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On Poetry, PTSD & Pandemic: How Writing Poetry Can Improve Mental Health In The Midst Of Crisis

While I still experience some anxiety now and then, my insomnia is gone and I’ve stopped taking medication

Photo by Joyce Dias from Pexels

I was diagnosed with PTSD in February 2020, after a series of traumatic personal events that all happened within the span of two months. I was left physically weak and mentally drained. I had insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Then, in March 2020, the global pandemic happened and Luzon went into lockdown (or ECQ: enhanced community quarantine).

My mental health deteriorated even more after the lockdown. My psychiatrist had prescribed some medicine for the anxiety and insomnia, along with some practical advice (get some sun, exercise and eat healthy food). But I still had trouble falling and staying asleep, experienced panic attacks, and would feel anxious or depressed (or both) at random times throughout the week.

Turning to poetry

My psychiatrist had encouraged me to write about my experiences as well, if I felt it would help. You’d think that would be the easiest thing to do, since I’ve been a freelance writer for over a decade. But I struggled to write about the things I had gone through in a straightforward manner. I found it difficult to process the things I had gone through on a purely cognitive level. I felt that a direct report — a summary of events, a medical abstract — couldn’t capture the fears, emotions, and overall transformation that had occurred within me.

And so, as I had done in the past, I turned to poetry.

Poetry and Healing 

According to Hoffman and Granger, “Before there was psychotherapy, there was poetry, which can be recognized as one of the oldest healing arts that has been utilized across many different cultures throughout history” (2015, p. 16). Poetry therapy is a recognized form of expressive arts therapy. 

Reading poetry can help stimulate different parts of the brain related to introspection, and the interaction between emotion and memory. There are many articles online about other benefits of reading and writing poetry, what conditions poetry therapy can be used as treatment for, and so on. 

There are various mental health benefits to writing poetry:

  • It encourages self-expression and emotional release 
  • It helps to organize one’s thought processes
  • It can improve self-esteem

In some cases, when done regularly, writing poetry can help improve trauma-related physical symptoms such as chronic pain. 

My Personal Journey 

I began to include poetry in my daily routine again. I read and wrote poetry regularly when I was doing an MFA in Creative Writing, but the busyness of full-time work and being a mom left me little time for it. Being on lockdown and resigning from my job changed that. I re-read one of my favourite poetry collections — slowly, spending days on one poem before moving on to the next. The act of reading and reflecting on a poem helped to focus my thoughts. Reading poems aloud had a calming effect on me.

Through poetry, I spent some quality time with my son as well. We would read poetry together (he enjoys poems that rhyme and funny poems, like those from Shel Silverstein) and he began writing his own poems too, for fun.  

On some days I would write poetry as well. I found it easier to articulate the intense feelings and fears that affected me with poetry. Even on the days I was unable to write, the act of sitting in one place for a few minutes — with a notebook and pen in front of me and a cup of coffee or tea to the side — was comforting. I wrote four new poems in 2020 and completed a book project I started in 2015. That book,

Black, was released last January. 

Poetry Post-pandemic

While I still experience some anxiety now and then (I’m sure we all do, post-pandemic), my insomnia is gone and I’ve stopped taking medication. I’ve found the following things therapeutic: knitting, journaling, and writing poetry. I continue to do at least one of those three things each week, and they have helped improve my mental health — especially writing poetry.  

There are days when all I have in my mind are images or phrases. A sense or emotion trapped in a single word. I would write these down first. Later on, I would try to craft them into sentences, lines and stanzas. I try to give these emotions their form, connecting feeling and meaning. In doing so, I continue to process my negative experiences and try to make sense of where my mind and heart are at now, and how to lead them to where they should be whenever the distance between them is too much to bear.

Reference:
Hoffman, L., & Granger, N., Jr. (2015). Introduction. In L. Hoffman, & N. Granger, Jr. (Eds.), Stay awhile: Poetic narratives and multiculturalism and diversity (9-17). Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.

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Michellan Sarile-Alagao

Michellan Sarile-Alagao is an editor and a writer based in the Philippines. Her recently released book entitled Black is available at 8Letters Bookstore and Publishing. Follow her on website and Instagram.

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