I’ve been an advocate of the healing power of journaling since my early days as a nurse, working in a critical care environment. Looking back it was a very forward thinking environment in that we were being introduced to the journaling at around the same time as American social psychologist Dr James W. Pennebaker, published the findings of his landmark 1988 study.
The study is outlined in his insightful book “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion” (1).
Essentially, students participating in Pennebaker’s study were randomly assigned to write about either traumatic experiences or superficial topics for four consecutive days. The findings showed that specifically journaling about traumatic experiences had the most measurable positive impact on overall well-being, when compared to journaling about everyday experiences.
For me journaling was a way of reflecting on and organising my thoughts, helping me to regroup and recover from days that were emotionally and physically draining, sometimes emotionally traumatic. The process allowed me to make sense of everything and to identify and acknowledge the emotions that I was experiencing. So, how can journaling help you?
You Don’t Need to Write Well to Write a Personal Journal
It’s always helped that I like to write, but I don’t have any expectations of writing eloquently or poetically when journaling. When I first started journaling, I didn’t even have a specific notebook to write in. I would write on any piece of blank paper that came to hand and afterwards I would shred or burn my written thoughts as a way of letting go of them.
Journaling Can Help Chronic Pain
One of the areas where I work a lot with people is coaching for chronic pain management. It’s an area that I’m particularly interested in, initially starting to channel my ‘inner journalista’ to help with pain and anxiety when I seriously injured my back. Sometimes I could barely lift pen or pencil to paper, and sometimes I wrote only seemingly disconnected words. I confess that sometimes my words were also littered with profanity as I struggled to come to terms with what was happening to me.
But you know what? It helped me big time when it came to managing my pain and anxiety!
How Can Writing a Journal Help With Chronic Pain?
It’s a fair question. Just how can writing and journaling help to ease pain, especially chronic pain?
When I recently came across an article ‘Writing & Journaling to Help Manage Chronic Pain’ by David Hanscom, M.D. (2), he talks about not being in pain essentially being a basic human need for everyone. His words completely resonated with me and prompted me to read on.
I recognised myself from the article as he went on to talk about how pain elicits an anxiety response, but when pain isn’t resolved the subsequent response is anger and how when experiencing chronic pain, frustration and anger can rise to very high levels. He uses a term ‘The Abyss’ which is anxiety x anger x time, and I can’t think of a more authentic way of describing chronic pain. Sometimes it feels as though you are peering right into the proverbial abyss when pain is your constant unwanted companion.
What I did realise when I started to journal to manage my chronic pain was that it was helping to increase my resilience and importantly shifting my mindset to one that was more positive and forward looking.
In a previous article on Linked In I mentioned how there’s now strong evidence that neuroplasticity plays a significant part in how we respond to pain. With long term chronic pain in particular, the brain and central nervous system become ‘hyper sensitive’ to pain, as a result of the brain creating new neurons and neurological ‘pathways’ in response to that pain.
The ‘pathways’ are permanent but it doesn’t mean they can’t be bypassed with new neurons and neurological pathways that help to make our response to pain more positive.
My Healing Journal
Perhaps the easiest example I can give is that of my own experience. Why do I make it personal? As a coach I want to be empathic and allow you to recognise that I know what you’re experiencing is unique to you but that you aren’t alone. As a pain coach, a nurse and someone with chronic pain I understand and continue to learn how we can re-train our brains to manage pain.
When my neurologist confirmed the level of damage to my back and key nerves she was unequivocal about there being only about a 5% chance of recovery and to prepare myself for being ‘disabled’. Not surprisingly when I left the clinic I burst into tears as the full weight of what she had said hit me.
What I did next was the key to how I managed to recover so well. I wrote everything down including my fears, my frustration, and my anger over what had happened, and gave myself permission to acknowledge that my life had changed beyond belief. The ‘old me’ was gone!
Rather than throw my journaling efforts in the shredder, I went back to my scribblings about a day later and wrote down:
- What I believed I could control and what was out of my control
- What I could do right then and what I could aim to do in the future
- What I was grateful for allowing me to let go of my anger and thus immediately reducing my anxiety.
- Who my ‘tribe’ were – the people who could and would help me on my healing journey
- That whilst the ‘old me’ was gone, a ‘new me’ was possible
- That I chose to move forward and look forward in small steps that would lead to big results.
That was the start of many journaling exercises, and at the end of that first one, I realised why I had always gone back to writing things down in moments of high stress. My mind felt clear, calm and ready to focus on my future.
How to Start Journaling
It’s easy to do and inexpensive. Whilst journaling forms only part of the healing journey, you can start with basic pen and paper or find a digital app to scribble down your words. Whatever suits you, it’s more productive than ‘drowning your sorrows’ in a solitary glass of wine or snaffling a family size bar of chocolate. So, instead of ‘crashing with a glass of wine’, find a comfy spot and start writing.
You can do it virtually anywhere – no need to find an expensive space to write down your thoughts
With all that in mind what’s stopping you from journaling, nothing? Then let’s get started by sharing with you how to start journaling for healing, particularly when it comes to working through burn out or managing chronic pain and fatigue:
You Don’t Need to Journal Every Day
Lots of people write a daily gratitude journal, or write a couple of pages every day, but it actually isn’t necessary or compulsory. It can also potentially be counterproductive.
You want to be able to express your feelings, identify them and make sense of your chronic pain, and it’s about it being part of your new habits. Yes, journal regularly when you feel the need, but equally don’t feel that you have to force things by having to do it every day ‘just because’.
Using my own experience as a reference I have found that around 20 minutes to a half hour of free writing is really useful. It’s not so short that you feel that you haven’t ‘got everything out of your head’ and not so long that you start to dwell on things and change your own narrative. Sometimes it’s every day and sometimes only a couple of times a week.
Journal at a Time That Feels Right for You
It doesn’t matter when you journal but by making sense of things through journaling, there’s a sense of liberty in having got rid of cumbersome ‘luggage in your head’. I sometimes liken it to emptying out the kitchen bin last thing at night, which oddly enough I prefer to journal last thing at night or first thing in the morning!
One last thing I will say is that whilst journaling can bring benefit to many, it may not be for you so don’t feel forced to keep doing it if it doesn’t ever feel right. This is about finding healing habits that work for you.
How I can Help You:
During 2020 I’ll be launching a day retreat focusing on helping you to journal, and in particular use it effectively for chronic pain management, fatigue and burnout. To find out more and register your interest e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or subscribe to my newsletter to be the first to hear when dates are released.
If you would prefer to work 1-2-1 with me just e-mail me to book in a call to talk about how we can work together.
- “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion” Dr James W. Pennebaker
- Writing & Journaling to Help Manage Chronic Pain; David Hanscom, M.D. https://www.swedish.org/services/pain-services/pain-management-guide/writing-journaling
My Other Reading Recommendations:
- “Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain” by James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth
- “Your Body, Only Better” by Mark Baker (available from Possible Mind and other booksellers)