These 3 Writing Exercises Can Help You Stay Sober

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These 3 Writing Exercises Can Help You Stay Sober

Portrait of a beautiful mixed race woman sitting in an armchair, relaxing at home, drinking tea and writing a diary

Completing a quality addiction treatment program is an excellent start to recovery but it’s only a start. If you want to stay sober in the long term, you have to have a plan and stick to it.

This plan will typically include going to 12-Step or other mutual-aid meetings, making healthy lifestyle changes like eating well and exercising, and spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation. Writing can also be a powerful part of your recovery plan.

The following writing exercises have been shown to help people regulate their emotions, feel happier, and become more optimistic.


Writing Your ABCs


ABC stands for activating event, belief, and consequence. The ABC model was first developed by psychologist Albert Ellis as part of his rational-emotive behavioral therapy, or REBT, a precursor to cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which is now considered the “gold standard” of psychotherapy. The ABC model is also a central concept in CBT and the following writing exercise can help you use ABC to cope with challenging emotions.


Before we get into it, it’s important to note that this exercise is not a replacement for professional therapy. It can, however, make your therapy sessions much more effective. 




This is how it works: start by writing down the consequence, or the C in ABC. This is the thing we tend to notice most and possibly the thing you entered therapy for in the first place.

This is the fit of rage or the overwhelming feeling of despair. Whenever this arises during the day, take a moment to describe it briefly in writing.

You can also write it down at the end of the day, but, as with writing down a dream, the sooner you do it, the more you will remember. 


Activating Event


Next, identify the A–the activating event. This should also be easy to identify. We typically say, “I was angry because that driver cut me off,” or “I was in despair because my boyfriend broke up with me.” Whatever comes after the because is typically the activating event. 




However, the central insight of REBT and CBT is that the consequence doesn’t actually happen because of the activating event. Something else intervenes–the belief, or B.

The next step is to identify and write down what belief connects the activating event and consequence. For example, you might be angry because you believe that the driver who cut you off should be more respectful. Or you may be depressed about your boyfriend breaking up with you because you think it proves that you are worthless.




The problem is that these beliefs are often distorted, with little or no basis in reality. What’s worse is that we often are not even aware we hold these beliefs; they are just automatic assumptions.

The next step in the process is to evaluate the validity of the belief. Write down some evidence for it and against it. 


For example, it would be nice if people were considerate drivers and always aware of their surroundings, but sometimes they aren’t. And if one person breaks up with you, does it really mean you’re worthless? Of course not.

Often, once you write down your assumptions, you will immediately see how flawed they are. Then, you can replace them with more accurate beliefs. Do the ABC exercise daily for at least a week to get into the habit of identifying and challenging your faulty beliefs. 


Writing About Gratitude


Whereas doing the ABC exercise is mainly a way of coping with challenging emotions, the gratitude exercises are more about increasing your positive emotions. Research on gratitude in recent decades has found many benefits, including a greater sense of wellbeing, more happiness, more optimism, better health, better relationships, and better sleep.

All of those things are useful for anyone recovering from addiction. Unfortunately, if you’re just starting out in recovery, you may not feel very grateful. The following two writing exercises can help increase your feelings of gratitude. 


The Gratitude Journal


The first exercise is to keep a gratitude journal. This is simple: just write down three things that you were grateful for that day. They don’t have to be big. In fact, taking time to appreciate little things can make a big difference.

So you might include something like, “The weather was nice today,” or “The store restocked toilet paper.” After a week or two of doing this daily, switch to doing it weekly.


In one study, psychologists Robert Emmons and Micheal McCullough divided participants into three groups. One group wrote about things they were grateful for during the previous week.

Another group wrote about things that had annoyed them in the previous week. The third group wrote about significant events, but whether they should be positive or negative was not specified.

After doing this once a week for 10 weeks, the group that wrote about things they were grateful for felt more optimistic and better about their lives. What’s more, they exercised more and made fewer trips to the doctor than the group that wrote about things that irritated them.


The reason this works is that we are all typically focused on threats and things that are going badly because that’s where the danger lies. Writing about the things we’re grateful for trains us to notice the positive things as well.


The Gratitude Letter


The gratitude letter is like a scaled-up version of a gratitude journal entry. Think of something you’re grateful for that you never thanked your benefactor properly for.

It could be something big or small. Write a letter describing what it was and why you’re grateful. You can deliver the letter or not. If you do, it might improve your relationship with the recipient, which is a nice bonus. 


One study by psychologists at Indiana University looked at the effects of writing gratitude letters on 300 people who had sought counseling for mental health issues–mostly anxiety and depression. Again, participants were divided into three groups.

One group wrote one gratitude letter a week for three weeks, the second group wrote about a negative experience, and the third group had no writing assignment. All three groups received normal counseling.

The study found that the group who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health at four weeks and 12 weeks after the end of the writing assignment compared to the group that wrote about negative experiences. 


Recovery from addiction is a holistic process involving the mind, body and spirit. Writing is an excellent way to examine your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and better understand why you do what you do.

The ABC method is a great way to figure out how your thoughts and beliefs are making you more unhappy than you need to be and writing about gratitude can increase your sense of wellbeing and optimism.

At The Kimberly Center, we know that recovery is about wellness. We use evidence-based methods such as CBT to help our clients discover and address the root causes of their addiction. To learn more, call us at 855-452-3683.

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