“You have been through a difficult and traumatizing divorce. When all was over, you felt a sense of relief besides exhaustion and some depression. Several months have passed and you continue to feel the lingering effects of having been through something very stressful. A friend of yours suggests you write about the experience of the divorce as a way of feeling better and putting the episode behind you. You do some investigating and discover that there is solid evidence to support friends’ suggestions.”
Were you among the many young people who kept a diary when you grew up? It’s probably something that more females did as compared to males. Research shows it’s something all of us can benefit from in our adulthood. Rather than a diary, it’s called a journal. Writing a journal can have therapeutic benefits and, perhaps, be a way to change one’s life story or narrative. Clinical Psychologist James Pennebaker, University of Texas, is the leading researcher using physical and mental health journaling. He has completed many controlled research studies documenting the benefits of writing daily. Many other researchers, such as Joshua Smith, Ph.D., and Lauren Smith, Ph.D., have further documented the benefits of writing.
Pam Trachta, owner of Through a Different Lens, a consulting business, reports that “When I journal, or when I teach others to, I strive not to be intellectual and logical and articulate, but to feel the wave, the energy behind an event and to summon images of what that wave feels like, acts like, what it’s saying to me and what I would say to it.” Do not worry about grammar, spelling, or sounding literate. Just write.
According to Pennebaker, developing a deeper understanding of an event and the emotions it generates helps the brain digest the information. Pennebaker thinks that your brain turns it into a more easily stored story when you analyze a traumatic event. “Storytelling simplifies a complex experience,” he says. Turning the memory into a story can be painful at first. It can take weeks or months to notice an improvement. Smyth and Pennebaker report that patients often feel worse when they journal.
Here are some suggestions for how to journal:
1. Write for yourself
2. Write about all the emotions associated with the event.
3. Set aside 30 minutes at a regular time for three or four days in a row when you won’t be disturbed.
4. Explore how the topic relates to other aspects of your life, such as your childhood and relationships.
5. Write continuously and don’t think about spelling or grammar.
Journal writing about traumatic events can be difficult, time-consuming, and careful. Writing about the worst events of your life can dredge up solid emotions, and healing doesn’t follow. For example, journaling therapy doesn’t seem to work by itself with people who are severely depressed or who have post-traumatic stress disorder. Smyth suggests notifying either your health care professional or someone close to you before attempting this exercise. Let them judge if it’s helping or hurting you.
Also, keep your healing journal private. It’s okay to tear up the pages or burn them once you’ve written about the event. Showing them to anyone who isn’t a therapist or healthcare professional could make matters worse–it could be hazardous for a battered woman to show the pages to her spouse.
Some therapists integrate journaling into their therapeutic practice. Journaling is something you can look for in a therapist if interested. You can certainly do something while in therapy to discuss with your therapist if you are experiencing difficult emotions. Remember, one does not have to be in therapy to write a journal.
Psychotherapy help is available. Email Dr. Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org