Tag Archives: journaling

The psychology behind journaling

”I am the subject I know best.” -Frida Kahlo
From a scientific standpoint, there is surprising evidence that supports cognitive, emotional, and even physical benefits from journaling. Psychologist and expressive writing expert, Dr. James Pennebaker conducted numerous studies that concluded journaling can actually strengthen immunity, decrease blood pressure, reduce stress,  diminish anxiety, lower depression, facilitate sleeping habits, and even accelerate the body’s ability to heal wounds. Also see my post on mindful writing.

There are even more benefits to the daily practice of journaling. Dr. Maud Purcell, psychotherapist and expert on journaling, concluded that writing accesses the left hemisphere of the brain, which is analytical and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to do what it does best, i.e. create, intuit and feel. In this way, writing removes mental blocks and allows us to use more of our inherent brainpower to better understand ourselves and the world around us. In short, journaling is intrinsically linked to the psychological process, allowing for greater insight and understanding of our self. Done on a daily basis, it clears the way for the day.

Restorative writing and mental health

As a psychologist and writer, I believe writing aids us in understanding life’s challenges, and that through practice, we become better writers. When we translate painful or confusing events from the unspoken into written language, we alter our perceptions and fundamentally make the experience graspable. You can heal the body by connecting to the mind using writing as a restorative tool.

Natalie Goldberg, author and writing guru wrote, in her books about writing:
“Write about what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

It took several losses for me to finally “split open” and comprehend what life, at least my life, was about.  Writing was a pathway, and part of my clinical strategy in my work as a mental health professional, that I call stones across the river. The river being the rapids of life. Many of my patients have experienced relief from writing their experiences in a journal or computer, between our sessions.

Writing Shines a Light Into the Abyss
The subconscious mind can be a dark source of paralyzing nightmares, intrusive thoughts, worries, and unhealed trauma. This stockpiled stress allows illness to infiltrate cells and psyche, through the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, and unhealthy habits such as self-medicating, insomnia, and poor nutrition. 

Think of writing your truth, whether it be grief, loss, fear, illness, or heartbreak, as though you are shining a light into abyss. Once this light is shone, the dark places tend to wither, and sooner or later their influence over you starts to wane.

Through Writing, I Created My Own Shaman
Many people who write create characters or experiences from deep in the subconscious mind psychologically. Writing accesses a place that you may not be able to speak about as easily.

Writing as a Mindfulness Technique
Cambridge University, Department of Psychology recently posted interesting research about individuals who were asked to engage in expressive writing for 15-minutes a day, without downplaying their emotions. The research found that people who weren’t shy about expressing the difficult emotions they experienced in their writing had better physical and mental health than those who wrote on neutral topics. One benefit of writing is that it helps you concentrate on one thing and free your mind from other stuff that bothers you and can overcrowd your brain. Practicing writing every day will help you understand your actions and behaviors better, but will also help relieve anxiety.

Clearing Space in Your Head
Sometimes thoughts, feelings, and emotions overfill our minds, creating traffic jams and bringing anxiety. What your mind needs at this point is a tool, like a traffic light, to bring some consistency and structure to your thoughts and emotions. Writing can serve that function.

Anxiety Toolkit

1.  Mindfulness Exercise
Start by taking a few deep breaths … breathing in through your nose … and then out through your mouth … in through your nose … and then out through your mouth. Then, while you continue to do so, gradually try to make yourself aware of:

  • 5 Things You Can See:  For example, the table in front of you, the nice painting on the wall, the fridge magnet that your daughter made, the clear blue sky outside, and the leafy green tree across the road.
  • 4 Things You Can Feel:  Once you’ve gotten in touch with five things you can see, then – while you continue breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth – try to bring awareness to four things you can feel. For example, the chair that’s holding up your weight, your dress against your legs, the soft carpet beneath your feet, or a loose strand of hair brushing against your face.
  • 3 Things You Can Hear:  Next, bring awareness to three things you can hear. For example, the ticking of a clock, a bird chirping outside, or the sound of your children playing in their bedroom.
  • 2 Things You Can Smell:  Then, try to get in touch with two things you can smell. If you try but don’t find yourself able to smell anything, then try to summon up your two favorite smells. For example, the scent of freshly cut grass, or the aroma of a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
  • 1 Emotion You Can Feel:  Lastly, be mindful of one emotion you can feel.

Put all together, this 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise is really helpful for when you’re trapped in the “depression fog” and sinking deeper and deeper. It does this by getting you out of your head and in touch with your surroundings – thereby creating some separation between you and your racing thoughts and thus calming you down. Not only that, but it can be used as a preventative exercise too, for the purpose of helping you relax a little bit before something difficult – such as a job interview you’re really nervous about, or meeting someone who’s capable of triggering your depression or anxiety.

2.  Grounding Exercise with Picture Frames
If you find yourself somewhere, where you cannot do a full mindfulness exercise, this is a strategy that works almost anywhere. Find a picture on the wall, or any rectangular framed objects, such as a mirror. In school, and office, classroom, or home, you will usually be able to find something. Walk over to the framed picture. Look at the framed object, and note  the four corners.  While breathing in through your nose slowly, and out through your mouth slowly, mentally count the four corners of the picture. Keep repeating until you find yourself feeling calmer.

3.  Give yourself a timeout
When you’re trapped in the “depression fog”, it’s extremely helpful if you can calm yourself down and put a stop to your racing thoughts. As an alternative to a grounding exercise, another effective way of achieving this is through relaxing self-care practices – for example, by going for a walk, getting lost in your favorite video game, playing with your dog, taking a hot bubble bath, listening to your favorite playlist, reading a good book, watching your favorite series on Netflix, or doing anything else that mellows you out.

4.  Journaling
When you feel yourself suffocated by negative thoughts, worry, fear, or any other difficult emotions associated with “depression fog”, then another way of dealing with them is to try to “release” them. This is not only extremely cathartic – and therefore likely to calm you down – but also, when you have a healthy way to release your pent-up emotions, you’re also able to distance yourself from them, which makes it much easier for you to be able to gain clarity over those thoughts and be able to work through them.

A great way to do this is by journaling. Start with a pen and a blank piece of paper, take a few deep breaths, and then, just write what you feel (you could type your thoughts up on a computer as well, but using a pen and paper is generally recommended since it doesn’t come with distractions like Facebook and your email). Like I said, the process of writing down your thoughts is likely to relax you a little bit, and by “getting them out there” instead of keeping them trapped inside your head, you’ll find it easier to sort them out and gain some control over them.

Write down your thoughts without editing. It’s been shown to be very cathartic.

5.  Talk to an emotion buddy or coach
Just like journalling, talking to someone who you feel comfortable with and trust can also be really cathartic when you’re experiencing “depression fog”. Not only that, but someone you’re close with can also give you a new perspective on the thoughts or the situation that you’re struggling with. This can be particularly helpful, because when you’re in the midst of “depression fog”, your perspective is often negatively distorted, so talking with someone can often result in you seeing things in a more positive or less catastrophic light.  Find one or two trusted people you can talk to in times of trouble.

Embolden Psychology
Embolden

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Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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