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Archive for January, 2017

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What if I told you one of the easiest, most versatile and affordable tools you could adopt for your “coping toolbox” for being mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy was… journaling.  Yes, that old chestnut. A favorite go-to of angsty teens everywhere turns out to be a remarkable tool for life-long self care.

I share my enthusiasm for journaling both as an avid journal-keeper myself as well as a therapist. Personally, I love going to coffeeshops and journaling. I sit down and “check in” with myself, see what’s *really* going on with me. Sometimes I doodle, sometimes I embroider quotes with colorful markers and pen. Sometimes I vent. Sometimes I stare out the window and then back at the empty page; permission to “just be”. If there’s a problem that I’m trying to tackle, I typically review all the variables, projected possibilities, pros and cons until an answer begins to emerge. Sometimes there is no “answer”, especially around things that are not in my control, but acknowledging the emotions I’m feeling makes me feel a little better.  And that, my friends, is something useful to know how to do! Keep a journal long enough and you have a record of your subjective experience across time, which is pretty neat to look back at later.

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Regular journaling often leads to more easily putting together the puzzle pieces of seemingly unrelated experiences into a more cohesive whole (pssst, that helps with meaning-making, problem solving and with feeling more “in control” of one’s life). Just writing down a description of what exactly you are experiencing during a given day… recording your thoughts, noticing your feelings and then perhaps following the bread-crumb trail to where those feelings began, studying and notating your own behavior… this can be a powerful tool that can help you in a multitude of ways.

As a therapist, I encourage people to allow themselves to be more curious. And perhaps try to record this curiosity.  Pull out pen and paper or, your phone if you prefer, and ask yourself questions about you, your life, your day, your process.  Be curious about why or why not you did something and why you did it the way you did.  There’s almost always a reason, a motivation, a pull, a purpose, a function… hiding in plain sight. Being curious about yourself is “fine-and-good” but doing it alone in your own head only gets you so far; it will only get you so much benefit. It’s kind of like doing a math problem in the air, we all get lost pretty quickly. So, it’s helpful to write all this complicated stuff down so you can work with it in a more “hands on” way!

Being curious on paper, now that’s a lot like a conversation! Or, perhaps like keeping detailed notes in a field experiment. Journaling is a safe place where you can say anything, a place to “try on” different ideas, solutions or to envision various possibilities… all to yourself, right where you can benefit from it by putting solutions into action.  If you want to.  Journaling might even help you realize all the excellent reasons to NOT act right now.  Understanding the why or why not can be comforting, illuminating, a relief.  It gives you more power and insight over your own existence.  Journaling can help you develop the super-power of self-knowledge… and that leads to personal growth.

So, Why Journal? How Does It Help Exactly?

Journaling has been studied extensively and been found to be beneficial in many ways.

  • Journaling has been shown to lead to long-term improvements in mood, reduced depressive symptoms, lower blood pressure

  • Journaling helps you discover patterns in your life or your behavior through “self-observation”. Journaling helps you document your experience for future reference or analysis. You could treat your journal like they are the field notes of a scientist studying and observing an interesting subject (you!) in the wild, noticing what happens in sequence and noting the results, being curious about how things might have gone had one variable been different or a different approach been taken.

  • Journaling helps  develop more understanding, compassion and gratitude towards others, yourself, your problem solving, your struggles, and the ways you cope with life. Journaling can help you learn to listen to yourself and pay attention to your own needs and desires, like a friend gently comforting you when you are freaking out. Here is a wonderful series by Kristin Neff on how to enhance self-compassion.

  • Journaling helps you sort through moments in life that are uncomfortable, ambiguous or uncertain.  It’s a primary tool to help tolerate sitting with ambiguity (which you know the soft animal of my body loves :)

  • Journaling can be used as a coping tool to get relief during difficult moments. It can reduce ruminating thoughts by serving as a container and space to organize thoughts.  Once you’re familiar with using journaling it can feel like an oasis, an access-point to feeling empowered and free in the midst of situations that may be disempowering or when you are feeling trapped.  Journaling is like a transporter in that way.  (Tip: try asking yourself “would writing help me right now?)

  • Journaling can be used to clear away the “cobwebs of the mind” or for “daily maintainance” of self care. Writing daily has the reported benefit of “clearing” the mind and giving relief to the writer in a way that could be useful if you are wanting to alleviate your mind of worries, “mental clutter” or stress.  Journaling is an opportunity to face problems head-on daily instead of letting them pile up.

  • Journaling cultivates curiosity and problem solving skills. Curiosity leads to insight, personal growth, gain perspective about self otherwise difficult to attain –

  • Journaling helps improve self esteem and self love.  Journaling helps you process/ notice destructive thinking or destructive circumstances, it helps you examine irrational or cruel ways of regarding yourself and practice being more self-loving.

  • Knowing yourself is one of the best ways to improve future relationships. Journaling helps you know yourself so you can be a better in each of your relationships.

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How to Journal… like, specifically, HOW do you start?

There are numerous approaches as to how to approach journaling.  There is no one right way to do it (thank goodness!) so think of it as a no-fail, low-risk situation we already know has numerous benefits.  First start with some guidelines:

Keep It Simple – don’t feel like you have to go out and get some fancy leather-bound journal–in fact if you know you’ll be tempted to keep that beautiful journal pristine and therefore not use it then skip getting the most gorgeous journal in the world.  Using a spiral-bound notebook like the kind you used in school may feel uninspiring or remind you of unpleasant homework.  I encourage you to use whatever is readily available, is utilitarian and that you like on some level (but maybe don’t love).  Sometimes when I’ve forgotten to bring my journal with me I’ve used post-it notes, scraps of paper, etc. and tape them in my journal later.

Let Go of Perfection – no need to manage your grammar here, let yourself write without censoring, let go of correctness or even making sense or having your words be legible (to everyone anyway). This space is for you, so let yourself go. Some find that focusing more on the quantity vs the quality of writing helps banish the critic.  If your goal is to write non-stop for 10 minutes you will focus on that task instead of how good what you write is, and that’s good.

Have Courage – please know that writing takes courage, vulnerability. It’s not always easy to “open up”, even to yourself. But as Brene Brown reminds us, vulnerability is a strength. With great risk comes great reward; writing is worth the risk because of what you’ll gain in insight, personal growth and cultivation of a handy coping skill.

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Then there’s the HOW of journaling techniques, of which there are many:

Start with just writing about your life – use journaling as a way to capture, document and describe in detail what is going on in your life right now. Capture your life “as is” and without judgment. You could use pictures, clippings from magazines or scrap-book paper, draw, make lists, use different colored pens or pencils, zentangle, write a poem, list what you ate, what you saw, what you read, favorite quotes, end your entry with naming what you’re thankful for at this very moment or with an affirmation that’s resonating with you.

Maintain a log of successes –  Begin by writing big ones you can easily remember and then try writing down small successes that occur during the week.  As you pay attention, the list will grow and serve to inspire and ground you.

Stream It – Dump It – Time It – Trying a variety of approaches to journaling often keeps the practice fresh and stimulating.  “Stream-of-consciousness” or dump-writing are easy ways to get journaling quickly and without judgement tripping you up.  According to Samara O’Shea in her beautifully written book Note to Self: On Keeping A Journal And Other Dangerous Pursuits, she describes stream-of-consciousness writing:

Stream-of-consciousness writing is mental anarchy and spring-cleaning all in one.  It’s like going into the basement, turning the tables over, breaking the records in half, cutting the stuffed animals open with a sharp pair of scissors (and feeling much better afterward), then putting it all out just in time for the garbage man to collect.

To get started, O’Shea suggests beginning with any word (which will inevitably lead you somewhere); picking an emotion that’s been overwhelming you lately or one that you haven’t felt in a long time; or asking yourself a question.

Dump-writing is, essentially, what Julia Cameron of “The Artist’s Way” recommends.  She calls it doing “Morning Pages”.  You can set a timer for 10 minutes or decide ahead of time that you’ll write 3 pages longhand without stopping.  She emphasizes doing this exercise first thing in the morning which provokes claity, comfort, prioritizes your mind and synchronizes the day at hand… clearing out the “cobwebs” of the mind.  The nice thing about dump writing is there’s no wrong way to do it.  They are not high art.  They are about anything and everything that might cross your mind.  They are for your eyes only.

Change your writing style to match your mood – If you are angry, maybe scratch large red words there, if you are feeling uncertain or scared, maybe write tiny words in a spiral shape. You could also write using colored pencils or pens and see what colors you are drawn to or which match the emotion you are feeling.

Guided Journaling Often Gets You Thinking– There are TONS of writing prompts out there. Some examples to try:

  • How am I feeling? How do I want to feel?
  • What does my soul want me to know?
  • What would an ideal day for me look like, sound like? How can I make such a day happen in the next month?
  • What do I want to learn about myself?
  • What do I want to change about myself? What would I never change about myself?
  • Describe the room, describe the people in your life, describe yourself.
  • Describe the aspects of your life that you are pleased with and those areas you’re displeased with.
  • What questions would inform the work you are doing?
  • What intuitions do you notice?
  • What are some of the forces driving you?
  • What fascinates you?
  • What is your particular understanding of yourself, your past, your family, your purpose?
  • What do you hope for in the future?
  • What is being revealed to you?
  • What puzzles you?
  • What questions might you ask of yourself and of your work?
  • What is it you have been given to say?

I also like the book “The Creative Journal” by Lucia Capacchione.  It’s a book full of guided prompts around certain personal growth topics such as “Where You’re At, Where You’re Coming From”, “Who You Are”, “How You Are With Yourself”, “How You Are With Others”, “What Your Higher Self Knows”, and “Where You’re Going”. The prompts can be used using writing, drawing, art-making, poem-making, or whatever medium you like at the time with a goal of self-exploration.

Get Inspired Using the Words of Others – Write down lines from a poem or quote that inspires you or copy quotes in fancy lettering.  Let yourself doodle with eyes open or eyes closed.

Write with your subdominant hand – Subdominant hand writing helps access your unconscious mind. You can start a dialogue with your inner child by writing with your subdominant hand. Try answering with your dominant hand.  What issues emerge?  This kind of writing can also be used to tap into or develop your intuition.  For example, your could write down concerns or questions you have for your “higher self”.  Take a deep breath and listen for a response. Let yourself write automatically.If you don’t get an answer right away, look and listen for signs between journal sessions.

Tap into a new perspective by using the third person – Try writing about yourself in the third person and you’ll find it helps give you distance from the problem and gives a different perspective.  Afterward, write down what you learned about you.  This is especially helpful if you are struggling with something that’s disturbing you.

Starting to see why journaling is like the swiss-army tool of coping?  If not, maybe try journaling about it…

current music faves: phantogram, tori a (as always), florence and the machine

current show faves: the oa, this is us, american crime story

see what’s going on at my practice at www.erynsmithmoeller.com

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