By Anita Anand
A pen and paper: experts say there’s something magical about those two objects
In preparation for this article I got out my diaries and journals. The earliest entry dates back to when I was eight years old. In it are entries such as ‘went horse riding’, ‘went swimming’ ‘Lena came over’ or ‘spent the night at Lena’s’. My inspiration for keeping a diary came from the English children’s books in which girls kept diaries. Over the years I continued writing and they became journals. Fifty years ago, when I started, my diary was a day calendar given to me by my father. Writing with a pen, like we did then, seems almost obsolete now. Today, my journalling is an electronic entry, done on the computer and uploaded on various blog sites. Over the years, the more I wrote, the better I felt. Slowly, I became aware that words have the power to transform and heal.
Saying the unsaid
Most of us grew up with stories – fairy tales, folklore, family narratives. The ceremonies and rituals of our daily lives centre around the magic of these words that we hear, read and speak – and they have the power to transform our lives.
Today, many psychotherapists believe that through metaphorical thinking we bring ourselves to a place where we can better understand our circumstances, ourselves, and the world around us.
So much so, the healing and transformative power of words is established.
The American philosopher, Alphonso Lingis says, “You have to say something – something that language cannot say, something that is not in the resources of common discourse to be able to say. You have to say the unsaid.”
The ‘said’ is the language that has been spoken, written, set down. When healing is needed, this common language reaches its limit; there is no language in the common discourse that can express an individual’s pain. Each individual must come to a place where they leave behind the said, the already spoken, and enter into their own realm of language, their own unique discourse, their own form of communication with their pain. They have to make the ‘unsaid’ into the ‘said’ by saying. The person seeking healing puts away the common discourse – the language – and enters a realm of communication with themselves, a departure from the unsaid into the saying. The act of communication is a release in itself.
Giving names to pain and confusion is what ancient storytellers of mythology did when they told stories to explain their world. Naming ‘something’ makes it feel real, appearing to give that ‘something’ meaning. And, putting words of pain and turmoil on paper is a process of naming the pain, making us feel we are finally able to communicate the pain, thereby releasing it. Reading self-help books and consulting therapists is an attempt to understand our pain. We search for meaning outside of ourselves. What if we were to turn to our inner selves for meaning?
Journalling as therapy
What is journalling? For Lois Guarino, author of Writing Your Authentic Self, “A journal encourages you to take time for reflection. So does re-examining what you have written. As you write each journal entry, you progress in taking responsibility for yourself. In so doing, you empower yourself to make meaningful change.”
Guarino goes on to describe a journal as “an inward journey, a record of internal life written consistently over a period of time, but not necessarily day by day. It is a place where… you can commune with rarely explored parts of yourself and where those parts can answer back.” It is this dialogue, carried on over an extended period of time that has the potential to bear surprising insights, support truth-telling and foster courage.
Journalling leads to self-understanding. While writing we become aware of emotions or feelings that we are not aware of. When we think freely, hundreds of other distorting thoughts that usually blind us from our real problem come into our minds. As we write we have more control over our thoughts, simply because whenever they start to shift away to something else, they will return back as soon as we read the lines in front of us. The healing comes from the release of the subconscious dialogue we have with ourselves. The goal is to release those very words of complaining, ‘poor me’ words – to the white of the page (or the computer screen!).
Many therapists and self-help groups recommend journalling as a recovery tool, as it is cathartic. It’s like you feel better when you tell your close friend about your problems, unloading some of your suppressed emotions. Suppressed emotions make life terrible. Sharing these with friends’ increases intimacy, reduces loneliness and makes you feel better. When you can’t tell a friend, you can to a journal.
Journalling reduces stress levels, increases immunity and creates better health. Expressive therapy is not only writing but drawing, writing poems, listening to music and even playing.
All of these take place with the aim of expressing your innermost emotions. Some people may think that keeping their feelings inside of them is ‘proper’ and ‘polite’. But, everything builds up inside of them, only to have it exploding out on a later date. Journalling is a form of self-help, or self-therapy.
Therapeutic trauma writing
A Texas A&M University, USA study shows how writing about a traumatic experience can heal. One hundred and forty-three college students were randomly selected to write an email about either a traumatic experience or a neutral topic for 20 minutes a day, on three consecutive days. After sending their emails to university psychologists, participants filled out weekly email health surveys for five weeks. Researchers noted that those who wrote about painful memories felt sick for four days during the period, compared with nearly six days for classmates whose emails covered neutral themes. And, those writing about ordinary topics also missed more class than students who wrote about traumas. Researchers say students who chronicled their traumas appeared to have better health because they moved from ‘venting’ to showing signs of processing their trauma and letting go of the experience.
Tests conducted by scientists at Southern Methodist University and Ohio State University College of Medicine, USA, demonstrated that subjects who wrote thoughtfully and emotionally about traumatic experiences achieved increased T-cell production (cells that support the immune system), a drop in physician visits, fewer absentee days and an overall improved physical health.
Children and journalling
Most parents struggle with raising children. And children struggle with their inner lives, which are influenced by the external world. Psychologists say writing is therapeutic and helps young people think about their emotional state and organise their feelings, just like therapy.
Nineteen-year-old Miqdad Karimi writes poetry about his childhood in Afghanistan, where he was tortured and his father was assassinated. “I remember the smell of blood, all over the city. I remember how the city stunk of corpses strewn upon the street,” he writes in one poem. “When I get depressed, or feel angry, I just start writing. If you don’t write it, don’t bring it out, then that emotion is stuck and takes you towards depression,” Miqdad says.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), most teens experience more stress when they perceive a situation as dangerous, difficult or painful and they do not have the resources to cope. Experts at the Center for Journal Therapy offer the following journalling tips for your children:
• Begin journalling with your children so they can address their concerns immediately. If your children are afraid ‘to make it real’ by writing down their pain, you may need to encourage them by sharing your own fears
• Encourage your child to write at least three days a week for five minutes each time
• Tell your child to just get it down! No need to worry about punctuations, spellings or grammar
• Encourage drawing, collage, poetry and other art forms as alternatives to writing in a diary style. Music, art, magazine photos, poems and single words can be effective starting points for writing about feelings, memories, dreams and experiences
The essentials of journalling
The atmosphere: Find a quiet place. Play classical instrumental music. Breathe deeply. Examine every feeling, worry or fear that comes into your head and the reasons for it. (Why am I feeling like this? When did these feelings start? What are my future plans for dealing with this?) Write it down.
Keep it handy: A journal can be a notebook that is easy to carry around. I use spiral ones easy to fold over and write anywhere I am – in a plane, train, garden, desk. I keep a small, pocket- sized notebook in my purse to jot down ideas.
The mobile journal: Carry the journals with you and write when you get an idea or feel the emotion. Don’t postpone it. You may forget and lose the opportunity.
When to write: Whenever you feel like it! But, it is important to write regularly – a few words or sentences each day. These days, I write an electronic blog entry every day, first thing in the morning.
What to put in the journal: Ask yourself how your life is – exciting, painful or boring or meaningless. This would mean seeing what went wrong and why and what needs more attention. Also, jot down an appreciation of what went well. It will relax you and, in the long run, you will enjoy these small gestures that brought a smile on your face.
Write everything down: Don’t hold back when writing – put down everything that happened or you gave a thought to. If something really significant took place, and you feel it needs more mention than others, write each and every detail of it – what happened, how you felt, what you think you could have done and didn’t do.
The unpleasant incident: When you are writing about something that spoilt your day, mention how you felt, what you could have said, and what you want to do about it. But, also mention just one good thing about the incident. It will help you understand your negative emotions and put things in the right perspective.
List next-day goals: Before going to bed, make a list of the things you want to do the next day. If you have to make a call which you have been postponing for some time now, make sure you put it down on your list of things to do. How long will it take, a few minutes? Just do it. Whatever it is you want to do, no matter how small, jot it down and do as many as you can the next day. It will put your mind at ease and give you a sense of achievement.
Privacy: Journalling is private. In India, privacy is difficult to find and get. If you can, keep your journal under lock and key. If it’s a computer journal, make sure you have a password others using the computer don’t know about. And if someone does read your journal and gets upset over what they read, it will need to be handled delicately. If you censor your thoughts while writing you are not being true to your self. As a therapist I ask patients to keep journals and share it with me. I have learned from my journals (when I go back and read them) that I have overcome the tough times. This gives me the strength to get over a particular bad phase I am going through.
When you can’t or don’t feel like using words to express your emotions, you can:
Make a picture journal: From old magazines cut out a picture that moves you. Paste it into your journal or a special book. Date it, write a brief caption, if you like, so you can go back later and know what you were thinking or feeling that day. Do this for two weeks or a month. Is there a common thread to the pictures? This replaces writing, so don’t write anything.
Shoot a roll of film in one day, get it developed immediately, or download it into your computer: Look at the photos. Is there a common thread? Can you tell what’s going on deep inside you by looking at these pictures?
Go for a walk: Collect three things that interest you – a rock, a leaf, a bug, or a flower. Put these on a table, and make up stories about them in your head. Or simply reflect on why you were attracted to them.
Journalling can be therapeutic when you go back and read over your entries. This can help you learn how you deal with problems, and possibly how to deal with future problems. It can also help you learn a great deal about yourself.
People who journal as a way of self-therapy usually report that at first, their journalling seemed to deal with surface issues, but after two weeks they were astounded at things they remembered or realised about themselves through journalling. The two-week mark seems to be the magic point for most people when they notice their journalling take on new meaning.
I re-read my journals every now and then and am amazed to find this or that detail – something I had forgotten about or how I had dealt with a situation that was just about killing me.
Pencil and paper, computer screen or notebook, journalling is a wonderful experience Go for it.
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