When philosophers describe the meaning of life, one of the four pillars they mention is storytelling. When we hear this, we may think of a story being spoken aloud and shared between multiple people. But according to Clinical Psychologist Kate Hathway, storytelling also includes the story we tell ourselves about how we came to be, who we are, and what that means for us moving forward. “This,” she says, “is the work of journaling.”
Journaling seems to fall into the category of things like yoga, drinking lemon water, and using essential oils that we have all been assured will be beneficial to us. But have you ever wondered: what’s so great about journaling and how does it actually help?
Journaling As a Form of Release
As survivors and caregivers, we have already lived through and witnessed more hard things than most of our peers will ever experience. And unfortunately, we know too well that even if treatment is behind us, the trauma we experienced is not, nor is the potential for hard days in the future. It is important to find a form of release as we work through past and current challenging experiences and journaling can be one way to do that.
One reason you may want to consider journaling now, even if you have never tried it before, is that many of the tools you used for stress relief in your pre-diagnosis life may no longer be available to you. Venting to friends and family may be challenging, as even the ones who lived through treatment by your side have their own lens and cannot truly understand how you’re feeling. Some of the physical activities you used to do to blow off steam may require more energy and stamina than you currently have. You may even have restrictions around food and alcohol, meaning that cooking, eating, and going out with friends may no longer provide the same release as they used to. Journaling provides a much-needed outlet and can be done at any time, in any place, using materials that you likely have nearby, all without spending much energy.
Two-time cancer survivor, Jen, age 25, says that she is not a crier, but has found that she does need some form of release and so, in recent years has turned to journaling. When something hard happens, she writes about it immediately in order to get it out of her system. She finds that once it’s tangible, having gone from an experience or thought to words on a screen, something about it changes, making it feel more manageable than it did when it was swirling in her mind. “It’s like I’ve captured it,” she says, “That pain, that gut feeling, whatever that emotion was.”
Nicole Sachs, LCSW, uses a unique personal narrative technique called Journal Speak. At the end of her twenty minute practice, she recommends throwing away the paper on which you’ve written or deleting the document that you just created. In her model, “It’s like sneezing or going to the bathroom,” she says. “Once you’re done, you’re done.”
Other people like to keep what they have written and revisit their entries later. This is Jen’s preference. She says, “It’s good for me to go back and realize that I thought I was at the end of my rope on Tuesday when I wrote it, but now it’s Friday and I survived!”
Whether you keep what you’ve written or destroy it as soon as you put down your pen, what’s most important is the release that it provides.
Journaling As a Judgment-Free Zone
When we share our emotions, concerns, and experiences with others in a conversation, we may find ourselves wondering how the listener is reacting. We might fear that they are silently judging us or that what we’re sharing is too personal or intense for people who haven’t been through what we have. When we start to worry about that, our guard comes up and we aren’t able to speak as openly or freely as we might like or need. This can be restrictive and exhausting, as can trying to explain things to people who are well-meaning but just don’t get it.
The article “Benefits of Journaling When You Have a Chronic Illness” points out that “Journaling provides a judgment-free place to put your thoughts, which allows you to make sense of the myriad of emotions that come when you have a chronic illness.” It is also a space where we can practice withholding judgment from ourselves. Clinical Psychologist, Kate Hathaway says, “Like journaling, mindfulness is a tool that many of us have been told could be beneficial for us. Mindfulness is defined as paying attention with intention and without judgment. Journaling can provide a space for that.”
What if I’ve Tried Journaling and I Hated It?
Before you write off (see what I did there?) journaling altogether, I would recommend that you take a moment to think about what it was that you hated about it.
Perhaps you tried it in a notebook and found that your hand couldn’t keep up with your brain or that you don’t have the strength to use a pen for long periods of time anymore. There’s no rule that says journaling has to be on paper! You can use your computer, tablet, or phone to capture your thoughts. If the writing process feels overwhelming, Jen said that she finds the same benefits from talking through things out loud or even silently while she drives, while others like to use a voice recorder on their phone. Consider trying a different format from what you’ve used in the past and see if that helps.
Nichole Sachs says that resistance to the process is your nervous system protecting you from your repressed emotions. Emotions that could, perhaps, benefit from release in the form of journaling. Spend some time thinking about if that’s what may have been happening in you when you tried and didn’t like the process.
But after all that, guess what? Journaling is not for everyone. What is important is not that you take on this practice, but instead that you look for a practice that serves you well. It could be listening to or creating music or art, exercising or other types of movement, or spending time in nature, just to name a few. Find your thing, the outlet that provides for you a release as you process what you’ve been through and what there is to come. Whether it’s journaling or something else, we all need a way to work through how we came to be, who we are, and what that means for us moving forward.