What does it mean to relax & how can writing help?

When you find yourself with some ‘free time’, how do you relax? How do you rest and recharge yourself? In a world where we are preoccupied with ‘doing’ and ‘achieving’, relaxation can seem like a luxury. In reality, of course, taking time out is vital. When you need to relax, what activities do you turn to? I invite you to consider writing as part of your relaxation toolkit. Here’s why.

‘Relax’
1.1. Rest from work or engage in an enjoyable activity so as to become less tired or anxious.

Oxford Dictionary

A welcome distraction

In 2016, the Hubbub research group published its findings from ‘The Rest Test’. More than 18,000 people from 134 countries answered an in-depth survey on the subject of ‘rest’. Respondents were invited to select the activities that they found most restful. The final top 20 list included a broad spectrum, from reading to daydreaming to physical activity and the creative arts.

When analysing these activities, the Hubbub researchers noted that a theme of ‘escapism’ seemed to be present. There was the suggestion that when we relax we might wish to escape from other people or from man-made environments.

Certainly, the concept of escapism is evident when writing for relaxation. As you play with words and ideas you are free to travel anywhere and with anyone you please. For a short while, you can inhabit a world that is completely different to your own.

For me, I often find that writing is less a case of true escapism and more a welcome distraction. I can put my immediate worries to one side and focus on the shape of a poem, the sound and rhythms of the words, the emotions of a newly created character or the plot line of a new story – one that is not unlike my own life story, perhaps, but that offers refreshingly different challenges to focus on.

A state of play

Increasingly, play is being recognised as valuable for people of all ages. It can relieve stress, releasing endorphins that make you feel good. It can help you with your relationships and assist you at work. Author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown compares play to oxygen. He says: ‘…it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing’.

So what is play? Brown describes it as ‘purposeless’, ‘fun’ and ‘pleasurable’. The focus is often on the experience, rather than the end result.

The same can be said of writing for relaxation. The aim is not to achieve a particular goal. Instead, it is writing for writing’s sake – to enjoy the process of coming up with ideas and finding words. To have fun!

The theory of flow

As a writing for wellbeing facilitator, I find there is nothing more rewarding in a workshop than looking around the room and seeing everyone completely immersed in their writing. Some people are reluctant to stop when the time is up. Others cannot wait to talk about the experience and share their words.

Writing can lead us into a state of ‘flow’ – a concept that has been explored in depth by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He describes flow as ‘a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter’.

‘Flow’ is about more than just being distracted by a task. Csikszentmihalyi identified nine elements that are generally in place when someone achieves flow. One of these is to have: ‘no worry of failure’. This aligns with a key aspect of writing for relaxation: writing without judgement. Being kind to yourself and putting your inner critic to one side will help you to make the most of your writing experience.

Sense of achievement

Writing for relaxation is not about crafting a perfect product. However, it can still be highly satisfying and rewarding. When you fill a page with words, when you write a story or poem for the first time in a long while, or when your writing sparks a sudden revelation, it can create that tingle of excitement and pride. This sense of achievement, and the resulting rush of dopamine to the brain, can help to encourage relaxation.

There is an element of validating your own needs here, too. Whatever you have put down on the page, at the end of your writing for relaxation session you are left with something tangible. It proves you have taken the time for self-care – and that, in itself, is an achievement.

Releasing emotions

When strong emotions are plaguing me, it can be a huge relief to pour them onto the page. Whether they end up as a part of a short story, a poem or a stream-of-consciousness scrawl, by placing them on paper I can gain a sense of distance and perspective. Once they are out of my head, I am able to name them and ‘see’ them more clearly.

Sometimes it’s possible for me to create a clearer narrative for these emotions. In his expressive writing studies, Dr James Pennebaker discovered that constructing a coherent story around a traumatic event can help people to process their emotions more effectively and reap health rewards as a result.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, also uses writing to release unhelpful thoughts and emotions. She achieves this through her ‘Morning Pages’ – three sides of stream-of-consciousness writing at the start of each day. Cameron explains that these pages can ‘get us to the other side: the other side of our fear, of our negativity, of our moods. Above all, they get us beyond our Censor. Beyond the reach of our Censor’s babble we find our own quiet centre’.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles conducted brain scans on volunteers which revealed that putting feelings down on paper reduces activity in the amygdala – an area of the brain which is involved with the experiencing of emotions.

Psychologist Dr Matthew Lieberman said: ‘Writing seems to help the brain regulate emotion unintentionally. Whether it’s writing things down in a diary, writing bad poetry, or making up song lyrics that should never be played on the radio, it seems to help people emotionally.’

Affirming the positive

Writing for relaxation can be a wonderful way to affirm the positives in our lives, from gratitude lists through to praise poems. There can be real joy in creating an uplifting story – whether based on real life or not.

Then there is the opportunity to return to our words at a later date, perhaps multiple times, so that the good feelings can come flooding back to us once again.

Mindful and meditative

Writing for relaxation can easily incorporate an element of mindfulness. Whether you are exploring a particular object, soaking up the natural environment or pausing to focus on your senses, writing can bring you into the present moment. It can concentrate your attention to the exclusion of everything else.

A core part of mindfulness meditation is the non-judgemental mindset that it encourages you to take on. This is echoed in the philosophy that underpins writing for relaxation; being kind to yourself is vital.

Meanwhile, the act of writing itself can have a meditative quality. The focused attention and repetitive actions involved in writing align it with other reportedly soothing activities, such as sewing or painting. We actively involve the body as we move our hand across the page and create those swirling, dancing patterns that can mean so much.

What next?

How do you feel about writing for relaxation? If you want to explore it further then take a look at these writing for relaxation top tips. Or put pen to paper straightaway with these 3 quick creative writing activities.

References:

Brown, S. (2009). Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Avery.

Callard, F., Staines, K. & Wilkes, J. (Ed.), (2016). The Restless Compendium: Interdisciplinary Investigations of Rest and Its Opposites. Basingstoke (UK): Palgrave Macmillan.

Cameron, J. (1994). The Artist’s Way. Reprinted in 2016. London: Pan Macmillan.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Pennebaker, J. W. & Chung, C. K. (in press). ‘Expressive writing and its links to mental and physical health’. In H. S. Friedman (Ed.), Oxford handbook of health psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Torre, J.B. & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). ‘Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation’. Emotion Review.