When we’re going through a difficult time, life can feel scary, stressful and full of pressure. It’s hard to get our thoughts straight and deal with all the normal demands of the day. Journaling is one way to create some mental space and give ourselves a little peace.
It helps to put what’s troubling us into words and write them down on the page. After learning to journal, one woman told me, “After I saw it in black and white, the problem didn’t seem as big as it did when it was in my head.”
Journaling can be especially helpful when you’re facing health challenges and want to care for yourself well — physically, emotionally and spiritually — as you go through treatment. Picturing yourself healthy and thinking about how you want to feel when your treatment is complete can be a great way to focus what you write about.
It is also helpful to simply express what you’re feeling, what you hope for and what you’re grateful for. And of course, writing down good memories is a great way to lift your spirits and bring back your smile.
Specifically, journaling can help you:
Make sense of the changes in your life
Adjust to your diagnosis and treatment
Put your illness in perspective
Begin to envision yourself healthy
Find a private space where you can express out your feelings honestly
Feel more in control
Remember what really matters to you
Journaling can make a difference in how you feel physically, too. A number of research studies (at Ohio State, Southern Methodist and North Dakota State Universities, among others) have shown that journaling can have many health benefits, including reduced pain and lowered blood pressure.
You don’t have to write well in order to journal effectively — the point is to simply express what you’re thinking and feeling, and write about what you hope for and appreciate. Here are some ideas for types of journaling you might want to try (notice that they don’t all include words):
Create a photo journal: Get a small notebook and tape a photo of a fun or special memory on the page. Beneath the photo, write out what you remember about that day, being as detailed as you can. Talk about the weather, who was there, what the air smelled like, what you heard, what made you laugh and what your overall feeling of the day was.
Make an art journal: One fellow didn’t feel like writing out his thoughts and feelings, but he decided to paint his experience of every day. So he bought an inexpensive set of watercolors and painted how he felt about his day. The result was a wonderful diary with lovely paintings full of the colorful language of his artistic expression.
Record an audio diary: If writing and painting aren’t for you, consider recording a note to yourself each day, reflecting on your day, reminding yourself of what’s important, or expressing your hopes, your concerns, your thanks. Recording audio is as easy as using your phone these days. Expression is the key, and remember to record not just your worries but your hopes and thanks as well.
Create a gratitude journal: Some physicians suggest to their patients that keeping a gratitude journal will help them stay focused on the positive, which will help them have a better chance of responding well to their treatment. Simply take 30 minutes to think back at the end of each day and write down five things you’re grateful for that happened since you woke up. Another gratitude journal idea is to write down one “thanks” for things you experienced with all five of your senses.
Getting started journaling is as simple as getting a notebook and a pen (or some paints, paper and a brush) and beginning. As you begin, it may be helpful to journal the same time each day. Find a time that feels right for you.
As you begin, resist the temptation to criticize what you’ve written. No one else will see your journal unless you choose to show them, so you can be as free and honest as you can.
If you’d like support along the way, please come to our Words and Wellness Journaling group at Hancock Cancer Care the first Wednesday of each month from 10 to 11 am. We’d love to become part of your story by offering support and resources that help you journal your way toward better health.
Katherine Murray serves as the chaplain and bereavement coordinator for Hancock Regional Hospital Hospice, and she facilitates groups as part of the hospital’s supportive care program. She can be reached at kmurray@hancock regional.org.