Words hold a heaviness. They can burden us, break us, move us to tears and thrust us into tumultuous thought cycles. But just as they provoke the prior, they can also provide a tremendous comfort. They ease and they settle us. Through writing, reading and intentional thinking we can heal.
We live in a demanding world, with external stressors such as the current cost of living crisis in the UK combined with personal stressors such as navigating major life events. All the while, trying to achieve that small thing of our dreams! It's no surprise 1 in 6 people (in England) report a common mental health problem such as anxiety in any given week.
The power of poetry
All across the world, creative expression is utilised to stimulate inner healing. Poetry allows us to express ourselves, form an identity, reflect and relate to others. When conducting research for this article I came across the term Poetic Medicine which I thought was brilliant. As author of Poetic Medicine, John Fox, puts it “A poem or even a fragment of a poem may serve as the balancing point which your eyes focus on, in order to walk over difficult terrain.”
By no means am I saying poetry is a cure. It does however have a significant role to play in maintaining our overall well being. Mental health problems including depression and anxiety have been proven to be managed effectively through poetry. It can aid us in dealing with stress and trauma and learning to live with grief. Through rhyme and repetition, it provides a calmness.
Engaging and thought provoking
It is important to keep our minds active and engaged. Particularly when our mood is low or our mental health is suffering. Poetry encourages us to think, it inspires us to perceive things differently as we consider new outlooks. It strengthens our empathy as we feel things on a deeper level. In my experience, poetry can be used as a great grounding technique, it compels us to slow down. It allows us to breathe.
I find in its slower, introspective way, poetry teaches us to avoid being reactive. It’s all about perception and how we can ultimately find the light in those dark spaces.
‘You can find poetry in your everyday life, your memory, in what people say on the bus, in the news, or just what's in your heart.’
Carol Ann Duffy
How to enjoy poetry
If you’re new to poetry, I would recommend listening to readings to begin with. Hearing a poem spoken aloud encourages connection, it embraces the beauty of sound. I stumbled across the podcast Poetry Unbound sometime last year, coincidentally when I felt I needed it most and I’ve been hooked ever since!
Below are some more tips on how to enjoy poetry more:
Be curious. Approach each poem with curiosity. Poetry often forces you to think in new ways as you explore another's experience in life. It can be challenging but eye opening.
Write, write, write. Yes it may end up cliche, but it can be greatly cathartic to write your own poetry.
Think of them as conversations. Thinking of poems as an open dialogue reminds us that these are shared experiences and that we are not alone.
Slow down. Even if it’s for 15 minutes. Find space for it. It can be a beautiful break in the day.
Ask yourself what do you see? What do you visualise when you read it? It can be great inspiration for artists, or creatives.
Buy a book that has multiple poets within it. It’s all about discovering what poem sits with you. Which one captures you. Endeavour to discover which resonates with you the most.
Read it again. And again. Sometimes it takes a while to sink in. Like hearing a song you love, that you never knew the lyrics to.
Journaling: What’s all the fuss about?
Similar to poetry, journaling allows us to access that inner voice that we don’t always have access to. To understand ourselves better by exploring the emotions we are experiencing. It allows us to identify why we are indeed experiencing them. Health professionals often dispense journaling as a non-pharmaceutical tool to maintain your mental wellbeing. Journaling has been proven to be a highly effective method of mindfulness, improving levels of anxiety, reducing stress and boosting our overall mood.
It can be a great tool to dismantle negative self talk. You may have experienced self doubt, imposter syndrome, personalising or catastrophizing. It’s alarming, the countless ways our minds can punish us. However, journaling can break these vicious cycles. Starting with the physicality of addressing your thoughts on paper. Thinking awful things about yourself is one thing, but to write them down halts the irrational nature of them in their tracks. You realise how ridiculously untrue and cruel they are.
How to start journaling
It can be daunting to sit down, open up a notebook, see that blank white page and force yourself to face your feelings. You may ask yourself: what do I write? Here are some of my own tips for getting started:
Treat yourself to a new notebook! Having something beautiful to bind all your thoughts in, is a nice way to keep it all together. However you could choose to write in a sketchbook or on loose sheets or in the notes section of your phone.
Begin with prompts. There are countless prompt lists out there to get you started. I like to search journal prompts into Pinterest or just a simple google search will do.
Gratitude journal. If you’ve not heard of a gratitude journal before, it is essentially writing down and keeping track of things you are grateful for. You could ask yourself: What are three things I am grateful for today? It forces you to acknowledge the good in your life.
Behavioural activation. When we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, things can seem insurmountable. We can fall into decision fatigue and the trap of procrastination. Breaking these cycles and stressors down into manageable tasks through routine, necessary and pleasurable activities is a common CBT practice proven to be extremely effective.
Choosing the right words. The best way, as with anything, is to take that plunge (into the ink pot!) and just begin. Your journal is exactly that, yours. You can write bullet points, mind-maps or lengthy passages etc.
Be consistent. Even if you think, I don't need to write right now! Setting aside some time each day or week will benefit you in the long run. Researchers found that those with anxiety who wrote for 15 minutes, 3 days a week over a 12 week period had an improved mental well being with fewer depressive symptoms. Effective, calm consistency.
Whichever choice you make in regards to managing your mental health is personal and right for you. Poetry and journaling are simply more healthy, sustainable habits you can incorporate into your life to improve your overall well being. I’d love to know: what words have helped you heal?