I first fell in love with journaling during a very difficult season of my life. During this turning point in my life I felt the out stretched gentle hand of a journal and pen.
Traumatic times are not neat and orderly. They’re messy whirlwinds. They do not ask permission.
I kept my journal and pen with me at all times. Prepared for a time of need. Right after a challenging trigger. Or when I was shocked at the discovery of yet another betrayal.
Sometimes in the middle of the night I’d wake up with thoughts and worries. I couldn’t clear my head. My mind was spinning with the number of choices and things I had to do. This was a good time for me to write and just get it out of my head so I could return to the peacefulness of sleep.
Or when I was unexpectedly triggered by a simple reminder that resulted in a flood of tears at the most awkward times. It never happens at the right moment. Always when you’re in the middle of something else.
I’d write afterwards. Writing saved my sanity.
As I learned more about the healing process of journaling I now know why it is such a powerful tool during seasons of trauma.
When we have so much going on and we feel overloaded, writing gives us an outlet and a way to begin processing events and bring meaning to what otherwise doesn’t seem to make sense.
Writing for healing
Journaling uses the power of pen and paper to help us move towards post-traumatic growth.
Expressive writing has shown positive physical benefits:
- Fewer visits to the doctor.
- Improved immune systems.
- Better health measures (lung functioning, pain, white blood cell counts, better sleep, lower blood pressure for example).
- Reduced stress – even when writing about past traumas.
Long term psychological benefits:
Although we are likely to have feelings of sadness immediately after expressive writing, in the weeks and months afterward our mood improves. We often experience less depressive symptoms, rumination and general anxiety. This is good.
Positive behavioural changes:
We see improved changes in our behaviour. We perform better at work. We have better experiences with our day-to-day social world. Again, all good.
4-Day expressive writing activity
If you’re ready to try expressive journaling here are the steps to take you through it.
- Identify your writing topic. Something personal that maybe has affected you deeply. You can use the same topic or a different topic each day.
- Write at a time that works best for you.
- Keep your writing in a secure place. If helpful, tell family members that you are writing and ask for respect for your privacy.
- Be gentle on yourself. If you feel overwhelmed while writing, take a short break. But try not to pause for too long so you don’t lose the flow of what you are doing.
- It’s normal to feel emotional so use your social supports as you move through this.
Write for 4 days for a minimum of 20 minutes each time. If you like, continue the practice or use it whenever you feel the need. (Instructions adapted from James W. Pennebaker, PhD, 1999):
Reflect after your writing activity
- What was the most challenging part of the 4 Days of Writing?
- Over time did you feel better about the process?
- Can you identify areas of personal growth or healing? If yes, what positive actions and behaviors do you plan to take regarding your post-traumatic growth?
- Do you see your trauma differently now that you’ve competed the 4-day writing exercise?
- How have you changed from your post-traumatic growth? Do you see your character strengths improving as a result?
The big release
Some people keep their journals for later review. To see how they’ve grown over the years. I did not. There came a time when I could not have my old journals in my home.
Every time I saw them I could feel their negative energy. Eventually I chose to dispose of them and close that chapter of my life with a great big sigh.
It was time to move on. Time to move forward.
I look back at this time in my life and recognize my post-traumatic growth experience. Although it was very painful it was one of the most positive, transformative periods of my life.
It changed me forever. But in a good way.