talking to myself

Good morning! Over the past few days, the air has really come alive with warblers, as more and more migrant birds reach our part of Scotland, and yesterday morning, skylarks began adding their voices to the chorus – always a happy sound. I’m now awaiting the return of our housemartins and, as we’ve seen the last frost (fingers crossed) Tom and I have been able to start preparing our vegetable beds for planting. There’s something very reassuring about seeing the seed trays all lined up in the potting shed, and looking forward to things growing. We’ve actually only just finished eating last year’s potato crop and yesterday (ceremoniously) consumed our last homegrown leek and onion. I’m not much of a flower gardener, but I also really enjoy growing different varieties of sweet peas. I think that will especially be the case this year.

Today I wanted to share a quick tip for managing the present moment. I’ve read a few pieces recently that frame our current shared experience as a kind of collective trauma, and it’s certainly the case that, though our circumstances may differ greatly, we are all having to find our own ways of navigating acute uncertainty, stress, fear, and anxiety. I’ve spoken to several therapists in the years after my stroke and they are always interested in what they assume to be the severely traumatic effects of my experience of sudden, serious brain injury and misdiagnosis (because I have bipolar disorder, my paralysis was initially incorrectly assumed to be psychosomatic, and it took 36 hours for my stroke to be correctly diagnosed after an MRI scan). But here’s the thing: after my stroke (as well as prior to it!) I’ve had many mental health issues to manage, but trauma has not been among them. And discussion with therapists has helped me to figure out one reason why. As soon as I was able, I wrote about my experience of stroke, and, as I continued to deal with many difficult things during my recovery, I continued to record how I was feeling by writing it down. Occasionally I wrote about these things here, on this blog (one of the many reasons I’m very grateful for it!) but more often than not I just wrote stuff down in a notebook that only I ever saw. One of the worst aspects of anxiety is rumination (turning things over repeatedly in your mind) but I’ve discovered that writing about things is not only very different to dwelling upon them mentally, but can also really help to arrest or diffuse a ruminative cycle.

Why is that so? Well, in writing, you aren’t simply absorbing yourself in your ruminative or worrying thoughts, but separating yourself from them through an act of expression (which, however spontaneous it may feel, always involves some consideration). Simply because of the effort it takes, writing engenders a very particular kind of detachment from your thoughts and feelings, and allows you a certain measure of perspective upon them. On a page or screen, written-down worries are externalised – they are set apart from you, rather than feeling like they are ineluctably a part of you – and that detachment may help you to rationalise or contain your worrying thoughts. Crucially too, the act of writing is always a form of power – a small thing that can allow you to regain control in situations in which you otherwise may feel incredibly powerless.

You don’t have to be a writer to write – and the only audience you are ever likely to have for what you put into such words will be yourself. I’d also stress that I am certainly not suggesting that the written word is some sort of universal anxiety-busting magic bullet. It is merely that writing is something that has undoubtedly worked for me – not only in alleviating the potentially serious effects of traumatic experience (and I know I’m not the only person to discover that writing eliminates flashbacks) but in mitigating much less serious and (for me) routine fluctuations of mood. So, if you are finding managing the current moment difficult for any reason, you might well find that taking an hour or two to write about your concerns and fears may help.

The photograph is Tom’s, of course – of a Hebridean tide.