The Healing Power of Stories

There are many reasons people come to therapy: relationship troubles, traumatic experiences, depression or even self-improvement. Though the presenting reason may vary person to person, the underlying goal is to heal. There are many ideas on how to heal people that range from medical models to holistic approaches. My personal interest is healing that tends to the whole person: mind, body and soul.

An important piece of healing involves exploration. The majority of us have a neatly pre-packaged story of our lives: what our childhood was like, how we decided on our major, and the problems we have endured and overcome.  Our story often becomes so airtight that no other possible perspectives or meanings can seep in. This story becomes so routine that when people ask us about our lives we simply reach into our pockets and recite it from memory without batting and eye. We generally believe that with age, cultivated experience and wisdom, we develop expanded perspectives and ideas on life. However, when these stories of our lives go unexamined for so long, we can cut off the opportunity to make new meaning, re-story our plotline and ultimately deepen the understanding of our experience.

While in therapy this exploration usually involves talking, it also involves other creative methods.  When we use an alternative lens, such as a creative method, to explore these engrained stories, we often discover inner strengths and exceptions and are able to vividly detail our experience and its meaning. Creative methods can consist of poetry, art, music, lyrics, drawing, or journaling to name a few.

In an effort to provide you with every day pragmatic tools that will contribute to a sense of overall well-being, I am going to focus on journaling and it’s therapeutic benefits. Yes, I mean handwriting! Before I scare you off with the feel good pluses of writing, here’s a bit of research to support this activity!

James Pennebaker, a well-known psychologist from the University of Texas at Austin found that individuals who did expressive writing (writing about stressful or emotional events) reported feeling happier and less negative than before journaling. Pennebaker also noted that individuals who continued journaling for weeks and months experience less rumination, anxiety and depressive symptoms. Other health benefits include improved asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Pennebaker has published a book called Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheavel.

If you also read “Mindful Living: Awaken to the Present,” then this notion of being aware of your internal state and expelling thoughts and feelings is familiar to you. Journaling is simply another way to check in with yourself. However, journaling has the added component of processing thoughts and feelings.

Other Benefits of journaling:

1. Present focus

The spontaneous and expressive nature of journaling encourages us to be aware of our present experience.

2. Clarity

Writing can detangle our experiences by clarifying emotions & helping us identify feelings and thoughts.

3. Know Thyself

The awareness and present-focus enables us to know ourselves more deeply.

4. Decreases rumination and stress

When we physically write down our thoughts, we get out of our heads and can shut off that voice that won’t stop wondering or worrying. Holding onto such things can become toxic and manifest in the body.

5. Creativity

Helps us see alternative ways to problem solve rather than using the analytical side of our brain. Writing encourages creativity, which has many uses, such as for business, art, conflict resolution and innovation.

6. Alternative to talking

Writing is a great way to get our thoughts together when we are having trouble communicating them to someone else. You can also say what you want uninterrupted without judgment or backlash.

Journaling Tips:

  • Find a quiet place free of distractions
  • Do NOT type, HANDWRITE! (Handwriting connects the body and mind and the physical nature contributes to stress reduction)
  • Try not to edit your work- grammar, spelling and “shoulds” are unimportant
  • Establish a routine
  • Re-read your journal
  • Be mindful of privacy issues
  • Get a journal that you like!
Life is full of ups and downs, surprises and misfortunes; it is out of our hands. What is in our hands is how we cope and the ability to heal ourselves every day. Whether you’re healing a small or large wound or simply checking in about your day, here are some activities and resources to help you tell your story.

What to Journal

  • Reflect on the day/ certain situation
  • A conversation between yourself and someone else
  • A letter to someone
  • Conversation between your head and heart
  • Dreams
  • Poems
  • Desires
  • Artwork
  • Memories
  • Gratitude

The Way of the Journal: A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing

The Center for Journal Therapy

My Therapy Journal: Research References

My Therapy Journal: An Online Journal (recommended only if privacy is an issue)

References

Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (in press). Expressive writing and its links to mentaland physical health. In H. S. Friedman (Ed.), Oxford handbook of health psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Purcell, M. (2006). The Health Benefits of Journaling. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 15, 2011, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/the-health-benefits-of-journaling/

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2 Comments on “The Healing Power of Stories

  1. I was recently very upset about a situation to the point where the anger and anxiety physically manifested itself inside of me. I decided to journal (hand-written of course) :) and after 3 pages of furiously writing every thought that came to mind, I definitely had a moment of clarity. I was able to rationally verbalize my thoughts and i think it lead to a more productive conversation in the end. Thanks for the tips!

  2. Your approach to healing the whole person is something really unique among the therapists I’ve known. I’m impressed with your mindset and am sure that it will prove very effective in helping others (your other posts have already helped me).
    I’ve kept both handwritten and blog journals. I understand that the mind connects differently when handwriting something, but I’ve always found it easier to express myself when typing. For whatever reason, I can fully express my thoughts, and more importantly I am more likely to maintain a blog journal long term over a hand written one. I completely agree with the benefits though.

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