People often ask me which technique is best for lowering anxiety and alleviating other unpleasant symptoms of being over-stressed. While exercise, meditation and breathing exercises are important , journaling is also an essential and powerful resource for a successful stress management program. Actually, the kind of journaling that is most effective is a little different from writing in your diary. Technically it is called Primary Process Journaling or, as I refer to it, Really Honest Journaling (RHJ).
Personal diaries have been kept by folks for many centuries but recent break-through research has shed new light on the neuro-science of how RHJ actually works and why it helps us to reduce stress. Without getting into the brain science, the important thing to remember is that it works . In fact, it works so effectively that it is used by our military to help soldiers deal with deployment related stress disorders. Here are some basic things to remember for anyone who wishes to begin journaling to lower their stress:
What Is Really Honest Journaling ? While writing a personal journal is much like keeping a diary, there are some important distinctions. RHJ is a focused resource employed when one is emotionally distressed by some conflict, loss or problem in one’s life that is beyond one’s control or has no easy solution. Basically, the journal itself consists of putting into words and describing whatever one is thinking or feeling about the troublesome dilemma. It may be as little as a few words or as much as an extended essay. The length is determined by each individual and by however long it takes for that person to feel better.
Journaling literally helps a person to express a burden and get things off his/her chest or, more technically, to shift brain activity from the right side (where the anxiety) is experienced to the left side (where it can be symbolically be represented and conceptually understood). Through describing one’s experience, one is able to gain distance and perspective from and on the problem which helps one to feel better.
How is RHJ Different from Keeping a Diary ? The key distinction between an ordinary diary and RHJ is honesty. The thoughts and feelings which come from deep inside of us can be raw and quite disturbing and that can create a problem. No one wants to think of him/herself as being a bad person and yet some of the things that come into our mind are not nice. In order for journaling to reduce stress, it must accurately express, discharge and safely process the powerful feelings and impulses which can arise. To effectively write about these sometimes, terrified, obscene or violent images one has to first realize that they are normal and not signs of a mentally ill or bad person and second, give oneself permission to put those feelings into words exactly the way they occur.
Being totally honest is not as easy as it sounds. It is important to remember that censoring or “cleaning up” one’s thought ruins the stress reduction process. Nonetheless, the key to being honest is to reassure oneself that one’s journal is absolutely private and confidential. In order to ensure that your thoughts are kept top-secret, they must be either locked up if written by hand or saved in a password protected file if done on a computer.
How Often Should One Write in One’s Journal ? Finally, it needs to be understood that journaling is a resource , not an obligation. It is a tool to be used when one is in distress. For some, it will be multiple times a day ; for others, every once in a while. With practice, it can be can be looked upon as a place and time to hit the reset button and refresh. It is important that journaling does not have to be done at the exact moment of an upset . Indeed, one can make a note of one’s distress and make a promise to self to deal with it in the journal when one has the time and privacy. Imagine that a difficult experience can be put in a Tupperware tub and saved for a later time when it can be opened and dealt with.
Increased stress is a given fact of life for modern living. It is good to know that, with a little practice, Really Honest Journaling can be used to lower stress levels and cope more effectively with the challenges life presents.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC , Fellow AAPC 11 1 2017