bipolarity or borderline was involved remains open. Other studies have shown writers' propensity for depression and schizophrenia.

Depression could be due to the fact that writers think a lot more about the world and its position in it because of their job than “ordinary people”. In addition, professional authors often live in extremely insecure financial circumstances: they never know whether a novel they have been writing for years will be a success or even find a publisher. They are often very lonely in their work. In addition, some of them are very open in their texts because they usually process a lot of their own experience. This broken self-protection can also lead to mental disorders.

By writing, people with psychological "disorders" learned that they could use their mental crossing of borders creatively by crossing literary borders. The difference between whether the social environment sees someone as "sick" or as "brilliant" is often whether they put their "crazy ideas" on paper.

The diary

An often underestimated form of creative writing is the diary. It only belongs to the person who writes it. Poems, factual texts, thoughts, fantasies, finished stories, everything can be included. This diary goes into the notebook. Whether in the bus, in the café or in the waiting room - the best inspiration is watching people around me. This sharpens the view and the sensitivity.

A diary doesn't just have to mean sober details. They are important too, but here, in the private sphere, there is also room for the crazy thoughts, the fantastic ideas, and the supposedly impossible wishes that proliferate in the unconscious. Every essential finding can be written down and read later. If it doesn't make sense, that's not a problem at all.

If we write diaries on a regular basis, these “crazies” are arranged in a pattern and we become clearer about what we really want, what we have to change, and there is increasing clarity about how we can implement this.

It helps, for example, to write down happy or even interesting moments every evening. Noting down the small and big successes we have achieved brings our unconscious to a positive path: Those who think badly about themselves feel bad.

Brain train

If I always do the same thing and the circumstances are the same, it will probably result in the same thing. For people who do not want or cannot live with their life as it is, this experience confirms their frustration. They think "that will never change", "it has always been like this", "I have no luck in life", or "there is no place for me".

Our unconscious strengthens such negative self-images once we have saved them, because it works slowly. The unconscious does not care whether a habit has negative or positive consequences, because the practiced patterns work, they are firmly anchored in the brain via neuronal pathways. Writing techniques help out of this pattern of self-fulfilling prophecies and hopelessness by literally "overwriting" old beliefs and associated neural pathways.

The writer's block

Authors know the fear of the blank sheet, the writer's block. People who are about to take an exam, have to write a business letter or an invoice often see themselves in front of the keyboard and it doesn't want to go on. Creative writing can solve such blockages because it lets the thoughts flow. Usually it is not the content of a factual text that makes us despair, but stagnation. Looking out the window, writing about the blackbird looking for worms outside, describing the flowers in the vase can get the flow of writing going again.


People only do what they want with enthusiasm. Even those who do not make a decision make a decision: for convenience and false security that can break down at any time. That makes people dissatisfied. Those who suffer from this dissatisfaction or even from much more serious mental disorders usually avoid an discipline set from within.

Writing regularly at a specified time for a specific period of time promotes a return to self-discipline. If you rank failure after failure and experience yourself as an outsider due to a psychological abnormality, it is often difficult to develop the self-discipline that represents an organization of your own wishes and goals. Deep down, this person is convinced that he can never achieve these goals. He appears lethargic and passive on the outside because he has lost the sense of why he should work on his life.

Regular writing kills two birds with one stone: First, it brings a structure to a chaotic or aimless everyday life and a troubled psyche. Second, it provides a testable result. The person concerned notices progress, stagnation and regression every day and can work with this material.

The sensitivity

Creative writing strengthens perception. If I sit in the cafe and get bored assuming that nothing will happen, I look more carefully at how diverse life is around me by looking for details. What eye color is my counterpart, a small scar behind the ear, where does it come from, why is there a tiny stain on the napkin? What does the world look like? How does life feel? How do i feel How do I react to my environment? People with mental health problems learn to concentrate without evaluating. In the best case, this means that they no longer focus so much on their suffering.

Ways out of solidification

Depressed people often feel frozen, nothing seems to move, either outside or inside their body. Writing techniques can help you get out of this rigidity.

Free writing means to write on a blank sheet without thinking and not to put the pen down - in a certain time frame. This aimless writing can be used to find a topic. An ordered variant is the writing of a keyword, an introductory sentence, a picture, an object. That can stop, but the results can also be combined and further developed together. Randomly selected words stimulate ideas. Chance is important to spark new thoughts. I look for any word from a text, a catalog, a magazine, a lexicon.

Provocations change your mind. Fixed experiences break out. Statements that contradict facts, reality or the familiar release ideas. Examples: I can drink air. My bratwurst eats me. I bark at my dog. My cat is playing chess.

Choose multiple terms, no matter which, four: travel, blood, window, dog. They must appear in the text, now go. A narrower variant is a noun, for example table, an adjective, for example black, a verb, for example swim.

Select any newspaper heading. To do this, write the story. Or write creatively on it.

A word, a sentence, a phrase is placed in the inner circle. That is why associations form. These are in turn circled and connected with each other by lines. Alone or together, either secretly or on the bulletin board. New chains of associations start again at the core of the cluster. A so-called test network is created. This can be expanded and interpreted in one direction. This can lead to a write impulse or a topic.

People with mental “disorders” learn from writing that they can use their suffering creatively. At best, you can help others by putting on paper the life problems of many who can identify with them while reading and feel better because they are less alone and marginalized. In this way, therapeutic writing can convey clarity about yourself, alleviate psychological suffering and encourage other sufferers. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch


  • Bradbury, Ray: Zen in the Art of Writing. Berlin 2003.
  • Brenner, Gerd: Creative Writing: A Practical Guide. Frankfurt am Main 1998.
  • Winnewisser, Sylvia: Simply write the soul freely. How therapeutic writing affects the soul. Hanover 2010.
  • Dzananovic, Ines: Writing from the soul. Evidence for writing as a therapeutic intervention in people with depression - a literature review. 2017, ResearchGate

Video: Jordan Peterson NEW. How to heal trauma through writing (October 2022).