COVID-19 has thrown us into a time of overwhelming change and transition that no one was prepared for. Our normal routines have vanished. We’re confined and confused. We’re frightened about what might be coming next. Is there a healthy, inexpensive way we can feel better and reduce stress when we’re sheltering-in-place?
One good way: write in a journal.
Please don’t feel intimidated by that. Journaling allows you to be your own compassionate listener and the author of your own story. Journaling is simply the process of recording thoughts, feelings, experiences, and observations. It is most beneficial, even therapeutic, when done with intention. It is also a private, courageous, healing act; a powerful form of witnessing to the self; and a proven method for self-directed change.
Writing about thoughts and feelings has long been shown to offer emotional, physical, and spiritual comfort. The act of writing itself structures whirling, nebulous thoughts into a more coherent form, which can soothe us or help clarify the situation. The journal becomes a welcoming container into which we place those thoughts and feelings so that they become less stressful and easier to manage.
When you face a blank journal page, it can be helpful to use a prompt: the beginning of a sentence or a question to start your writing. Different techniques offer variety that keep your writing lively and heartfelt. And, in difficult times like now, they can help keep further emotional turmoil at bay. On this section of Narrative Healthcare, I’ll be sharing those techniques, and lots more, about journaling. My hope is that writing at least a few times a week will make it a little easier for you to navigate the choppy waters we are all sailing these days.
If you haven’t journaled before, or simply want some information on the approach I will take here, please see the Introduction. It has some important information that will help you get started on the right foot.
May 18, 2020
When What You Love is Lost
“Believe me, every heart has its secret sorrows, which the world knows not, and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad.”
~~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Once upon a time, a Facebook post revealed a lovely new word that has remained with me: hiraeth. It’s a Welsh word, pronounced “here-eyeth” with a rolled “r.” (Hear it pronounced here: https://forvo.com/word/hiraeth) It’s really untranslatable because there are no English words that fully encompass its meaning, but the definition in the post was “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” Today, the definition immediately brought to mind the deep and often untranslatable losses many of us are enduring now during this awful pandemic.
These losses and the feelings they evoke may remain with us for years, and we may never be able to truly describe them. But the healing process can be helped along by doing our best to describe them, if only for ourselves, in the pages of our journals.
Heart open and pen in hand (or fingers on the keyboard), you might stumble across a metaphor that slides in sideways and evokes and softens the loss for you. You might find that whatever words flow from your fingertips to the page release some sorrow or grief, beginning the healing process. You might find that this writing helps to build your sense of gratitude for what remains and instill a bit more resilience. Sometimes, depending on the loss, you will have to write more than once.
Just like the word hiraeth, our feelings about all these pandemic-related losses might remain untranslatable. Our losses may dull with time, yet we may still struggle to find the right words to describe them. Feel free to write about your losses as often as necessary. Over the weeks and months, they will morph and be altered by new life experiences, offering up new feelings and descriptions.
For your journal
When has hiraeth come to you, during this pandemic or any time? For what are you homesick, knowing you can never return to it? It could be an actual place, like a home, a city, a country. It could also be a time in your life or an experience that is somehow significant and which has passed, or which was eagerly anticipated but never happened, and for which you still feel nostalgia or even grief.
Write about your hiraeth in some way. Even if you can’t really describe it, do your best. Write about where it comes from, what it represents or means to you. Open your heart and let your words flow to the page.
May 1, 2020
Change Your Brain Towards the Positive
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” ~~ Max Planck
Anger, hatred, and intolerance really are only stories we tell ourselves, as are compassion, love, and inclusion. With so much of the former qualities flying around today, it pays to understand something about neuroplasticity, or the capacity of our brains to change over a lifetime. The more we do something, including having the same thoughts and performing the same actions, the more our brains physically conform to them, so that we keep thoughtlessly keep repeating them, regardless of whether they benefit us or harm us. Even more crucial, being exposed to the same things over and over does the same:
“…the external world comes to be represented within our brains and actually forms our physical brain’s synaptic (nerve) connections so that we have a model or mirror of the external world. As inside, so outside. As above, so below. This happens through our internalization of the stories that are being told around us.” (Lewis Mehl-Madrona, PhD, in Healing the Mind Through the Power of Stories.)
So focus on love, compassion, and inclusion. Focus on what you would like to see happen. Focus on all the many good things that are happening each and every day. Work for positive change in ways that satisfy you and make you feel good, instead of hating and fighting against the people and policies you don’t like. You can tell which path you are on by the way your actions and thoughts make you feel inside.
In your journal:
Write about a positive change you would like to see in the world and how you might help it come about in positive, loving, compassionate ways. This does not have to be an earthshaking, grand, or grandiose thing. Remember that, often, the best thing we can do to promote positive change is to do the smaller things we can do within our own sphere of influence. What can you do in your own family and circle of acquaintances to make their world a better place?
April 22, 2020
“Gratitude is one of the sweet shortcuts to finding peace of mind and happiness inside. No matter what is going on outside of us, there is always something we could be grateful for.” ~~ Barry Neil Kaufman
When we go through painful or difficult experiences, we often don’t believe there is anything for which to be grateful. Quite the contrary. Furthermore, being grateful can help us weather the storm.
Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons has shown that, in dire times, “… not only will a grateful attitude help—it is essential. In fact, it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.”
This does not mean it will be easy or that we will necessarily feel grateful. In tough times, we have to make the choice to be grateful. Finding a way to be grateful for even the tiniest thing during a painful experience can allow us to be stronger and find some measure of peace. Finding a way to be grateful for the entire experience–if that is even possible for you–is what some people call “radical gratitude.”
If you choose to make a choice to be grateful in a difficult time, you can simply write a 5-Minute Sprint about your gratitude. Or if even that feels like too much, jot down a short list of small, simple things for which you can give thanks today.
However, it may not be possible to feel any gratitude during the difficult time itself. If you find that you have not been able to be grateful for a painful experience but would like to be, you can use a prompt like this one that offers a little distance and perhaps the opportunity for a new perspective on the situation: If I could be grateful….
April 14, 2020
“…somehow, in the process of writing, something happens that makes broken pieces come together.” ~~ Susan Borkin
The Unsent Letter is a popular journaling technique that is well-suited and effective for
· catharsis, completion, and clarity;
· expressing deep emotion, such as anger or grief, and also for gaining closure and insight; and
· communicating your opinions, deepest feelings, hostilities, resentments, affections, or controversial points of view in a safe non-threatening atmosphere…
…because you don’t plan to send it!
Tips for Writing Unsent Letters
· Don’t censor and don’t edit. Allow yourself to get the energy out.
· Unsent Letters won’t hurt anyone because you don’t send them—and you can destroy them if you like when you’re done writing.
· Your Unsent Letter may be written to anyone or anything: any person living or dead, real or imagined; an organization or institution; illness, injury, or other health issue; situation; God or a higher power, etc.
· You can write a letter to yourself from yourself OR from someone else. This can give you an entirely different insight.
Begin your Unsent Letter with “Dear ____________” and at the end be sure to sign it with your name.
After, you can write a reflection of your letter, just a few sentences about what you noticed as you wrote. For instance,
· What happened as you wrote?
· What was going on in your body?
· What surprised you?
· Did you learn anything?
· Did you have any “aha!” moments?
April 11, 2020
Journaling for Resilience
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” ~~ Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
Barn’s burnt down… Now I can see the moon.” This simple statement was expressed by the 17th century Japanese poet Masahide, after his barn actually did go up in flames. In addition to being eloquent, it is a wonderful example of the quality of resilience, or the psychological ability to cope with catastrophe and great stress—and perhaps even to thrive under such conditions. Like Masahide, resilient people tend to bounce back from negative events, make the most of small opportunities, have the emotional wherewithal to cope well with many different situations, are determined to overcome tough challenges, and are able to hang in there during difficult times. They also usually have a strong network of people they can depend on and have a strong belief in some system of meaning, such as religion or spirituality or philosophy.When facing serious trauma or misfortune, resilient people may at first react negatively, and they may very well feel stressed. However, they are able to find ways to move past that stage and then rebuild or restore their confidence.Resilience may be inborn in some people, yet anyone can develop their “resilience muscles” through training their thoughts, behaviors, and actions. Some ways to do this:
- believe that your situation will improve;
- maintain perspective—don’t make mountains out of molehills;
- take action—even small ones—to keep moving toward your goals;
- see how your trauma or challenge has helped you grow in some way; andstay optimistic.
You can use your journal to help you do all these things to become more resilient.Part of being resilient is giving yourself credit for your strengths and positive qualities and being able to call on those qualities when necessary. What are some of the strengths and positive qualities that have made you resilient? If necessary, think back to past difficult times in your life and recall what strengths and positive qualities helped you through them.List up to 5. Then choose one that resonates with you right now and fit it into this prompt: If I could use the quality of ____________ to be my most resilient self today….
Finally, if you like, think about how you felt as you wrote that entry. What did you notice physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually? You can write a reflection of just a few sentences about that.
April 8, 2020
“When telling the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.” ~~ Anon.
Making a list can be a good way to journal when there’s a lot going on and you just want to get a handle on it or want to feel more organized. Or perhaps you like making lists. Or you use a list as a way to track things to explore in more detail later. No rules, remember!
Here’s a very simple form, with another piece added to it:
First, make a list of 5-10 (or more!) things that make you happy or help you feel good. You can write a list of things for which you are grateful. That can be a helpful reminder and raise your spirits in difficult times.
Now, the addition: choose the one item that makes you feel the best or the happiest right now and write about it however you like. Write for at least 10 minutes, and feel free to go longer, too.
April 1, 2020
The 5-Minute Sprint
“Story. Story is my medicine.” ~~ Deena Metzger, after being diagnosed with cancer.
The name says it all. With this technique you write for 5 minutes. Set a timer and stop when it rings. A 5-Minute Sprint is great when you don’t have much time, want to get right to the point, or are dealing with a difficult issue about which you want to make some quick observations. You might be surprised at how much you can express in such a short time.
Here are some prompts you can use to begin your sprint (or simply begin however you like). Date your page. Choose a prompt, write it on your page, and go from there:
Right now I feel…
If I could…
My heart is saying…
What’s on my mind this minute?
I would love to…
I will never…
That’s it! You have learned your first journaling technique. Feel free to come back to the 5-Minute Sprint whenever you can. Another technique coming up soon!