The six minutes that can save your life

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So. Phew, eh? What a week. As news of Robin Williams’s death spread, so did the waves of grief, expressed in tears, hushed and disbelieving tones, and countless written words. So, so many articles, blogs, Tweets, and Facebook statuses.

Of course. Writing is the most time-honoured way of making sense of something. Psychologists tell us that much of our lives is spent making sense of the human experience; our ability to make meaning out of the stuff that happens directly affects how we function, so it is important to have an effective way of making sense and meaning. Writing works like nothing else to do this.

“Writing comes from somewhere deeper than talking, and is also a completely different process,” says Dr Gillie Bolton, an expert on therapeutic writing. “We may use everyday language but we put it together differently on paper. When you talk, you are aware of who is listening and that words can’t be forgotten. However, the paper will accept anything you write and it is up to you as to when and if you share it or read it back.”

How does it work? Well, despite all the research, no one really knows. It’s true that writing is a direct conduit from the unconscious, it’s autonomous, and it doesn’t judge. I have a theory of my own, however: writing isn’t just a thing of the brain – it’s a thing of the body. It is kinaesthetic. When faced with the bad and the sad, it’s common to think or feel, “I wish I could do something!” With writing, you can. Writing is doing. It may not be the most practical thing you can do, but your body doesn’t care. Besides – writing can save your life.

Talking is great, but sometimes, giving voice to your real feelings can be quite frightening for the people who care about you. Not talking about your feelings and soldiering on has unhealthy side effects of its own. The one thing both talkers and non-talkers can do is write.

Write what? Diaries, unsent letters, poems, dialogues, fairy tales, narratives, lists – whatever. But my favourite technique for challenging times is the six-minute brain dump.

Doing it is easy, and requires a cheap notebook you keep just for this purpose. Set a timer for six minutes, and for that time just dump out everything that’s on your mind onto the page. Whatever you do, don’t pause writing. If the words stop coming into your head, just write “Blah blah blah” until they do.

What’s next? This is up to you. If it’s depressing to read what you’ve written, then don’t. Staple the pages to the ones preceding the brain dump and leave them unread for two months. If reading what you’ve just written feels good, rewrite it until you feel a sense of completion.

You can do a six-minute brain dump as often as you need, or even make it a part of your daily routine. It won’t make the clouds part and the angels sing, but it will make the fog in your mind lift. And in its place, peace.