The ‘write’ path to mental well-being

If someone asked “How was your day?” and you answered honestly, what would you say? 

Would you talk about the traffic jam on your way to work? Forgetting your lunch at home? The long lineup at the drive-thru? The internet outage that occurred just as you were getting ready to stream your favourite show? 

The day before my wedding, I was riding the bus past the venue on my way home and there was a large outdoor sign that read “Congratulations”, with my name and my husband-to-be’s name on it. It was extremely heartwarming, and I felt myself smiling from ear to ear. 

Moments later, I was walking home from the bus stop and I felt something hit the back of my head. I turned around and there was a half-eaten Timbit on the ground, which I presume had been thrown from a car window. At the rehearsal dinner later that night, a friend commented that I was quieter than usual. My response: “Someone threw a Timbit at me.” 

As humans, our minds tend to remember negative events more often than positive ones. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Consider a day in which you received a compliment from a friend, and accidentally burned your hand on the stove while preparing dinner. While hearing others say nice things about us feels good, it doesn’t directly promote our survival. However, it is important for us to remember that hot things can hurt us.  

For anyone who has experienced trauma or significant stressors, it can also act as a protective mechanism. They may believe that recognizing and even anticipating these sorts of negative events will protect them from being blindsided and experiencing the same pain that they experienced in the past. 

So is it really a problem to focus on negative events? In short, the answer is yes. By drawing your attention to the inconveniences and frustrations in your day, you are minimizing the good, maybe even wonderful things that happened. This can have a profound negative impact on your mood and overall well-being. 

By choosing to focus on the “Timbit incident” on the day before my wedding, I diminished all of the wonderful things that happened: the generous wedding present from my co-workers; the personalized outdoor sign; my self-care time, a nap and a manicure; and the time I spent with my family and friends at the rehearsal dinner. 

One of the both remarkable and sad things about life is that you can’t redo it. I’ll never live out “the day before my wedding” again. So by focusing on the one negative event that day, I took away something from myself that I can’t get back. 

If this resonates with you, you may be asking yourself “How can I start to shift my focus to the positive experiences?” My favourite technique is gratitude journaling. Any format can be used, but I chose GLAD. Every evening before I go to bed, I write down at least one item for each of the following categories: Grateful for; Learned; Accomplished, and Delighted in.

I also incorporate gratitude practice into a group that I facilitate in my workplace. Over the past year, I’ve noted a few interesting things about this activity. 

The first is that, with practice, people can often identify what they are grateful for more quickly on a “bad” day. This can be very helpful to reframe difficult times. 

The second is that people often become so accustomed to looking for small gratitudes and accomplishments that they don’t acknowledge the larger ones. For example, a client may mention that they finished their creative arts project instead of mentioning that they graduated from the program. I consider small celebrations to be a good thing because it’s not every day that we win a gold medal or climb a mountain. 

The third observation is that it can be helpful to practice gratitude in pairs or groups. It’s often easier to start by acknowledging the positive about someone else, especially for people who struggle with self-esteem and self-compassion. 

Give gratitude a try.

 See what it will do for you.

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Caitlin LuuVanHiem is an occupation therapist with Homewood Health Centre’s Traumatic Stress Injury and Concurrent Program.

The “Open Mind” column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health, reducing stigma and providing information about resources that can help. For local mental health resources/information, visit or call 1-844-HERE247.

Caitlin LuuVanHiem