This column will touch on a practice to kick off your new year that promises tremendous health benefits. What do you think it is...exercise, meditation, yoga, enriched social connections, having an animal companion? No.
In this article I will present a simple, yet powerful way to focus your journaling that was soundly researched and makes this practice truly healing. James Pennebaker, a researcher on the healing power of journaling has also referred to this practice as a sort of confessional writing. In this short article I also want to share how this practice helped me navigate through a very difficult life experience (my own true confessions).
Many of you have probably journaled for years. I know I've naturally been drawn to journaling for over 40 years. However it wasn't until I listened to James Pennebaker speak at Bessel van der Kolk's trauma conference a few years ago, where I understood the power of this practice and the importance of one key question to consider when journaling that can make all the difference in the world. And as I share a little later in this article, this focus on journaling helped me tremendously as I struggled with my own deep emotional turmoil.
At this conference, James Pennebaker, a brilliant researcher and author shared his exciting research he conducted at the University of Texas on journaling. His work primarily focused on how journaling can assist people in healing from trauma. Remember there is a continuum of "intensity" in the experience of trauma. We have all been through traumatic or painfully overwhelming emotional experiences in life that can stay locked in our nervous system and body and can wreck havoc.
Pennebaker's research found that when people who had suffered from trauma (whether it was early in life or more recent trauma) were instructed to write their deepest thoughts and feelings about the trauma as a daily practice for a period of time, their mental, emotional and physical health were profoundly improved as compared to individuals who didn't do this practice and who had suffered trauma. He wrote a book called Opening Up both about the research he did and important elements of this journaling practice.
The key element to the journaling that Pennebaker found is to write about one's deepest thoughts and feelings without self-censoringas it relates to the traumatic event. In his study, participants first had to identify a traumatic experience or event in their life and then reflect through writing, what were their deepest thoughts and feelings were and are related to this experience. So the journaling exercise invited both depth and specificity about something painful.
When I do this practice, I often write at the top of the page, "what are my deepest thoughts and feelings about...?" Sometimes it's just "what are my deepest thoughts and feelings in this moment?" At times I've added "what are my deepest and most honest thoughts and feelings?" Personally, I really like the addition of my most honest (as well as deepest) thoughts and feelings. Bringing honesty into self-reflection as well as depth has helped me a lot!
I found this deeply important for me over this past year and a half when my wife, Chantal and I decided to separate after being together for 25 years. When she first communicated her desire to separate almost a year and a half ago, part of me was in shock and disbelief, another part of me understood why and another part felt devastated and terrified about separating. We spent over a year in therapy processing this difficult terrain of feelings and fears before we separated.
However each day on my own, I engaged in the practice of self-therapy, which included a daily practice of writing about my deepest thoughts and feelings related to separating. I found that as I wrote aboutmy deepest thoughts and feelings regarding separating it would take me closer to the pain.
Tears flowed as I wrote about my grief. Sometimes by guts tensed and my breathing became shallow as I wrote about my fears. I moved towards the pain verses away from it. I got to know the specific things I was terrified of-being alone, change, moving etc. I got to know what I was grieving about-missing our dogs, missing parts of my connection with Chantal. Sometimes I even sensed a place of hope or faith on this new path in my life.
So as I moved closer into the depths of my feelings, I would simultaneously feel closer to myself. I made room for the reality of what was opening up, like the title of Pennebaker's book, within me as I reconciled with the reality of separating from my wife. I deeply realized that we can't not have our feelings or our pain. However, we can have a different way of meeting, being with and expressing our feelings.
James Pennebaker shared about this duality of experience in his book in how participants reported that they would feel the pain more as they journaled. So in some ways they reported feeling "worse" yet through the process began to feel better. Also, through various tests the researchers ran on participants, they found that their bodies and minds benefited more in the long run from opening up and opening to their pain. Both their immune health was enhanced as well as various psychological health markers were met through this simple journaling practice of sharing one's deepest thoughts and feelings as it related to a traumatic experience.
One key premise Pennebaker offers as to why journaling can be so powerful for helping us deal with emotional pain is that it requires a tremendous amount of our body's energy to inhibit our feelings and thoughts regarding trauma. It's like we are engaging our body and mind's energy in closing the valve on both feeling and expression. We are stopping our body's natural process within the nervous system of engaging the sensory nerves to feel and the motor nerves to express. In other words, to be healthy involves the natural capacity to feel pain and say "ouch" when something hurts.
When we deny the truth of our experience, when we are dishonest to ourselves, this requires tremendous inhibitory energy. I believe what Pennebaker struck upon is an innate desire in humans to know their truth and be able to express their truth. Like the Greeks expressed in stone at the temple of the oracle of Delphi, "Know Thyself.". This is a deep prophetic expression, to know oneself.
When we release our inhibitions around expression (in ways that allow us to know and express our truth safely), we allow the body to process whatever it needs to. When we tighten up, close down, disconnect from the trauma of our past, or the trauma of everyday life even, we suffer. There is something central about self-expression that is necessary for developing resilience around trauma, where we can bounce back after being tested by life in this way.
So, in this new year, my wish for all of us is to have many, many moments of grace and joy. And it's also to have the ability to reach for those kinds of practices that support us in meeting life as it is-to be able to navigate the difficult territories of pain and struggle that come with life with honesty, depth and grace.