When Writing to Relieve Stress Makes You Anxious

By Joanna Tebbs Young

I made a mistake. 

I recently presented a workshop at a local hospital about using writing as a stress reliever. The small  room was half full. While I am fairly comfortable speaking or facilitating with a larger group, this was a new experience for me in that I was being videoed. Unfortunately, this didn’t allow for audience participation other than quick comments or questions. My usual preference after a writing session is to give the opportunity for sharing (with no obligation) so that the participants warm up to each other and become more of a cohesive group rather than silent students being “lectured at.” This allows them to get more out of the session – to learn from each other and themselves, and not just me.

This particular group never really relaxed. I’m not sure if it was the presence of the video camera or the time of night or the starkness of the room or the lecture-setting (I usually facilitate with the participants arranged in a circle), but there weren’t many questions or comments. In my experience, this was unusual. I could tell by the smiles and head-nodding that most participants were interested in what I was saying, and during the writing prompt times almost everyone wrote until time was called. But there were a couple of women I couldn’t read.

On the anonymous evaluation forms I later received, the comments were all positive. Except for this: “I got more stressed… I left with a knot in my stomach.” Our first prompt had been “What’s going on?” This is one of Kay Adams’ prompts (author of Journal to the Self and founder for the Center for Journal Therapy), and one which I actually had the opportunity to write on in a training with her. And this is where I had messed up in my presentation.

I had forgotten to tell my story. 

I had been so excited to take Kay’s class and I sat there in my seat almost busting with anticipation about what I was about to learn. She opened as I did, with the prompt “What’s going on?” I wrote frantically for the timed five minutes. But when she called time I realized I didn’t feel so good. My stomach was doing flip-flops and I was kind of shaky. When Kay asked if anyone wanted to share their feedback of the writing exercise I raised my hand and admitted I felt awful, that the writing had drastically changed my emotional state from happy to downright anxious.

“Hold on to that feeling,” she said. “We’ll work with it later.”

Later, we did another exercise where she invited us to find a word or phrase that had jumped out at us during the first writing. Using another journaling technique I was able to dig deeper into what had actually made me anxious. As a result I made an amazing discovery, which, long story short, prompted me to quit my job in a life-move that was a major steppingstone towards where I am today. The words I wrote in that second write still resonate with me today. 

So, I want to say to the woman who left upset: I am sorry. I wish I had explained what Dr. Pennebaker tells us in his book Opening Up and his other works, that writing expressively can cause you to feel worse initially but in the long-run, it will help. I wish that I had been able to tell you that feeling that knot is a good thing! It means you were experiencing your body’s felt-sense (to use Eugene Gendlin’s term from his book Focusing). It meant that you had touched something, made it come alive, got it moving, so that could move past it. This was a first step towards healing. 

I made a mistake which I won’t make again. Lesson learned.


For a video of Joanna's workshop go HERE


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Good Facilitating is not Teaching, by Joanna Tebbs Young

“I am not here to teach you anything.”Joannaheadshotsmall2

Expressions of confusion flicker across the faces of those circled around me. Wasn’t the very reason they signed up for this workshop to learn something?I continue: “I am here to show you how you can learn from yourself.”Smiles break out and the workshop begins.

While this is not intended to be an op-ed on the benefits of teaching critical thinking, how I facilitate is how I believe children should be taught: Teach them to learn for themselves. And this is how I approach my workshops. I give guidance, I provide prompts, and then I sit back and witness my “students” learning from and for themselves (and from the words of others in the room) — not to impress me, the “teacher.” 

How does this work with TLA? Galileo Galilei said, “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.” Transformative Language Arts, or any form of self-expression which facilitates healing change within a person, is, by its very nature, a way to tap into something within: a wisdom, a knowledge, a gnosis that we may not immediately know on a conscious level. It is only when we can know why we do the things we do or feel the way we do, that we can truly learn about ourselves. And when we know we can grow. I could talk until I was blue in the face about the benefits of writing, but until they try it themselves and see that it works, that they have the ability to discover their own truth, I have taught nothing. 

While many people want to learn definitive tools, to come away from the class with a bulleted list of techniques or goals accomplished, it is the job of a facilitator to show them why it works. By all means, give them the list to take home (so they can continue self-teaching after the workshop), but it is only by doing it will they truly understand the how and why. 

Yes, you may be the “expert” and you do have much information to impart. Indeed, I sometimes get so excited by everything factoid and bit of research I have learned that I want to share it all. But it doesn’t help be a talking head.

Jim Henson wrote: “[Kids] don't remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” If you are a facilitator, I would assume (hope!) you have done the work yourself. You know the ups and downs of writing on your own road to self-discovery and healing. This knowledge, this self-awareness will show more than you could ever tell. 

Yes, give them the tools, the safe space, the opportunity, but then get out of the way. The best teachers instruct by asking questions. When you provide the opportunity for your “students” to ask themselves the deepest questions they may have ever faced, you are giving them a great gift: How to learn from themselves. 

Joanna Tebbs Young, MA-TLA is a writing and creativity facilitator, certified instructor through the Center for Journal Therapy, and freelance columnist living in Vermont. Her blog and workshop info can be found at her website, wisdomwithinink.com.

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Creating Safe and Sacred Space

by Joanna Tebbs Young


It was a new writing workshop, just a few weeks old. Three people had been coming from the beginning, a fourth had joined this particular day. She — I’ll call her Shandell — was nervous; letting me know she hadn’t written in a long time and backing herself into the corner of the couch in self-protective mode.

After I explained the process of this writing group, including the fact that there is never any obligation to share — “I want you to feel safe to write whatever it is you need to write” — I gave the first prompt. In the ensuing silence all that could be heard was the scrabble of pen and crinkle of paper as they scribbled away. Then time was up. 

One by one the writers shared their words, asking Shandell last so she would have a chance to see how it all worked. She declined. I thanked her and moved on. Second prompt. Again, silence and scribbling. 

This time when I looked at Shandell and asked if she’d like to share, she responded, “I wasn’t going to, but now I think I will.” Tears glistened in her eyes as she heard her own words in her own voice. When she was finished the room seemed to exhale. She smiled meekly but I could see the joy in her eyes. From then all, she always shared her writing which made us sometimes grin, sometimes laugh, and always nod in understanding.

This is what can happen in a group or workshop where a sacred or safe space has been created. With this type of writing — or any workshop which calls out the deep and personal — it is vital that the participants feel safe in their emotional nakedness. 

First, let me explain how I understand safe/sacred space. “Safe Space” is fairly self-explanatory: A place where participants feel safe to speak up and out without judgment or repercussion, or fear that their confidence will be betrayed outside the “walls” of the workshop. 

“Sacred Space” is safe space with an added dimension — and this is more elusive and sometimes dependent on the personality of the facilitator and the dynamic of the group — that of Connection. For me, sacred or spiritual means connection to something within and beyond ourselves; to the others in the room, to the nature outside the window, to our Higher/Wiser Self which comes through the writing, and to whatever Source one believes in. It is creating — or tapping into — an energy that is both at once vibrating madly with creativity, and calm and meditatively introspective.

Here are some ways I have found work well to create Safe and Sacred Space:

  • Sit in a circle.
  • Read a confidentially agreement (I use Kathleen Adams’ C.A.R.E.S.: Confidentiality, Acceptance, Respect, Encouragement, Support).
  • Encourage sharing but make it very clear it is optional and no judgment is held towards someone who chooses to pass.
  • If you plan to have discussion after sharing (which, in a reflective/expressive writing group should never be a critique of technique, unless it is with genuine praise), let participants know they always have the option to just be “witnessed.” If a piece is particularly emotional or the writing poses questions through which the writer is working and for which s/he doesn’t need/want well-meaning advice, “witnessing” asks the group to listen respectfully and “respond” only with silence. If the reader is emotional, send him/her loving energy and virtual hugs — never real ones (this can wait until after the group IF the group member is comfortable with the gesture).
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. After someone has shared their work, don’t rush to say something just to fill space. If there’s going to be discussion, allow listeners a moment to take in what they’ve heard and then to form their thoughts. If there is no discussion, wait a moment before thanking the reader and moving on. Sitting with the after-silence can be as powerful as the words themselves.
  • Using some kind of time-keeping device (I use a meditation chime app on my phone) can avoid the difficulty of corralling run-away discussions and assures every member of the group that they will have equal time to share. 
  • After someone has read, thank them. It takes courage to make oneself vulnerable in this way. 
  • Above all, as facilitator listen, really listen. Model for other participants that listening to each other’s deep wisdom is powerful for everyone in the room. 


Joanna Tebbs Young, MA-TLA is a writing and creativity facilitator, certified instructor through the Center for Journal Therapy, and freelance columnist living in Vermont. Her blog and workshop info can be found at her website, wisdomwithinink.com

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TLA Talks #3: Vanessa Fisher

By Miriam Gabriel

            Critique. Not the most comfortable of things to do, or to receive. Glorified as the prime tool of social liberation, demonized as the thickest veil of spiritual enlightenment, cited as a rite of passage in the epistemology of college essays, banned from households and work places towards figures of authority. It is either detached from flesh and blood as a cold, intellectual endeavor, or, perhaps out of fear for its power, contained within emotions reframed as disqualifiers: anger, ill will, separation, distrust. All the examples I just cited of how critique is valued or de-valued can be entirely false if your experience engenders otherwise, if the context(s) socially and subjectively you live in, or move across, describes critique differently. Enough flowery language for now. I want to dig in with you on what critique as a social practice can mean, not just what we are taught for it to mean. 

           And I know our digging will be in good hands when facilitated by a discussion with the up-and-coming luminous cultural critic, Vanessa Fisher. Now, by "good hands," I mean challenging, grappling, experimenting, author-including, rigorously-critiquing, socially-transforming, actively writing hands. 

Vanessa Fisher: Global nomad. Published author and poet. Contributor to the Elephant Journal, the Huffington Post, and more.

Vanessa Fisher: Global nomad. Published author and poet. Contributor to the Elephant Journal, the Huffington Post, and more.

             Vanessa has been a rising voice, across multiple reputed online and print platforms, on the experience of finding oneself caught at the crossroads of spiritual and political practice, both personally and communally. She will not give you a quick-fix reconciliation to resolve it all, such as the much complained-of phenomenon of "spiritually bypassing" the embodied issues of living in a political and economic context, or a denial of any usefulness to an intuitive, intensely subjective way of knowing as simply too mercurial for concrete transformational value for a society. As Vanessa details in this third installment of TLA Talks, she sees the mediation of these more-or-less two worldviews as a processural affair, requiring as much readiness for challenge, even conflict, as for accord or integration. One of the core channels doing the dance of this process is developing a keen sense of critique, of examining the underlying assumptions onto which we build the worldview in the first place, or continue to re-build it with our everyday reenactments of values, biases, and definitions. 

            Through this sense of socially invested critique, we delve into some important senses, or constructions, of being that Vanessa articulates implicitly and explicitly in her work. We explore the thought and lived processes of liminal space and identity, class and gender consciousness, and erotic ways of knowing. Along the way, Vanessa illustrates a way of engaging critique that challenges assumptions about what is usually associated with this word in the North-Eastern hemisphere. She describes how critique comes from a container of love and stake in a society's well-being, also how it is a form of creativity in its own right: of re-creating a culture without deceiving oneself to think that any re-creation is founded on nothing. Otherwise, the creation ends up being a diferently dressed reenactment of the limitations and injustices of the old. She also elucidates how women are usually discouraged from honing the sharp eye of a critic, an eye that can be equally visionary. 

            It would be of no surprise to Vanessa that visual artists like the women whose works I collage above are every bit as critical in their work as they are visionary. Both women, although well-traveled, lived quite a bit in the North-Eastern hemisphere of the planet. They are at least a century apart: Remedios Varo lived between 1908 and 1963, and Molly Crabapple, born in 1983, is a very active artist today. As the works I collaged show, they both employ an impressively succinct and creative sense of critique! While Varo's female subjects display both the domestic, or social, and archetypal, or spiritual, restrictions placed on women in her place and time, as well as visionary images of strong, aware, intuitively powerful women, Molly's subjects are increasingly becoming an embodiment of the second camp. They're more and more of the empowering embodiment of a painting, whether it is summarizing social systems or evoking protest-culture sentiments. There are two unique but overlapping processes of critique here: emphasizing sadness and/or anger, centeredness and/or spunk, what needs to change and/or what it is changing into, what the artist envisons it would change into.

            Especially if you are woman or female-bodied, Vanessa would encourage you to re-examine if you have been brought up in a social climate that discouraged the importanc eof developing your sense of critical participation, in your language and expression and action, to be an agent of change in the world. While that may be at odds with a dampening standard of being "nice," it can be an integral tool to being compassionate. And to doing something about the social awareness that this compassion brings, for one's communities and across communities. After all, as Vanessa reminds us, critique has historically been the discursive practice of the underclasses of a society, long before Western academia took it on as the "critical thinking" standard of a solid, post-modern essay.            

            Do you want to hear any more of my particularly fancy-schmancy language today? Indubitably not! How about you join us for this podcased talk? I am beyond excited to introduce to you this writer and artist who, I must say, has been a consistently reassuring bedrock for finding my voice as a working-class book worm spiritual seeker who also really cares about doing social change work at every opportunity – even if it's after clocking out really late at night. And her writing is my favorite kind of bedrock, too: tremulous, slippery, bouncy, "shaking it up," amoeba-shaped, but shaped nonetheless, and exists. Portable, pocketable, ready for wear and tear. That's the kind of writing that carries you through a couple of footsteps until you know your way. It's the kind of art, language, and journalism I am proud to share with you. Thank you for joining us. 


For more original works, philosophy, and poetry by Vanessa Fisher, please visit her home page, Poetic Justice. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter to know about her evocative, provocative projects!

For her Dialogue Series specifically, from her website, visit here

For Huffington Post articles, click here. For Elephant Journal work, click here. 

For her most recent article on the Elephant Journal, please visit: "Spirit, Inc.: The Politics of Modern Spirituality and the Stalled Revolution." 

For her earlier writing on the now archival Beams and Struts, be sure to stop by here. 

As for the Beams and Struts piece of hers that found me, through which I found Vanessa, please visit: "Undressing Sex: Re-Imagining the Art of Female Eroticism." 


Vanessa's new book, Integral Voices on Sex, Gender and Sexuality: a Critical Inquiry, co-edited with Sarah E. Nicholson, will be available by July 2014. 

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TLA Talks #2: William Copeland

By Miriam Gabriel

The Many Faces, Styles, and Causes of Hip Hop

The Many Faces, Styles, and Causes of Hip Hop

            I don't prefer to gamble as a method of inquiry, but there is one guess I can safely bet on. I bet that most people I will meet in my life know what it's like to have worlds upon worlds, lives within and with lives, that they are connected to, reduced to small, unrealistically opaque or silent of categories. Be it by a mass media piece, by a misunderstanding neighboring context, or by a casual encounter at work or on the bus. And the variegated, pulsating, multiversed world you know will be reduced by the simplest of words. 

            As a person strongly weaved with, and by, Hip Hop as an artistic and cultural movement, I certainly know what that's like. I know what it's like to be with fellow lives whose first exposure to the movement was reduced to the "entertaining," or the bubble-gum "pop," or the aimlessly "angry." And you feel like you are a part of an anonymous small group of artistic foot soldiers who, for some time or another, breast-fed and breathed and produced hip hop. We open up archival tracks, history pages, intimate memories, and news of global artists and events that spell the opposite. That reverse the quoted spells and re-fill the ink with long-winded sentences, communally-stamped legacies, new work that may not be getting as much media attention yet but we become its media for now. That replace labels with descriptions conveying civil rights' principles, oral narrative, preservation of underclass history, transmission of communal opportunities to make social changes, consciousness raising. And, of course, style: free-flowing, surrendering, sturdy, complex, Afrocentric yet globally influenced and influencing. 



William Copeland, aka Will See: Youth Director at the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, activist on decolonization issues locally and globally.

So when I call up one of my favorite poet-MC's and environmental/social justice activists (well, more like facebook him, but it sounds more authentic to lie and transcribe events as "call up," right?!) William Copeland, also known as Will See, and ask him to do an interview about just that, about how words can bring down to rubble the most ossified (or, ahem, well-funded) of communicative walls and re-create narratives of self-defined abundance and "underclass" cultural contribution, and I get a yes, I begin to feel a bolder sense of gamble. Renewed risk, incipient yes, but I have a place to start. I have a dialogue to share that begins to shine light on how, maybe one day, I can bet that most of the people I'll meet in my life will wield some way of using words back to un-box the labels and un-tie the community-to-community sound systems from the monitored satellites. I can safely bet on you finding William Copeland in this interview to be an integral example on how to relentlessly report and create narratives of restorative coalitions and ethically-grounded artistry, not only with the words that go into the music, but those "behind the scenes" in the context of the living heritage he is a part of as a native of Detroit, Michigan. In fact, we start the dialogue with a detailed discussion of Detroit. The split between how it is spoken of in mainstream media, and how it is experienced by its everyday citizens and involved agents, is quite disturbing, and with the works of language artists like Will See, is also progressively reversible.   

             And reversing a disempowering narrative with an honest, empowering one doesn't come without risk, without opposition from some who may have built their lives around separation, even superiority, conscious or unconscious. But it also never comes without hope. It never comes without the guaranteeable result of opening up minds and lives to the desire to connect, to be conscious and compassionate about where one directs their energies of curiosity, creativity, community, power, livelihood, spirit, wit, and memory. And we discuss it all here in this video! I truly enjoyed this talk. 

           It's odd to read myself talk about guarantees and gambles here. But, just for this time, inspired by TLA artists like Will See, I feel like I can enjoy a moment of WillSeeMod1foreseeable success for the artist that maintains integrity with what wisdom he/she/they may hold. I even bring that up at the closing of the interview, to which he responds with an adage that leads itself into an impetus. "They say we're all ancestors in the making," he says. The future I want to bet on, because of what I decide to write today, just might become someone else's memory. Sounds like a nice chorus, actually, that I could work on into the writing of a song. 

            Cheesy, you say? I don't mind. Aged cheese often survives as sharp and pallatable food for thought. That's when you and I know my words will no longer do well here, and watching/listening to William Copeland instead through the link below will bring a lot more lived wisdom, and much more sophisticated, socially transformative metaphors. You'll find an example of just that when you hear the powerful piece he wrote for us at the end of the interview, which only took about five minutes' time.

            This is our second TLA Talk with Will See, a powerhouse of community art and activism in Detroit, Michigan and beyond. Thank you for joining us. 


As promised in the interview, here are some more links to explore the work of this brilliant man:

For William Copeland's music, videos, and art-related press, please check out his ReverbNation link here

To further explore his music, or purchse his new album "The Basics," you will enjoy his bandcamp page here. 

For the Facebook page, including music, events, and highlights/reflections, please visit, like and explore here


Also, stay tuned for my next interview with the up-and-coming social critic, author and poet Vanessa Fisher, which is in the editing phase now. I can't wait to share more talks with you. 



Posted in Life story, Music, News, Performance, Right Livelihood, Social Change, Spirituality, Work, Writing | 2 Comments