In part 1 I explored how letters can help people manage their mental health.
Letters are a wonderful way of getting started with the, often alien, but ultimately fantastic process of journaling – playing with words and putting them down on paper in a way that may well be for your eyes only.
In this post, I’ll be looking at how to get started and what kind of letters might help.
So, how should you start?
I’m tempted to say start with a nice book. But nice books can be intimidating. Instead, write your letters on loose leaf paper. Then you can rip them up, start again, throw them away, send them or bundle them together as you please. There’s no right or wrong way of doing this after all.
- Write a letter to your depressed or anxious self. When you’re feeling well, sit down and write to yourself as you are when you’re depressed, anxious or low. Remind that self how you feel when things are going well. Try to describe the positive and hopeful feelings, the things you take pleasure in and the things you are looking forward to. Recognise that your depressed self is going to be unable to really imagine any of these things but remind them that, like before, things have changed and improved in ways that they can’t imagine when caught up in that negative fog.
- Write a letter to your well self. One of the tricks our mind’s play is that of ‘discounting the future’. Being happy in the present (today, this week, this year – depending on the time scale) seems to be typically more desirable than the prospect of being happy in the future (tomorrow, next week, next year).
But when we’re feeling good, we sometimes need to keep something of the memory of depression, anxiety or low mood to help us manage it. So write a letter to your happier self, reminding yourself how bad you sometimes feel. The idea is to motivate your well self to keep doing those things that keep them well – be it eating well, getting enough sleep, mindfulness, exercise or controlling your alcohol intake. You might even find that the process of sitting down and writing a letter when you are feeling low helps to take you out of yourself and gives you some perspective on your current mood.
- Write to or from your future self. If you’re feeling low or lost, a good exercise can be to imagine what your future self might look like. What goals have they achieved, how might that feel and what will that look like to others? You could write to your future self, explaining where you would like them to be and how you would like them to feel. Or you could put yourself in the shoes of your future self and write back to yourself now, letting you know how things are going and what you have achieved. This is a nice way to pin down your goals and start to solidify what feeling happier might look like for you and how you might start to achieve it.
- Write to your past self. It’s become quite common for celebrities to publish a letter to their sixteen-year-old self, passing on some insights from how their lives have developed. It’s a good opportunity for reflection on where you are now and what you now know about yourself, your moods and the world. In the same vein, what advice might your future self, give to you now? You might find reading some other peoples’ published letters helpful too.
- Write to other people. Do you find yourself having conversations with people in your head and thinking through what you might say? The act of writing a letter can help pin down these swirling thoughts and ruminations. It can help you clarify this these thoughts, working out if what you’re saying is what you actually feel. If you have a difficult conversation ahead, write it all in a letter first – and then work out from that what actually needs to be said.
So far we’ve been looking at letters as a creative tool for reflection and personal support. We’ve explored the types of letters you might write to your other selves. But letters that are actually sent can inspire the thoughtful honesty and clarity that nurture and improve romantic, friend and family relationships. As I say in my piece on managing depression and anxiety in a relationship, putting something down in words to someone who you see every day can feel weird but letters can help give you the space to spend time framing things exactly right, to clear your head and share your state of mind.