Journaling Your Way to Emotional Health
When I was in school, I had several teachers that required us to journal on a regular basis. Of course there were certain parameters and topics we had to cover. We were graded according to how well we followed instructions, and whether our writing was free of spelling and grammatical errors. Many clients I work with have had the same experience with journaling. So when I bring up the fact that journaling has been shown to improve mental health, they are hesitant, approaching it like a school assignment. But this is not what I'm suggesting.
James Pennebaker, a social psychologist and researcher, pioneered what is known as the expressive writing method—an intervention that has shown to improve the mental and emotional health of participants. The research done by Pennebaker showed that writing about one's own story can help with coping and processing memories. Here is the step-by-step process for journaling using this method:
1. Find a notebook or journal.
It doesn't have to be a fancy leather-bound diary—a simple notebook with lines will do.
2. Time yourself for 15 minutes.
Set a watch or the timer on your phone.
3. Write about a specific memory or an issue you are currently dealing with.
Don't worry about spelling or grammar. You are not being graded. This is all about getting your emotions out on paper.
4. Do this four days in a row.
Try writing before bed when you are winding down, or during some quiet time when you won't be interrupted.
Unlike the tedious journaling that many of us did in school, this activity is meant to be freeing. You may find that your entries turn into prayers and one-sided conversations with God on paper. One reason I believe this method works is that you are allowing yourself to process things through free association—the same thing one does during therapy.
When traumatic things happen in our lives, we often try to find meaning. Words are meanings, and when you put your experience into words, you might be surprised at the insight and meaning you discover.
So there you go. Give it a shot and let me know what happens.
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Overcoming Trust Issues
Two years ago a scraggly kitten found its way onto my porch. My neighbor stepped outside, and noticing the small cat, told me that she had been trying to adopt the stray for weeks, but was unsuccessful. She explained that she tried bringing the kitten into her home but her older and much larger cat wouldn’t allow it. The neighborhood cats also terrorized the kitten whenever it wandered across their territory.
“Would you be willing to adopt her?” my neighbor asked. How could I say no? I had always loved animals and didn’t want see this poor creature bullied any longer. I gently coaxed the kitten into my home. It slowly cowered through the door with its eyes wide open. It was used to constantly being threatened by some large creature lurking behind each corner. It took a few days before it completely warmed up to me. No longer terrorized by fear, the cat finally felt at home.
How fear can control us.
I’m reminded of how people can react the same way after something traumatic occurs. We too can become overly cautious even when there is no reason to fear. Fear is instinctual and protects us against harm. Yet fear can easily over-modulate and blow out of proportion. Logic may tell us that we are safe, but fear can still make us shrink back. Just like a terrorized animal, we can overreact to a danger that may not be there at all.
Relationships cause pain but also bring healing.
The worst kind of pain is caused emotionally by the dysfunction of relationships. We are shaped by the family where we are raised. We find out who we are in relation to community. Relationships are based on trust and if that trust is broken, we find ourselves shrinking back from opening ourselves up again. Betrayal is so painful that it cuts to the core of who we are and can echo far into the future. Often we make inner vows that prevent us from being hurt again:
"I will never trust another woman."
"I'll never let myself get hurt like that again."
"I will never let myself get close to another person."
These defensive beliefs can be debilitating if they are allowed to rule your life. Much like the door to an armored tank, it may keep you safe from harm, but it also keeps everyone else out. The only way to find healing is to eventually open yourself up again. This doesn't mean you open yourself up to anyone, but you first have to heal so you can trust again. The door to that process starts with forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a process.
The first step in recovery is deciding to forgive those who have wronged you. Jesus is clear about the importance and benefit of forgiving others:
"Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.'" (Matthew 18:21-22)
Jesus is not being literal but is making a point. Forgiveness is a continual decision. It is an intellectual decision, but is also a process that eventually finds its resolution emotionally through choosing love over fear.
Three ingredients for rebuilding trust.
Choosing forgiveness doesn't mean immediately allowing yourself to be wronged again. There are practical things you can do to protect your heart so it can heal and reconnect with others. Here are three ingredients for rebuilding trust:
Allowing time to pass doesn't fix things on its own. Healing is progressive and doesn't happen overnight. Use this time to lean on God and establish a healthy sense of self. Who are you apart from a dependency on a relationship? Don't ruminate on your mistakes, but seek to learn from them.
Examine which of your personal limits were violated by the other person and set boundaries for the future. This is not the same as the vows listed earlier. Boundaries foster growth rather than deadening it altogether. Seek the concern behind such vows. Translate those concerns into practical boundaries that will preserve your dignity, while also allowing room for future relationships to blossom.
3. Safe People.
Because relationships bring healing, it's important to eventually open yourself up again. With discernment, find people who are emotionally healthy, nonjudgmental, and live ethically. Find people who have earned the right to hear your life story. If that is still too frightening, considering opening up first to a therapist. There is no guarantee that you will never be hurt again, but letting others love you will bring more happiness than any grudge or vengeance could ever evoke.
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