Lifestyle changes can be necessary when we find ourselves “stuck.” When I see a client, often times, there is a “barrier” that keeps them feeling anxious, sad, angry, or resentful. Journaling is a small lifestyle change that have a big impact. How can journaling help you on your grieving journey?
My mother always journaled. I believe it was one of the things that kept her strong in the really difficult times throughout her life. She lived through having to bury a baby that was born on Christmas + died only 4 days later. Decades later, she buried one of her youngest babies, her second daughter, who was 40 years old when she lost her battle with cancer. My mother endured losing her mother + father before she turned 30, then outliving both her younger brothers, so she was well acquainted with the pain of heavy loss throughout her life. Yet, grief never changed her for the worse or made her bitter. She always journaled her thoughts. Her prayers + reflections, her dreams + hopes. The good, the bad + the ugly. It was a practice she followed almost every morning. My mother used to tell me that when you write down your thoughts, it allows them to take on a shape or form. That way, your brain is better able to deal with + process it.
We can ponder all day long, trying to “work through” our problems, but at the end of the day, mere thinking becomes a nebulous, never-ending system of re-circulating intangibles. I recently heard a person give a perfect analogy describing the difference between thinking through something vs. writing it down: he likened it to figuring out a simple math problem like 364 + 1287. He noted you might be able to figure this out in your head, but it’s much easier + more accurate when you write it down. He went on to say, if this is true of a simple addition problem, what makes us think that we can merely “think through” our issues when we’re dealing with a super complex mind full of experiences, knowledge, feelings + thoughts?!
When we put our thoughts to paper, it helps our brains drive thoughts + actions in a healthy direction. Speaking out our issues is more helpful than merely thinking about them. Writing out our thoughts is even more beneficial than speaking them! According to licensed therapist Emma McAdam, journaling can help in 5 ways: to identify your actual feelings, to identify mood + triggers, to gain a clear perspective, to bring the unconscious to conscious, to improve mood + health. In her educational video, she quotes Matthew Lieberman, a PhD Psychologist at UCLA and a co-founder of social neuroscience research, stating, “Brain scans on volunteers showed that putting feelings down on paper reduces activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for controlling the intensity of our emotions.” As someone who is still very new to the journaling practice, I can say that even I notice the calming effect journaling has had on my emotions. I can be prone to anger + impatience. This practice is truly helping me slow down to process overwhelming feelings of pain + distress into specific issues I can address + improve. Writing out my thoughts brings me feelings of comfort, as opposed to the ambiguous frustration left by endless thinking.
There are several ways to get your thoughts + feelings out. One is a brain dump, where you just write whatever comes to mind! No matter how strange or silly the thoughts may be. It’s similar to exercising. Once you start, your muscle (in this case, your brain) is getting warmed up + more sharpened with each word you write down. Another method is writing a letter you won’t send. This could be to anyone – your younger self, your future self, or to another person whom you are struggling to forgive. It is a powerful tool to help you say what needs to be said, then let it go. Ripping up, burning, or destroying the letter serves as a powerful, physical reminder for your brain that the issue is now over and it’s time to move on.
Journaling your thoughts to paper may seem overwhelming because you might not even know where to start. This is where guided journals can be very helpful! They can point you in a positive direction – one of love + encouragement, evoking joy instead of dwelling on the negative. Staying positive, realistic goal setting, focusing on a healthy future, + even healthy reflection on pleasant or funny memories can all create new paths in our brain to grow, especially through the painful responses associated with grief.
As for my mother, she used to write to God every morning. That way, her thoughts + worries became contained so she could lay them down on paper until a comforting or positive word would come, with which she would always close her daily entry. I believe this practice enabled her to consistently be a person of patience, wisdom + love. Journaling helped strengthen her to serve as a pillar for others on which to lean. It gave her a mental fortitude that her grief did not define who she was. It was merely one part of her life experience that served to help shape her inspirational legacy in every life she touched. I used to tell my mom all the time, “if I could be half the woman you are, I’d be lucky.”
Perhaps journaling is one way in which I can start.
Educational Video, YouTube. (2021) Emma McAdams, Therapy in a Nutshell: 6 Ways to Process your Feelings in Writing: How to Journal for Anxiety and Depression.
Lieberman, M.D, et al. (2007). Putting Feelings into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli. Research article, University of California, Los Angeles. https://sanlab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/31/2016/03/Lieberman_2007_PsychScience.pdf