expressive writing
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Journaling for Health and Healing

Affirmation: I am a Journaler.  


Why Journal?  Why put pen to paper?  Is it true that writing makes a difference in one’s health and can even speed up the healing process?  What other benefits arise from sitting with a notebook or a pad or perhaps some colored pencils or markers?  Are there techniques that help one become a more consistent, insightful writer? These are the questions that arose as I prepared to present Healing through Writing at the 2017 Cancer Survivorship Summit here in Raleigh, NC.

If history is any indication of the importance of keeping a diary, it appears there is little doubt that most successful endeavors were meticulously recorded.  In the past an adventurer or explorer never seemed to leave home without a notebook and pen or pencil.  Certainly, Lewis and Clarke would not have been able to share every important detail of their expedition if they hadn’t been charged to write down everything that they encountered.  Why then shouldn’t we write?  Aren’t we all on an adventure?  Aren’t our explorations as important as any explorer’s?  True, our journeys may take us less out into the world, than in towards our minds, hearts and souls but those may be the journeys where we discover the most relevant truths of our lives.

Research has been done for years regarding the practice of journaling or expressive writing and anything you Google will tell you that writing can make a positive difference in whatever you’re experiencing.  It doesn’t matter what the challenge, writing can make a difference in everything from depression to dementia, from aches and pains to high blood pressure, from your outlook to your sense of well-being.  Truly, it would seem if they could bottle the process and sell it, it would be the miracle cure-all so many are seeking.  Unfortunately, like many healthful habits (exercise and healthy food choices to name just two) it requires discipline and a belief that it is going to enhance your life.  
One reason given for the clarity that journaling can bring is that you are being called upon to use both sides or your brain, the rational and the creative.  I, personally, can get very muddled when faced with some situations but once I begin writing about them, I can find solutions at which I would have never arrived if I hadn’t written about it.  
Beginning the Practice
*Grab a pen and some paper, not a keyboard.  
*Decide to set aside some part of your day, preferably in the morning to just sit and write, maybe      just a few minutes to begin.
*Adopt a few comforting rituals to go with the practice.  For example, make a cup of tea or coffee, play some soothing music, light a candle, perhaps say a prayer or take a few deep breaths, burn some incense, wrap up in a blanket, find a comfy chair.  Make this a nurturing experience. 
*Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or two.  Feel good about any time you’ve managed to sit and write.
*Find an approach that feels good to you.  I follow the Julia Cameron approach from The Artists Way of writing three pages every morning.  She never mentions how big or small the pages are to be or how big or small your writing is to be.  You decide that.  Once you’ve found what works for you, try it for a while but stay flexible.
*Don’t edit anything.  Don’t worry about the spelling or the  grammar.  It is never a good or bad entry; it’s simply a learning experience.  
*If you don’t know what to write about, write, “I don’t know what to write about.”  If you write something that unsettles you, go back to it when you’re done and see if you can rephrase it or learn from it or perhaps when you return to it, you will feel better about it and you can simply let it go.  Perhaps the exercise is calling you to seek professional help. That too can be very good information.
*I personally like to write a phrase or intention that I have adopted for the year at the top of my daily entry.  I then like to write about three joys I experienced from the day before and one joy I am hoping to experience that day.  That part of my practice comes from The Joy of Appreciative Living by Jacqueline Kelm.
Journaling Prompts

Free Writing – Put the pen to the paper and just go.  Whatever comes to mind.  My experience has been that after writing my “stream of consciousness” for a few pages, a gem or two appears towards the end of the entry, not always but enough to make me feel like the time was spent well.

Letter Form – Choose a person and tell them your story. It could be someone from your past, or maybe that special someone in your future.  It could be a stranger who showed kindness or a doctor or technician who is part of your healing process.  Maybe it’s a former sweetheart to whom you never really said goodbye to or a parent, living or deceased you never told, “I love you.”  Once you begin your list, it might provide you with material to write a book.  This letter is yours, however, don’t send it unless you’re sure that’s the right next step.
Life Map – Write out some of the highlights of your life.  I’m sure a few immediately come to mind.  Start with one of them and journey to the next one, go back, go forward.  It doesn’t matter, just reminisce in writing.  
Questions – I know have I more questions about life and the world than I have answers.  There are questions about the unknown, about relationships, about what’s going on in my body, about why I respond a certain way to certain people.  It’s an endless list.  Ask one and let the pen help you find an answer.  
Listing – Begin by making a list, a list of anything; colors, shapes, scents, foods, places, etc.  Choose five or so and begin writing about whatever comes to mind about that topic and each item.
Quotations – I usually read something motivational every morning and inspirational every night.  They aren’t necessarily long reads, some are just a paragraph or two but many times they lead me to some wonderful quotes.  I like to record them and perhaps see where they fit in my life and how I can use them to enhance the way I live.
Interviews – Check in with what’s going on in your body once in a while.  Find out why that tummy is upset, or perhaps why your back is achy.  Maybe you want to dialogue with a new condition?  I’m not trying to say your brain caused your ailment, but I am saying there is always a lesson to be learned and journaling about the issue can be very enlightening. 
Inner Child – Take an inventory of what brought you joy as a child and write about it and see if there isn’t a way for you to incorporate some of that joy into your present life.   
Focus on Nature – One sure fire way to step outside of ourselves and bring us to a greater sense of awareness is to step outside into nature.  Focus on the miracles of this world or perhaps those outside of the earth, the stars, moon and galaxies.  Write about the flowers, the rivers, the wind and the sun.  Focus on all of the amazing gifts we have been given and so often take for granted.  
Log of Success – It’s easy to beat ourselves up, especially when we aren’t feeling our best.  Take a look at what you consider the highlights of your life and journal about those.  Then take a little while to examine them and allow a sense of accomplishment to resonate within.
Question Your Higher-Self – Many journalers have asked their higher-selves questions to which they simply could not get a clear answer and then allowed the pen to write out the answer.  There are several books about writing out a question to one’s guardian angel or spirit guide and how rewarding and surprising it can be when the answer appears.  
Draw, Paint, Color, Collage – There are many ways to journal and some days you might just want to try something different, a picture, a collage, a Mandela.  Let it appear on the page and then see what it “tells” you.  
Prompts – Many writers use “prompts” to begin their writing process.  It can be a photo, a statue, a bit of nature, a quote, a painting.  It really doesn’t matter.  Once you use a prompt and see where it leads you, let go and go crazy with it, you will never again have nothing to write about.  
There are many approaches and a lot of scientific data to back up the exercise of keeping a journal or a diary but the best proof of its effectiveness is when you notice that you’re feeling better, perhaps calmer, more grounded, not as anxious, surer of your direction or more ready to give and receive love.  When qualities that enhance your life and nurture your spirit start to appear as a regular part of your daily existence, you won’t care why this discipline works; you’ll only care that you’ve finally discovered it and put it into practice.