Monday, May 24, 2010

Healing Through Journalling...

Research in the health care community confirms a truth known in the hearts and minds of most journal writers - the truth that journalling, or reflective writing, is a powerful tool for healing and for building resilience.

How many of you are, like me, lifelong journal writers? How many of you have seen the studies beginning to confirm the truth that writing heals?

Studies in the 1980's showed that expressive writing caused positive physiological changes that correlate to increased immune system functioning and those in 1999 indicated that writing about stressful life experiences improves physician ratings of disease severity in chronically ill patients. And these changes were shown to last for months.

Clearly, writing does heal but how does it heal? Dr James Pennebaker, research psychologist and the author of the earlier studies, says that reflective writing heals by releasing our psychological state of inhibition. ie When we hold things back, or in, rather than giving them expression, it is hard physiological work.

Active inhibition means that people must consciously restrain, hold back, or in some way exert effort to not think, feel or behave. However, actively writing about emotionally difficult experiences offers welcome physiological and psychological release, and the biological stress of inhibition is immediately reduced.

Quoting Pennebaker, journalling therapist, Kathleen Adams, MA, adds that:

Additionally, giving form to difficult emotional experiences through words and language offers a context and a container. Understanding, insight and meaning all begin with naming and describing - with telling ourselves the truth about what we have experienced, and how we feel about it.

Adams goes on to give 10 reasons why journal writing is such a powerful ally in healing:

1. Immediacy & availability. A journal is available whenever you need it - at 3am when you can't sleep, during your break time at work, waiting in your doctor's waiting room, or when no one in your support system is home.

2. Catharsis & insight. The important work of healing often brings with it a host of normal but difficult feelings - anger, fear, despair, frustration. Your journal absorbs these feelings without judgment, censure or reprisal.

3. Unconditional acceptance and silent friend. As one journal keeper said, "My journal has become the archetypal friend. I have used and abused it more than any person would have tolerated. But it was always there waiting for me, totally accepting, totally present. I could ignore it, discount its value, and it never took offense. I never had to start over. I never had to apologize. What a blessed gift!"

4. Observe health-enhancing cycles and patterns. Our habitual behaviours either promote wellness or contribute to discomfort and disease. Observing behaviours through charts, logs or reflections offers valuable data that can be used to maximize wellness.

5. Get to know different parts of yourself. Learning to listen to and communicate with your Self is one of the great gifts of journalkeeping.

6. Strengthen intuition & inner guidance. It is simply amazing how much wisdom we hold within us, and how reliably we can access it just by turning inward, asking sincere questions, listening, and writing down what we hear.

7. Expand creativity. Once initial discomfort and resistance to writing is overcome, nearly every journal keeper finds that writing can be a reassuring, nurturing, safe creative outlet for thoughts and feelings. This increased flexibility with the creative process often leads to spontaneous brainstorming of options and choices for wellness.

8. Self-empowerment and self-esteem. Journal writing encourages self-reliance and self-responsibility. The healing journey is literally mapped out, one page at a time, and the accumulation of life experience and wisdom adds up to the recognition that we are, in fact, the predominant creative forces in our own lives.

9. Release past hurts & judgments. Holding on to the past is a surefire energy drain. Resentment, guilt, blame and bottled-up grief block access to the Healer Within. The safe container of your journal receives it all, filling up and becoming more in the process, and prepares you to release old wounds and extend forgiveness to yourself and others.

10. Witness to healing. The journal provides an ongoing record of the healing journey. Months and years down the road, you can look at past volumes to assure yourself that you are making progress, that you do master wellness principles, that you can heal.

So, these are all good reasons to consider starting a journalling practice. There is one caveat I would like to mention as well, though. And that is this - not every journalling exercise is appropriate for everyone. Regardless the expressive therapy about which we speak, - journalling, art therapy, psychodrama etc, - people who have experienced Compassion Fatigue, Posttraumatic Stress or Chronic Sorrow do better to engage in more concrete, structured, quick and contained exercises first before moving on to looser, more fluid, more open ones.

In the case of journalling, this means starting with the completion of sentence stems or writing in short, timed bursts rather than beginning with the free writing exercises suggested in many journalling programs. Again, Kathleen Adams writes -

Small wonder they were having difficulties. Free writing is unboundaried, unstructured, open-ended, non-directed. When it is appropriately used, free writing can be a highly effective technique that offers clarity, insight, and intuitive connection. But it's not the technique of choice for either end of the posttraumatic stress continuum. In the hyperarousal part of the PTSD cycle, free writing feels uncontrolled and oceanic; on the numbing part of the cycle it feels flat and empty.

So, as always, do no harm. There is no point in retraumatizing ourselves in the name of healing.

If you are interested in learning more about journalling for healing, Kathleen Adams has written two excellent books, The Way of the Journal and The Write Way to Wellness. Or you can attend the second of the CF: Going Deeper Workshop Series - Journalling Back to Myself - which I will be offering in the New Year. (More information in the Fall.)

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