Updated: Oct 23
It's been quite a while since science established that journaling is good for us. I have long used journaling in my work as a psychotherapist, integrated it into Expressive Arts retreats and workshops and I have used journaling myself for years as a means of externalizing my own oft-tangled thoughts and feelings. I was already a believer. But if I wasn't, I would be right about now.
Journaling made its entry into the world of modern mental health treatment as far back as the 1960's and has been validated as a legitimate healing, therapeutic practice, largely by the work of Kathleen Adams who has pioneered her own journaling methods and co-founded The Center for Journal Therapy. There, therapeutic journaling is defined as "the purposeful and intentional use of reflective writing to further mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health and wellness". Sounds good, right? It is. While we already have enough studies to know it's beneficial, the world around us is changing dramatically and so I feel it's important to talk about why journaling is uniquely relevant right now.
In this entry I will:
Define the unique factors shaping our experience of riding out a pandemic,
Explain 3 powerful reasons why there has never been a better time for journaling than right now,
Share why a multi-modal approach to journaling maximizes your results, and
Link to a free tutorial on one unique way to enliven and deepen your journaling practice with art.
Ready? If you've journaled before, get ready to dial it up. If not, prepare to be amazed!
Not Your Garden-variety Angst
What a time to be alive. I think back to other times in history, other sudden-onset calamities which I have been spared. The elders of our time speak of the Great Depression and I'm acutely aware that I have no point of reference. Yet this moment in time - right now - is our own version of the unthinkable. Even prior to the onset of COVID-19, we were facing some pervasively grim plotlines. Ecological fragility. Political sensationalism. Social degradation. But we hadn't seen a pandemic in over 100 years. When the Spanish Flu hit in 1918 it was similarly deadly, and in ways perhaps worse. However, today's pandemic experience is... different.
On the upside, we have markedly better health care and wildly advanced science, compared to 1918, to prevent the spread of this virus. Treatment of a pandemic illness now, compared to then, is night and day. On the downside, however, several factors make today's pandemic harder, or at least uniquely hard, to adapt to.
Namely, our lifestyle adjustment today is arguably much greater. Most of us normally travel many miles and come in contact with sores of people daily, just to do our jobs. Also, our expectations of health-security, especially in the United States, are likely greatly inflated. Science has made us so much safer today that our regard for health-threat is probably atrophied, compared to that of the average 1918 citizen. Today we expect to survive to an old age. Not the least of the differences: nobody was glued to a smartphone during the last pandemic, jacking their limbic systems (the brain-region that responds to emotional stimuli) and watching a news-media circus beat the drums of impending doom around the clock. This. Is. Just. Different.
So, while I'd still choose this pandemic over that one, and while I am filled with gratitude for scientific advancements, I also recognize that what we are living through right now is a quantum lifestyle adjustment the likes of which few generations have ever faced. And just to be clear, this adjustment has come with a metric ton of loss.
Loss of norms. Loss of routines, favorite places and comforts large and small. Almost overnight meeting a friend for coffee, popping into the local book store, volunteering (or receiving volunteerism) and even going to church were cut off and closed indefinitely, for every single person - not just in this country - in the entire world. And it got worse. Weddings were cancelled. Funerals were impossible. Babies were born in solitude. Of course there were, and are, the losses of lives, also in solitude, family members not even allowed to be present with their dying.
Loss has taken on a new meaning this year, and we are still in the thick of it. So, other than keeping life in perpetual motion and looking at each other in numbed confusion, what the hell is anyone doing about it?
Now, How & Why
The time to do something about the undercurrent of loss, worry and sadness is now. The how to go about it is journaling. And the why? Here's 3 why's, backed by science, that feel especially relevant to me:
Journaling is a proven fear-management tool: Studies have shown that journaling reduces our amygdala response. The amygdala's job is to take in data and decipher it as the emotion of fear, when applicable, and send that data on to the rest of your system for a bodily response of fight-or-flight. A recent study in the Journal of European Neurology used a Functional MRI to show responses to viewing COVID-19 images. The findings, grimly, were described as "amygdala hijack". It's hard to avoid this when COVID-data and images are saturating the news-media. So if journaling regulates the response of our amygdala (and it does), there's no better time than now.
Journaling reduces intrusive thoughts and improves memory. According to a study authored by psychologist Kitty Klein, PhD, of North Carolina State University, journaling reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves our working memory. Klein states, "If you're suffering from a traumatic or stressful event, your ability to pay attention and focus isn't what it should be. That may be a vehicle for getting you into poorer and poorer health." Just 20 minutes of journaling, on a regular basis, was enough to restore cognitive capacity and reduce intrusive, anxious thoughts. If journaling can push back against the tide of overwhelm we are all swimming against, then it's a great tool in these pandemic times.
Journaling can foster better sleep and immunity: A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that journaling, specifically about what tomorrow holds, results in more and easier sleep. In essence, externalizing and letting go of the 'musts' of the day ahead help us to sleep tonight. Journaling specifically about your intentions for the next day, or next few days, can create the same benefit. Studies also show that sleep deprivation reduces immunity markedly, making sleep - and anything that aides it - imperative to our defenses in a time of health risk. So if journaling aides sleep, and sleep safeguards our health? Journal on!
To review, we can manage our fear, open more space in our minds, and improve our sleep (and thereby our immune responses), all with journaling.
One of my broader and consistent observations around the pandemic is that it seems to have had it's nasty way with each and every one of us, infected or not. In other words, just being alive in this time, without actually getting sick, is enough to knock us down. This is more true for some than others. While journaling may not be a complete remedy for the secondary ills of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's fair to say that there is no complete remedy. We do what we can to move through this. Reaching, actively, for what will help us is the strongest thing we can do.
So write. Right now.
No One Way: Multi-Modal Journaling
Journaling is a low-barrier activity which, as we've covered, aides greatly in our wellness and resilience. We need only pen, paper and solitude. I tend to take a bohemian approach to journaling, sometimes even writing on the back of a receipt in the grocery store parking lot (because my inspired parts don't understand what 'wait' means) and pasting it into my journal later.
I admire the people who adhere to bullet journals or other structured journaling methods of the day. I'm sure that reflecting on all those organized, chronicled pages feels commanding. I wouldn't know because that's not me. My journaling is a form of art, as most things are for me, and that means that it's beautifully messy storm that ends in some kind of rainbow. Doing things the same way repeatedly is painful for me. This is just how I show up naturally in the world, so you can imagine why I gravitate toward treatment methods and theories in my work that support multiplicity.
In the world of Expressive Arts Therapy, science supports engaging our creative process across a range of methods. We strive to incorporate more than one creative activity into a meta-process (that's the storm mentioned above) and we call this 'Multi-Modal'. More than one way, in one greater project. When you add artistic process to your pages, and then write on them, you're utilizing multiple modes and engaging more deeply.
Neurobiological research tells us that the best treatments to address trauma or distress engage a variety of our senses. Talking, or talk-therapy, engages some of our senses. But moving our bodies, choosing colors and materials, touching different textiles, stitching with a needle, painting with a brush, writing out the words on paper, walking in nature and collecting natural materials, cutting shapes, dyeing fabrics, playing music, blending watercolors.... these activities engage a multitude of our senses. And believe it or not, we can actually cram all this into our journaling. Oh yes, we can.
Not only is a multi-modal approach more engaging to different parts of your brain, and not only does it tap into alternative ways of expressing what may feel difficult, I find that pulling out the stops with journaling keeps me at it. I am more motivated to remain regular about journaling when I have the freedom to be wild with the page.
I add things like fabric, leaves, string, photos, quotes, vintage ephemera and more. I trace things into my journals. I create reminders and lists within them, and add a tab so I can go back and use that page as a tool later. I paste in envelopes for things that need an added layer of secrecy, or things I might like to take back out and carry with me. I paint on my pages, spill coffee and work around it. Tears - of both joy and sorrow. I write sideways, upside down, in circles and around flat objects. My approach to journaling is low on rules, long on freedom and by the time I fill one it's really more of a sponge, full of who I am, than a book full of pages.
You may be understanding that I ask a lot of my journals. There are many good ones out there but I recommend this one by Ranger. It's super sturdy, has pages which gracefully tolerate a lot of process (wet or dry) and lays open nice and flat to an ample, two-page area when I've got something BIG going on that take up lots of space.
In this moment, the most important thing I want to impart to you is to just get journaling. You can't do it wrong. Challenge yourself to do whatever comes to you with the blank page, without stopping to think about whether it's right or not. Whether you're writing, painting, list-making, tracing, pasting, collaging, appliqueing or something else, get it onto the page.
In many moments to come, I'd like to share with you different ways to use Expressive Arts in your journaling. Today I am sharing a quick tutorial on how to use fabric to collage and applique into your pages. It's a favorite method of mine for many reasons, not the least of which is that I am textile-obsessed. If you are, too, I think you'll get some mileage out of this fun skill set.
A Journaling Tutorial - Textile Collage
LINK BELOW: A new tutorial is live, showing you how to add beautiful textiles to your journal pages opening up endless possibilities! The tutorial shows you the complete process from start to finish. I hope you enjoy it; please know I welcome all feedback!
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