Everyone writes for a variety of reasons. Some people write to express themselves. Others write to make a living. Others write to tell stories that make a difference. And, to be fair, nobody has any one single reason they write, but, whatever the reason, I also believe that writing can help us get through the challenging times we face in our lives. The process of collecting one’s thoughts, and then physically putting them on paper, creates a therapeutic effect. Humans are, after all, a social bunch, and we weren’t meant to keep everything bottled up inside. Even if there is nobody else to listen, the act of writing means the person has done at least something to give those thoughts form, out into the open for better or worse.

Writing for the purposes of getting through the tough times in life can take many forms. For many people, it might be a diary or journal, which is often very personal and not meant for others to see. Other people might write a blog, where the writing is open and available for anyone to see. Still others resort to creative writing, whether it be fiction, poetry, or another form. As for the tough times themselves? Well, we all go through them, sooner or later, and when we inevitably do, it’s important to have healthy coping mechanisms available. Before speaking further, I need to point out that I’m not a licensed psychologist, and what I relate here is only proven true insofar that it has either worked for me, or I’ve observed it working for other people.

So when the tough times hit, first and foremost, I try to start with a “reality check”. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is an interesting and useful model, which examines an individual’s needs in an escalating order of priority. Is one’s physiological needs being met? These are the raw requirements for survival: air, food, water, clothing, shelter. If you can put a check on that box, remember you’re already a step ahead of many unfortunate individuals on this planet who lack basic necessities. Next in the list comes safety and security, which includes personal safety, health and well-being, as well as more indirect forms of security such as job and financial security. If you can place a check in that box, too, or even in portions of it, then you are stacking up pretty well. The third rung is love and belonging, or perhaps relationships, which can be broken into three types of relationships: family, friends, and intimacy. The fourth rung is esteem, which has two components: the first type of esteem comes from gaining the respect of others (external), and the second type of esteem comes from gaining respect for oneself (internal). The final rung is self-actualization, and since I—like most folks—spend plenty of time banging around on the first four rungs, I don’t fully understand this last step, but I consider that okay, because if I got there I expect Maslow would tell me I’m about to vanish in a puff of sparkly air. I save that sort of thing for the fantasy novels.

When it comes to a raw, logical reality check, I think many of us could walk through that hierarchy and find we are actually holding up pretty well. But when you are struggling through a rough spot in life – whether it is loss (of a family member, friend, loved one, job), heartache (ending of a relationship, rejection), psychological (depression, anxiety), etc. – a reality check based on pure logic is only helpful to a certain extent. Both the head and the heart must be in balance, and even if the head says everything is okay, the heart may not agree. And the heart is where it hurts the most, where it cuts the sharpest and drives the deepest.

But here’s the interesting thing about humans. We are, quite literally, hard-wired to survive. That’s why people in life-or-death situations find that their reaction times are quicker than they thought, their muscles stronger than they realized, their endurance more powerful than they ever expected. And when you are trying to cope with pain, even the psychological pain caused when the bastard called life throws you a curveball, your body is wired to defend against that, too. It releases little soldiers called endorphins, and they take on all that pain and kick it in the ass. This is one reason that exercise is one of the best coping mechanisms by far, because your body produces endorphins in spades when you are taking a run or laying into the bench press. And this is where writing can be helpful, too, because when you accumulate everything that matters to you and put it on a page, whether it be in a direct format such as a journal, or (in my case) a more indirect form such as a story, it’s a way to clear your mind and put everything on the table. Heck, the writing is often better when there is a little pain to accompany it, because how better to put a little wallop into your story than to take raw emotion and craft a scene around it? It makes the scene come to life in vivid detail, and if you communicate it right, the reader will feel it too, and they’ll be blown away.

And if all else fails, remember this. Anyone can be at their best when things are going well. When the class in school is easy, a good grade is no problem. When everything goes right at the day job, there’s no struggle. When both partners in a relationship are happy, things are rosy. It’s when things don’t go right that we have a chance to define ourselves. We are defined more by how we handle and respond to our failures than by how we relax in the comfort of our successes. It’s when we fail that we have a chance to show what we are made of, to pick ourselves up from the ground, wipe the blood from our chin, and get back into the ring. And that is where we will stand tall, being who we need to be and doing what we have to do, and maybe – just maybe – that’s Maslow’s fifth rung.

Just don’t vanish in a puff of sparkly air. That would be weird.

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