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.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Rip van Winkle Syndrome...

Most of us have heard the story of Rip van Winkle, written in 1819 by the American author, Washington Irving. Mr van Winkle was an amiable but somewhat idle and hen-pecked farmer who, one autumn day, walked off into the Catskills Mountains. There he met a group of strangely-dressed men who offered to share their liquor with him. He drank and fell into a deep sleep. Upon awakening, he found that he'd slept for twenty years and that everything had changed. His wife had died, his friends had moved away or gone to war and the Revolutionary War had changed his land from a British territory to a Republic. Nothing was the same ...

This week I facilitated a conversation among an informal group of bereaved family caregivers, each of whom had cared for a seriously ill loved one for many years. I shared with them that while I had recovered from most of the long term effects of caring for my husband, there persisted a large void in my life - the void of all the information I had missed while I was focused on his care and on the quality of our lives together. I said that I felt like Rip van Winkle waking from his long sleep. Around the table, heads nodded immediately in recognition and understanding and we began to share with each other the things we had missed.

For many, especially those who had cared for a long time for people with 24/7 needs, much had gone by the wayside - news events, births and deaths of famous people and institutions, scientific discoveries, technology - especially technology. What is a plasma TV, and a Blue Tooth, and how does one use Power Point? What is a Facebook or a Twitter or a tweet or a text? How does one take pictures with a cell phone? Heck, how does one use a cell phone?

Like old Rip van Winkle, we had returned to a world that had changed, only ours had changed exponentially. Many felt insecure, anxious and embarrassed at their lack of knowledge. It was hard enough to deal with the new rules and roles that accompanied the non-caregiving life let alone to return to a world that felt so unfamiliar. Many still suffered from the slow thinking, poor concentration and forgetfulness that can accompany the normal grief and posttraumatic stress of caregiving and felt overwhelmed at the thought of having to learn so much, so quickly.

But the truth is that we don't have to learn so much, so quickly. We can have patience with ourselves and remember that others have absorbed this information over years. We don't have to know it all at once. We can make a list of the things that will actually have an impact on our lives in the short term, prioritize that list, and then begin taking baby steps toward learning the things we need to know.

We can also let others know what we don't know and ask for their patience and their help. Nothing dispels shame and embarrassment more quickly that sharing our human truths. It's only when we feel a need to keep our "flaws" a secret that they have power over us. (After all, Mr van Winkle went to find help from his daughter who took him in in spite of his long absence and they lived happily ever after.)

Photo by Bigstock Photos

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Back to Work ...

I'm back from the sunnier and much warmer climes of Santa Barbara, California, relaxed, freckled and looking forward to this week's Compassion Fatigue Workshop with 100 BC Home Care Rehabilitation Professionals at Shadboldt Center in Burnaby, BC.

My time off was a wonderful opportunity to rest, to eat warm, juicy oranges fresh from the trees, to enjoy early morning latte's and good books at Jeannine's, to walk the colourful "aisles" of the farmers markets and to have a good "tune-up" with my incredibly skilled and intuitive mind-body therapists.

Today, Mother's Day, I'm planting rainbow chard and mesclun seeds in the garden, fertilizing the roses and preparing stakes for planting the sweet peas later next week. (Thanks, Mom, for planting the gardening seed in my heart at such an early age.) Later this afternoon, I'll drive up the Valley for dinner with dear friends. As I reflect upon my return to work after all these nurturing activities, I am grateful to see that the burnout that accompanied my Compassion Fatigue six or seven years ago has lifted and that, as a friend said yesterday, I'm "back again".

Recently, I reread notes I'd taken from the recording of a talk by CF researcher, therapist and author, Eric Gentry, where he spoke about how altering our perceptions regarding work can make us more resilient to the burnout that almost always accompanies CF. With his permission, I'd like to share his thoughts with you:

There are 3 maxims that can help us to change our perceptions about work:

1. The outcome of our work is none of our business.

None of us is powerful enough to control the outcome of our work. Our job is to focus on taking right action in our work as best we can and then to let go of the results.

2. We are not "entitled" to anything just because we are caregivers.

As caregivers, the more burned out we are, the greater our sense of entitlement seems to be. Because we work so hard, we begin to believe that our workplace "owes" us. One of the ways that we can become more resilient, is to start to recognize that our workplace doesn't owe us anything other than our wages and safe working conditions. We need to replace this entitlement idea with the notion that our workplace is the place where we get to go to do our mission, to practice our purpose in life. The only reason for any of us to be in the caregiving field is because we have a mission to be there. The extrinsic rewards are so few and far between in this field, that it doesn't make sense that you would be there for any other reason.

3. Your workplace is always going to demand more from you than you can give and it will never be satisfied with what you do give.

Your resilience will grow if, understanding this maxim, you stop struggling to provide everything that's demanded and know that your job is only to go to your workplace, hang on to your mission, hang on to your principles, do the best job you can and continue to stay self-validated while practicing your principles.

I think these 3 maxims are important ideas for all of us to consider as we "return to our mission" this week and seek wellness and resilience in our workplaces.