For a long time, therapists have been telling their clients to write in personal journals and for about 10 years , America’s military has used journaling as a required technique to help soldiers who suffer from PTSD.  While, many folks know that journaling can help one to deal with unpleasant emotions and to clarify confused feelings, many don’t understand how it works or why putting disturbing experience into words is so important for emotional healing.  If you are one of those folks who would like to better understand what is going on in our brain and consciousness when we journal, you have come to the right place !

To begin, painful emotional experience occurs in the right lobe of our brain.  It is the part which has no words and the experience is amorphous, undifferentiated and without symbolic representation.

The process of describing our experience requires us to employ language to symbolically represent what we are feeling.  Language takes place in the left hemisphere of our brain.

Research, using PET scans, has discovered that when a person is in the midst of a bad experience, the right side of his brain is lit up light a meteorologist’s  map when a storm is occurring.  Experiments have been conducted to see what changes journaling causes in the brain. What was found is that when a person is asked to write about and describe the thoughts and feelings s/he is having , the location of brain activity shifts from the right to the left side.  All the intense colors, the reds and yellows and greens, which show brain activity and which were previously found on the right side are now found on the left lobe.  What is even more important is that when asked how they feel ( as compared  with how they felt before journaling) people consistently reported that they experienced a significant improvement in their mood!

While, the scans can demonstrate the impact that journaling has on  brain activity,  thet can’t explain why journaling makes people feel better. To do that we need to think analogically or metaphorically.

Imagine that you are inside a building and are asked to describe it. In order to do that you would have to leave the building and remove yourself to a sufficient distance so that you would be able to see what the building looked like.  Metaphorically speaking, using words to describe you experience creates a distance between your observing and feeling selves The distance allows you to be able to conceptualize your experience and to be able better understand what is happening to you.

Another metaphor that is useful is to think of fire.  If you are too close to it, the heat from the flame makes it impossible to think. All you feel is pain and a burning sensation.  Stepping back from the fire reduces or eliminates the heat you feel and allows you to be able to think and describe what you are witnessing.  Sometimes when we are wrapped up and overwhelmed by an experience, we are simply too close to it to have any perspective.  Writing and talking about our experience provides distance for us to be able to think more clearly.

Being able to observe and describe your experience are a critical functions which writing about experience affords.  When painful experience is converted into descriptive language, emotional pain is lessened because we are thinking about rather than actually feeling the distress created by the  emotional experience.

A third way to understand why journaling works  is to think  of a municipal waste treatment facility.  Your disturbing thoughts and feelings are like waste material in the water system which blocks our ability to think and needs to filtered out.  Expressing your unacceptable or intolerable feelings  wrings the emotion out of your thought process and allows you not only to feel better but also to think and understand better what you are experiencing and place it in a more helpful context which shows its connections to other aspects of your life .  The greater understanding and mindfulness which journaling  facilitates is the ultimate goal of emotional healing. Expanded awareness and connectedness  reveals options and choices which may have previously been hidden from you.

Writing about your difficult experience may feel odd at first but don’t be discouraged.  With a little practice, you will soon get the hang of it. One important reminder. To be effective, journaling must be completely honest and uncensored.  It is normal for healthy folks to have really obscene, violent or indecent thoughts and feelings. Don’t let your modesty prevent you from writing about them accurately.  Of course, to do this you need to make sure that your private thoughts are protected.  Lock you written words up in a safe place or password protect word processing files before exiting your  journaling .

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC    11 29 2018

Attribution for image: