Many people think that going to therapy requires only one hour per week, but much of the work of therapy happens between sessions.

One way to facilitate the processing of therapeutic material between sessions is to take up a free association practice. In her book “The Artist’s Way,” Julia Cameron describes a free association practice that she calls “Morning Pages.” This activity involves grabbing a pen and paper as soon as you wake up and writing down whatever words come into your mind without stopping until you fill up three pages. Making this free association activity a daily habit can serve multiple purposes, including:

Providing insight into suppressed feelings and urges

Our thoughts and feelings have unbridled reign during our sleeping hours, so our dreams can offer deep insight into our unconscious drives and motivations. Writing down what we are thinking or feeling as soon as we wake up from the intensity of these dreams can provide valuable material to process in therapy.

I often encourage free association exercises and/or dream journaling to my clients who say they feel “stuck,” “numb,” or “emotionless” a majority of the time. They often find that free association can unlock doors to deeper issues that they may not have been unconsciously avoiding while awake.

Providing catharsis/psychological release

Sometimes we experience trauma that is so severe that our internal defenses cause our mind to split and bury the event and the associated pain deep into our minds. In his seminal work on PTSD, psychologist Bessel Van Der Kolk explains that our bodies store traumatic memories differently than typical memories and that often these memories manifest in our dreams. Van der Kolk, B.A., (2014). The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.

Dreams provide a physically safe medium in which we can re-experience our trauma, in an attempt to ultimately heal from it. Free association upon waking from these dreams can make us aware of the trauma-associated feelings that require our attention and care in order for healing to happen.

Stimulating the imagination and opening up possibilities for new creative projects

Humans are creative beings, but often our creative process can get blocked with myriad anxieties, fears, self-destructive habits, or hopeless apathy. A free association practice can be the “Drain-O” to unblock the clogs in our psyche and release the energy needed to create a meaningful life for ourselves.

Going back and reading through a week’s worth of free association pages can spur ideas for new artistic endeavors, newly discovered values that may prompt a career change, or deep desires that encourage new levels of intimacy in your relationships.

In short, free association is a valuable self-discovery tool that can make your process in therapy that much richer. If three pages every morning sounds like too much, you can tailor the activity to suit your individual needs and goals. The important thing is to allow yourself to write whatever comes into your head – no matter how silly or strange the idea might seem.

About the Author

Remi Bean is an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor whose training and experience has focused on trauma-informed care for the LGBTQ population — particularly transgender and non-binary individuals of all ages.

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