“You can make anything by writing.”
“... (and rewire your brain) by writing.”
Earlier this week, I got on the horn with a regular client and noticed that he sounded different. He was speaking slowly, more quietly, and sighing as if each sentence was painful to vocalize. My client was struggling to cope with a recent shift in his partnership, and his old habit of overthinking was back with a vengeance. Having been diagnosed with anxiety a decade ago, he described this familiar pattern as his “default setting.”
Anyone with anxiety knows how infuriating it is to have someone suggest that you should “just think differently.” After all, you’re in control of your thoughts, right? C’mon. It should be easy to change the message.
Not so. Many of us with anxious, depressive, or self-deprecating thoughts have been grappling with them for years. Those neural connections are strong, my friends, and they don’t have intention of buckling any time soon.
Having been in therapy for the better part of ten years, my client understood why he was prone to such persistent thoughts. They dated back to his childhood, stemming from a relationship with an erratic family member. But as insightful as this history was, it didn’t help with the how. How would he pull himself away from these exhausting, relentless, and debilitating loops? Throughout our session we dug around, came up with specific tools to combat the pattern, and an accountability system to stay the course. My main recommendation though, was to write. Plain and simple. Physical hand-to-pen-to-paper writing.
When we develop a pattern of writing or journaling, those handcrafted messages will always win against our thoughts. How? Science, my friends, science. While our negative loop neural patterns may be strong, they’re typically only firing in a few parts of our brain. Writing, however, engages our thoughts, visual centers, and fine motor skills. Think of our negative thoughts as a small militia with chutzpah a plenty but little firing power; and our written truths are the entire U.S. military force and intelligence. The militia may win an awe-inspiring, small field battle or two, but they’re ultimately crushed in the long run. The pen is mightier, and all that.
Another curious note about our ever mysterious brains: they don’t know the difference between actual reality and what we message is reality. Meaning, if you tell yourself that you’re a fat tub of lard that no one loves, your brain will relay that to the rest of your body and respond accordingly. Your shoulders will roll forward, you’ll gaze towards the ground, and your energy will plummet. Conversely, telling yourself that you are the most beautiful, successful unicorn that ever lived will increase your confidence immeasurably. And the most powerful, widespread, lasting way to message these things to yourself? You guessed it: writing.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that one journal entry can eradicate years of anxiety. Far from it. Unfortunately, there is no “silver bullet” to adjust our brain chemistry. But physical, pen-to-paper writing, an increasingly uncommon practice in today’s technology-heavy age, is a ritual that can not only hault overthinking, but also transform how we see the world.
So, set a realistic goal for yourself: take away some phone time and devote 15 minutes to simply writing. Do it for a week or a month. Focus on it completely. And notice just how incredible your unique thoughts are and your ability to organize them with a series of shapes, spaces, and imagination.
Rather than conceding to what my client described as his “default setting,” put pen to paper and start creating your own backdrop. Over time, the new normal will become what your written words reflect. C.S. Lewis is right, you can create anything by writing. Even your life.