How to Use Expressive Writing to Cope With an Eye Condition

Man Writing in Journal
Harry Williamson/Spring Studio

A major stress that comes from being diagnosed with an eye condition, especially if this happens in mature years, is knowing how to cope with the high level of anxiety that follows the unexpected prognosis.

If you, or a loved one, are going through this major change in your life, from being fully sighted to partially blind (either gradually or suddenly), you may find it too stressful to share your real feelings and thoughts.

It’s not surprising that having to deal with more stress in ordinary day to day living can be detrimental to our health, physically, mentally and spiritually. The prospect of losing one’s ability to see can be a terrifying  experience.

Some people may feel so traumatized by knowing that their sight may never be the same (or that they are having to support a person in this situation) that they cannot even put into words how they feel, let alone share the feelings with the ones they love.

In a way, it is like having an emotional accident on the journey of life that they really didn’t see coming. A person feels damaged, or hurt, and the injury extends deep inside, throwing their thoughts into turmoil.

If this is the case for you, consider one antidote that could ease your anxiety and help you manage the discomfort for a while—by journaling your thoughts. This is called expressive writing.

What Is Expressive Writing?

Expressive writing, or journaling, is a method of recording your thoughts to help relieve anxiety.

It is a way of managing stress by freely expressing in a private journal (either handwritten or typed into a computer file) that allows you to ramble at will.

Some people call it therapeutic writing because the ‘writer’ has the potential to tap into deep thoughts that can help uncover their true fears and feelings.

Why is this important? According to Dr. James W. Pennebaker (the Regents Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas, Austin), who is known for his extensive research on the health benefits of expressive writing, in order to help people gain the most benefit from writing about their life traumas, it is helpful to first acknowledge the negative aspects and face these so they can move into  a more positive frame of mind.

Dr. Pennebaker conducted a series of experiments where people were asked to write freely for fifteen to twenty minutes a day for four days reflecting on their experience of trauma. “Compared to people who were told to write about non-emotional topics, those who wrote about trauma evidenced improved physical health. Later studies found that emotional writing boosted immune function, brought about drops in blood pressure, and reduced feelings of depression and elevated daily moods.”

Using expressive writing as a tool for improving our health has led to hundreds of similar studies worldwide.

As Pennebaker wrote in his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, “While the effects are often modest, the mere act of translating emotional upheavals into words is consistently associated with improvements in physical and mental health.”

Expressive Writing for Health

There are many benefits to reflecting and writing. Those who are able to sit quietly and be honest with themselves in contemplating a challenging situation and journaling their thoughts as an observer, are more likely to feel strengthened emotionally by moving through the pain in this way.

Confessing a torrent of fears is not meant to make the person relive them over and over again but to bring a sense of relief and even to find meaning in something that seems insurmountable.

Just recently, I tried expressive writing while going through a difficult situation. I poured out my fears into a computer file (using software for the blind), describing the dark and dis-empowering thoughts of everything being hopeless. I observed the turmoil of my thoughts and questioned them. Fairly soon into the process of writing, I found my focus shifted to one that sought to find brighter solutions.

It was like self-therapy. I was ‘talking to myself’ and that inner, more wiser part of me began to offer concrete solutions I knew I could at least try the next time the fear threatened to take hold again. I changed my pattern of thinking, used a different approach and the situation shifted in a positive direction. I learned that reflection and brainstorming with oneself is like taking a walk with the mind to improve a feeling of well-being.

Consider these other benefits of expressive writing that can:

  • Relieve the anxiety of a diagnosis by managing daily stress
  • Strengthen emotional fragility by feeling the pain and then describing it in a less painful way
  • Exercise the mind to release negative thoughts and to improve self-confidence
  • Express anger safely
  • Reflect on other ideas to design a plan of action
  • Free up feeling a burden to others
  • Gain insights that help to push past feeling stigmatized
  • Set up a daily ritual for self-care
  • Rejuvenate feelings of hope for coming to peace with a disability

The beauty of using expressive writing as a tool for health is that you don’t have to be a good writer since no one needs to read your work.

A method of journaling, developed by Dr. Ira Progoff and used worldwide, called The Intensive Journal Method is specifically designed to help people process their inner world to progress in their current situation.

Dr. Progoff said that one major benefit of putting words into a journal (as in the workbook he designed) helps people to “gain a perspective on the major periods of their lives so that they can focus on their present life situation in order to answer the question, ‘Where am I now in the movement of my life?’ Through this process, they can realize inner strengths, new possibilities, and discover resources and talents within themselves.”

By having this internal dialog with oneself, Progoff suggests that “the method helps individuals get a handle on the many elusive and challenging aspects of life.” By taking time to process what we are feeling during a traumatic phase of life, we create a safe haven in which to retreat for a little while.

5 Steps to Expressive Writing

If you want to gain more clarity in your current life challenge, here are 5 steps to begin your journaling pages (using a large notebook or creating a file on your computer). First choose a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed for at least twenty minutes.

1 - Begin with where you are now.

Record your feelings and thoughts about your current situation – being as open and honest as you can. No one is going to read your journal, so dive right in. Don’t be afraid to bring up all your fears, your ‘junk’ thoughts – these are all valid. The key is to express your inner world without placing judgment on what you write. Ask yourself:

  • What do I fear most in this new situation?
  • What do I feel I can’t share with anyone right now?

Jot down anything; deep thoughts, doubts, indecision, loathings, or fragments of fear as they crop up. Dark thoughts can become lighter to bear if exposed and expressed on paper. The process can also aid sleep by releasing your mental grip on fear.

2 - Don't edit your thought process.

Writing as therapy works best when you don’t try to perfect your writing. It is about enabling you to heal and to progress rather than to be perfect in your situation right now.

In time you may seek rehabilitation services to help you cope with your new situation but for now, in the newness of a terrifying prognosis, just write frankly to get in touch with true feelings.

3 - Remember that journaling is being your best friend.

Think of pouring out your heart to a good friend – who just happens to be you. A friend who is there to listen, to allow you to express how you truly feel and a friend who really cares about your well-being.

By writing down your thoughts, you are paying full attention to the stirrings of both heart and mind. As if addressing a dear supportive friend, you can open up more and more. Are there any more questions she would ask? If so, answer these and write without editing.

In short, try to write down the advice your ‘best friend’ would give in this situation.

4 - Re-frame your thoughts one day at a time.

Going blind is a life-changing experience. There is no wrong or right way to handle this life-challenge but, there are definitely positive ways to help you progress. On those days when you feel you are going nowhere or even backwards, try re-framing the situation.

write into your journal 5 things you can be grateful for. Yes, this is a challenge too.

Yet, in tricking our mind to look at something with a more positive mindset when you feel caught up in despair, you trigger a shift like turning on a switch. It’s hard to remain sad or angry at the same time as forcing yourself to be kind and calm.

When you face losing your vision, you may also lose sight of everything that is good in your life. Keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ or making an entry into your expressive writing journal is a way of taking notice of the good things you can tend to forget about under such hard conditions.

Journal your successes, no matter how small they might seem: a thoughtful realization, a commitment to making progress, a willingness to try again, or whatever you feel to be an  achievement for you are all worth noting. By expressing something good, you begin to reframe the portrait of your life in a brighter light.

5 - Set a regular writing time.

Here is the essence of the routine: to reap the benefits of expressive writing, you will need to commit to writing regularly. At least give it a go every day for a minimum of three weeks to see if this form of self-care really works for you.

In the words of Dr. Pennebaker, “When we encounter ADVERSITY, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs may become so habitual we don't even realize we have them unless we stop to focus on them.”

By making a commitment to letting go of your random thoughts in order to reflect and reframe, you open a window of insightful moments that can revive and nurture your emotional life. Staying on top of your emotions will be the catalyst that brings you renewed strength and courage, as well as a focus on how to plan your next step. Tap into your expressive self and you may be surprised that your new life with a visual disability is waiting to enable you in all the ways you can imagine.

Sources:

Baikie, K. et al. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writingBJPsych Advances. 2007;11(5):338-346.

Murray, Bridget. Writing to heal. American Psychological Association. 2002;33(6):54.

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