Journaling Can Reduce the Impact of Trauma and Stress

JournalingIt doesn’t surprise anyone in my life when I pull out a pen and notebook. I write everything down. I love books with blank pages, beautiful paper, and pens that are comfortable in my hand and are nicely balanced. I hand write. A lot.

In particular, journaling has been a part of my life ever since I could remember. I write about the good, the bad and the ugly of my life. In many ways, my life is recorded in thousands and thousands of words. I do it because it is good for me. The research says so. That’s why, in my practice, I recommend journaling to a lot of my clients.

Why?

Because writing, even about difficult and traumatic experiences, is good for your health, your emotional well-being and for improving life functioning in general. It improves mood, objective and subjective health, and the ability to function well in an otherwise very stressful world.

Here’s what the research says.

1) A 1988 study done by psychologist Dr. James W. Pennebaker and his colleagues have proved the value of deep personal disclosure that comes with journaling. The study involved 50 undergraduates who were instructed to write about either their traumatic experiences or superficial topics for four days in a row. After six weeks, the students in the trauma group reported more positive mood and fewer illnesses than those writing about everyday experiences. They reported fewer visits to the student health center and reported that confronting their trauma was physically and psychologically beneficial.

2) In a follow-up study, Pennebaker and his research group categorized 60 Holocaust survivors as low, midlevel or high disclosure while being interviewed. Those who disclosed at high or midlevel disclosures were significantly healthier a year later when compared to low disclosures.

3) In 1994, an outplacement firm (Drake Beam Morin) followed 63 professionals who had been laid off from their jobs over an eight-month period. The experimental group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the layoff and about how their professional and personal lives had been affected. They were instructed to write for five consecutive days for 30 minutes at a time while researchers tracked their employment status. Those who wrote about losing their job were much more likely to find a new one in the months following the study.

4) Joshua Smyth and Arthur Stone extended the research to medical patients who suffered from asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. They were instructed to write about the most stressful event of their lives or about a neutral topic. Four months later, patients with asthma showed improvements in lung function while arthritis patients showed a reduction in the severity of their disease. A total of 47% of patients who disclosed stressful events show marked physical improvement.

What does this all mean?

Writing works.

Writing is easy, inexpensive and independent. It is a simple way to be resilient in the face of stress and disease. It is worth the time and effort to disclose your innermost thoughts and feelings because it is good for your health and your psychological well-being.

I encourage journaling for three main reasons.

1. Journaling reduces mental scatter and increases focus.

Difficult life events can create a scatter-brained experience like no other. Thoughts become overwhelming and can race out of control. You can become bombarded with everything that needs to get done, that you didn’t get done, and everything in between; leading to no rhyme or reason. Everything becomes tangled together in one big mess.

Writing it down can help to sort things out and keep you focused and grounded in processing one thing at a time and in a thorough manner.

Journaling assists in holding thoughts still so they can be changed and integrated.

Many times, I have clients complain about how frustrating it is for them to hang on to their thoughts while in the grip of crisis or emotional upheaval. During these times, thoughts can be powerful, fleeting and elusive – like hanging on to water with a tight fist. When thoughts move quickly, they are only processed on the surface – at the place of physiological experience and emotions.

Writing helps to hold thoughts still long enough to examine them on a deeper level where change becomes possible.

2. Journaling releases pent-up thoughts and emotions.

It can be tempting to hold everything in. Some do it because they feel, if they start, they may never be able to stop. Others, because it is just plain overwhelming and hard. It’s easier to avoid and not deal with difficult stuff.

But, it’s worse when you hold it all in. Those who hang on their emotions – holding them in, skimming over them, minimizing them – tend to build up a reservoir of unresolved issues. Eventually, the reservoir becomes too small, explodes and spills out in a big mess.

Writing helps to process things as they happen…as you have time. The alternative is to not address things and eventually, your issues will force you to take the time. Eventually, your body will say “no” in whatever way it can to make you hear and stop.

Writing can be like a valve that releases the pressure to keep things manageable.

And, most importantly….

3. Journaling allows you to re-experience the past with today’s adult mind.

When a trauma happened in your childhood, it gets coded at that age. This is why sometimes, when someone gets triggered, they tend to become that age again. For example, if you were abused as a six-year-old, as an adult, when this memory gets triggered, you become that six-year-old – behaving, thinking and feeling the emotions of your six-year-old self. As a consequence, you use the strategies that worked for you as a child, but which are unhelpful in your adult life because you have other options available to you as a response.

In essence, you have a child driving the bus. And, they can’t even see out over the steering wheel.

The goal of trauma work and therapy is to help you process your trauma so it “grows” up from childhood to adult ways of thinking and behaving in relation to the trauma. Journaling, like therapy, helps you process the disturbing event to it’s logical, healthy and most helpful resolution.

The 3 most popular objections to journaling.

“I don’t have enough time.”

My short answer to this: you don’t have the time not to. Like I said earlier if you don’t make the time, your body and your emotions will do something drastic to force you to make the time.

Journaling does not require a lot of time and you don’t have to do it every day. You do, however, need to have the courage to do it consistently.

Everything worth doing takes time and effort.

“I’m not a writer.”

You don’t have to be a writer. And, you don’t have to write in full paragraphs or even in complete sentences. Write in bullet form. Draw with words and quotes. Just get your feelings down and process your experience. There is no word or page quota. Do enough to keep your life moving forward.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What happened?
  • How did you feel when it was happening? After? Now?
  • How do you wish it had been different?
  • In what ways did you manage the situation well?
  • What did you learn about yourself as you look back on your experience?
  • How can these new learnings move your life forward?
  • Where do you want to go from here?
  • What are your hopes for yourself and your life moving forward?
  • If the crisis/trauma could speak, what would it want for your life?
  • Is what the trauma wants for you the same as what you want for you…your life?
  • As an adult, how can you see or think about your trauma in a different way?

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop.”

Trauma and crisis can be overwhelming sometimes. So overwhelming it can derail you if you spend too much time thinking and writing about it. This is when you may need some additional support to get past the initial overwhelm. Therapy can be helpful in these situations to move you from overwhelm to managing while you process. Therapy can be a place where you learn self-soothing and coping skills you can apply to all areas of your life. There is also great power in having someone else non-judgmentally bear witness to your story, help you give language to your experience (naming things can be powerful) and guiding you through the process of overcoming your past.

So grab a pen (pencil, marker, crayon…), set the timer and choose an event.

Calm out of chaos.

It is (as Martha would say) a very good thing.

Research

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion. New York: Guilford Press.

Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 56, pp. 239-245.

Smyth, J. M., Stone, A. A., Hurewitz, A., & Kaell, A. (1999). Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 281, pp. 1304-9.

Spera, S. P., Buhrfeind, E. D. & J.W. Pennebaker, (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 37, pp. 722-733.

Journaling not quite helping you to move in the direction you would like? Therapy (EMDR therapy in particular) can get you moving faster and with the support you need. Ready to have your six-year-old ride in the back where they belong? Give me a call at 610-551-8203 for a free 30-minute phone or in-office consult to see how we can make that happen.

What Do You Really, Really Want?

my resolution - napkin conceptI’ll tell you want I want; what I really, really want!

Wait! Why are the Spice Girls coming to mind?

Before I forget, Happy New Year everyone!

The New Year is an important marker in many people’s lives. It marks the end as well as, and more importantly in my mind, the beginning of exciting possibilities. The vision of the future is bright and we have plans (damn it!) of all the wonderful things we want to accomplish and see in our lives. Because we are creatures of ritual, many of us have been spending days, if not weeks, writing and fine-tuning our New Year’s Resolutions.

Honestly, I hate New Year’s resolutions. I have spent many years making resolutions; starting strong, succeeding in accomplishing some and others that have fizzled out. My experiences with resolutions have been one of frustration (regardless of whether I accomplished my goals or not), futility and just downright disappointment. In particular, the fizzle out factor was high when I was not emotionally connected to my goals. No passion; no success.

Eventually, I realized, I was doing the whole resolution thing wrong! I was actually setting goals and not making resolutions.

Yup. There’s a difference.

I could give you a formal definition of the words “resolution” and “goal” but, I would sound unnecessarily serious-like. For all intents and purposes, a resolution is a decision to do something, be it more different, less, or new. It is about deciding the direction we would like to go. It is an intention. A goal, on the other hand, is the activity which (once completed) will help us realize and manifest our intention.

I love the subtle nuances of language!

In other words, a resolution is a mental state as opposed to the result of an activity. It is, ultimately, what drives not only our goals, but every choice we make. It is what motivates us. I truly truly believe that once we know what motivates us, energizes us, helps us to feel connected to our authentic selves, and helps us to feel consistent with our values, everything else falls into place.

So, I did things a little differently this year. I focused on what motivates and drives what I do – my feelings. I drilled down under my goals to the core of what I want to feel and got to the foundation from which to do everything else. At the end of the process, I realized I had honed in on how I want to feel this year at the core of who I am. I truly believe that the same holds for everyone – each individual is driven by how they want to feel.

I eat because I want to feel satiated and comfortable.
I spend time with my family and friends because I want to feel connected.
I became an entrepreneur because I want to feel creative and generative.
I share resources and information with others because I want to feel generous and expansive.
I strive for my financial goals because I want to feel secure.

Underneath it all, it is fundamentally about how I want to feel. Drilling down under my goals, I found treasure!

The beauty of this perspective is that core intentions, once you figure them out, never change – they are foundational. However, the ways in which an intention gets expressed is limitless. It’s also a great way for those with ADHD to set their goals because we are so driven by our feelings and our energy levels. The less energy we have, the more prone we are to distraction and procrastination. And, don’t get me started on what might happen if we’re not feeling so great physically and/or emotionally; it’s game over!

Brilliant, right? I thought so too. Then I went to my research assistant – Google.

I discovered Danielle LaPorte’s book “Desire Map”. I would like to say I hate the woman because she retroactively stole my great idea but, she is a Canadian. Seriously, how can you hate a Canadian?

I have not read “Desire Map” as of yet, but it will be arriving on my doorstep courtesy of Amazon any day now. I’ll keep you updated and maybe do a review.
In the meantime, head over to her website and check out the first chapter of her book. (And, no, I am not an affiliate member for Danielle and am not receiving compensation in any way.) Scroll down and almost to the bottom and click on the left hand corner of the large image for the book where it says “Sneak Peak”. You will then have access to the first full chapter. Frankly, this seems like enough to get you started in a serious way. The last few pages list feeling words if you need help with generating them.

The process of working through your resolutions in this way has several benefits:

1. It forces you to language what deeply satisfies you. Often, we experience a feeling or sense of something which cannot be articulated because we have no language for it.

2. It brings clarity about what matters to you and what you value.

3. Once you know and can clearly articulate what is deeply satisfying to you, you can make more conscious and intentional choices about what activities will get you there.

4. Difficult, cumbersome, tedious, overwhelming but, necessary tasks take on a different shape and become energizing as opposed to draining. For example, financial planning is now a pleasure for me because it has moved from being something I hate to do to something which I do because it results in the experience of several of my core feelings. If you know something will benefit you on a deeper level than just getting it done, you have more energy to stick with it and get it done.

5. It allows you to course correct; changing, tweaking or even abandoning a goal if you realize it will not get you what you want to feel. Without the guilt or the feeling that you have failed in your bid to be an adult!

6. It encourages and invites you to ask different questions. Is what I want to accomplish going to bring me these feelings? What can I do today to feel one or more of my core desired feelings? What do I want to feel more of today? What can I do about those activities that take me away from my core desired feelings?

So, what did I come up with as my core desired feelings?

Core Desired Feeling

1. Generous abundance

2. Authentic connection

3. Passionate femininity

4. Purposeful focus

5. Graceful strength

6. Daring creativity

(Note: I described my desired core feelings with two words because I’m just a stickler for specificity when it comes to language.)

These feel good to me. They resonate with who I am as an individual. Collectively, this is the mental state I would like to sustain. These feelings are what drive me and my choices in positive and productive ways. They are energizing!

I am probably not alone in the experience of it being much easier to accomplish a highly defined and quantified goal when I feel good. I find goals alone pedantic, hard task-masters and rigid. As such, I experience them as soul sucking and exhausting. In my opinion, these are not the feelings that drive both a successful and satisfying life. Success comes when we accomplish things. However, success and satisfaction are not mutual propositions. Those instances where I have felt both success and satisfaction have been because they connected at a deeper level.

In terms of the original definitions of resolution and goal at the beginning of this post, my core desired mental and emotional states are my resolution. My intention is to feel in these particular ways. My goals are those things which, once accomplished, will result in the manifestation of my intentions; intentions then become a reality. (I could go into a long discussion of how, in this perspective, the intention and the goal, or destination, are the same while you define the path by which you would like to get there. But, I won’t ‘cause this post is already too long.)

Now that I have set a foundation, I feel free to write my goals for the year – or anytime for that matter.

On the first day of 2014, my status on my private Facebook page, read “Today feels shiny, new and exciting…full and pregnant with possibilities!”

(I do have a Facebook business page, by the way. Hint. Hint.)

Again, Happy New Year, everyone! May this year bring and be filled with treasure in all areas of your life!