There’s an expressive writing and mindfuI journaling workshop I teach, for people who have chronic or persistent pain. It’s meant to be a helpful adjunct to one’s medical care and many who come have found their way to me through pain management or rheumatology specialists. I’ve been teaching this because I know firsthand the power of journaling to help calm and heal both the body and mind.
I journaled when I was young, but it became a habit when I was about to graduate high school. And it’s stuck ever since. Sometimes it’s been in my journal on my computer, often in one hardcover volume after another. These journals tell a story: The ones that had collages glued in, my abstract watercolors along the edges of the writing, the years I had a certain size journal I’d find at Costco, the rice paper page journals from traveling, the journal that fell in the water in a flash monsoon storm one afternoon in Bodh Gaya, and the ephemera I’d stick in them during years in various locations, cities and countries. The constant bringing it back to recount the memories, the good things, the things I was struggling with, the letters to God and the teasing out ideas in my written thoughts have helped me attend to myself in a positive, calming, mindful and healing way.
I myself have had to attend to chronic pain and rheumatological issues over the years that take time to care for medically. As a journal writer and teacher, the merging of these interests and my own life experience come together when teaching this workshop.
The writing in these Mindful Journaling for Health & Healing groups is structured and specific. Mindful journaling writing prompts are culled to help you hone in on issues that help you get in touch with your body and mind in a self-compassionate way. Components like breathing exercises, lovingkindness practices, and guided visualizations are also helpful in journaling for pain and stress relief.
Many of the writing prompts are ones I ask participants to write on quickly, without thinking too much (whatever comes to mind is best). Keep writing fast, without cross outs, is another thing to try doing. I may give 5-10 minutes for each writing exercise, depending on what the journaling prompt is. The point is to bypass the rational mind and “dump” directly from the shady, subconscious part of the mind onto the paper. You can try this yourself with some of the sample, suggested prompts below!
Know that you can move around a lot, especially as your body may be in discomfort, while you’re writing. You can stand, sit, stretch, lay on the couch, or bed, and write. Help yourself to be as comfortable as possible when you’re writing in your journal.
The clinical term for mindful journaling is “expressive writing.” Numerous studies and experts in the fields of psychology, mindfulness, and stress reduction techniques, including Dr. James Pennebaker, a highly respected social psychologist on writing therapy at the University of Texas – Austin, talk about how when we write in our journals about what’s bothering us, (or something we need to “figure out”), it helps to offload the levels of stress, or other tension that is “loading on our bodies.” When we do a brain dump of what’s on our minds, via writing, we help ourselves to start finding a place to nurture, calm, absorb, and process all that’s occurring in our lives. Journaling can be a place for self-discovery.
Our bodies have a loading capacity. As a librarian for over two decades, I know that library floors can only take so much weight and tonnage of books, heavy materials, and more, before they need reinforcing. Similarly, stress, pain, tension, body tiredness, nerve tingling, stiffness, the constant distraction of loss of range of motion, speed or acuity, are all extra “weight” on the floor of the house of our selves.
Expressive writing/journal writing helps you to write for your health and wellbeing and offload some of this extra weight. That, in turn, can help with a general sense of calm, quality of life and/or overall happiness. It can sometimes help you identify things you like about yourself, or things you want to change, and it’s a creative and healthy way to cope with challenges.
Before writing, I usually ask people to start with a short meditation and then a guided relaxation. We follow up with writing exercises and a short “reflective write.”
Here are some sample ideas for a meditation or a lovingkindness exercise to start with. These are some common phrases used. You may have heard them in other mindfulness activities. Feel free to change them as fits for you.:
Start with calming yourself down as much as you can in the moment: a way to naturally calm down your nervous system is by breathing as deep as you can. Just come in from your day, or wherever you were before this, and breathe deeply. This is a way to start healing.
By doing this deep breathing and gently calming yourself down from the hubbub of your day, you enter into a more contemplative space. Now take three slow, deep breaths and set the intention that you’re writing to help yourself. Your writing to help yourself helps you to help others as well.
To borrow from the mindfulness based lovingkindness, or metta meditation practice, I have a few commonly used phrases here and you can repeat them slowly to yourself before beginning to write:
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.
May my body and mind be calm.
May I have healing. And may I be free from pain, stiffness, any nerve tingling or uncomfortableness in my body.
May I have acceptance with what is going on even while I work to heal and move forward the best I can now.
May this present moment, and my awareness and intention for being here right now, help me to use these tools in my life for the good.
Now here are sample phrases I start with in helping people to find their own “way in” to guided visualization and creating a visualization that works for them. Again, these may sound or feel familiar, so you can personalize them in your mind and in your writing. After reading this, close your eyes and slowly take the time to try to paint the picture in your mind before you start writing in your journal.:
Imagine that all of the tension and anxiety you have starts turning into liquid. Start from the top of your head and let this liquid flow down, down your neck, your shoulders, your back, out your fingertips, flowing down the rest of your torso, belly, hips, down your legs and pelvis, see it flow over your knees and through your feet, and down into the floor. Release this negative energy down into the ground below you. Now, take a few more deep cleansing breaths. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Here are some sample Mindful Journaling writing prompts for you to choose from. They may be similar to ones you’ve heard or journaled on before. If you choose to, you can set a timer for however long you feel you need to write on each prompt. If you get stuck while writing, you can rewrite the prompt itself in your journal. Alternatively, you can take just one word from the prompt and write it over and over again until the next thing pops into your head that you need to write.:
-What I need to write about right now is?
-What is the best compliment you remember receiving and what did it mean to you? What was special about it to you at the time and now? How did it make you feel? Write on any or all parts of this.
-Make a list of thirty things going on in your life right now: Write these thirty things going on in a list or paragraph form. You may wish to continue journaling about anything on your list of thirty.
-How have I gotten through tough, challenging, or worrisome times before? How can I recall and use this knowledge now?
-What do I need right now and how can I fill/meet that need in a healthy way for me?
-Write about your resistance to doing something good for you that you’re not keen on starting? What would you need to be able to start?
-Write a letter to your pain, “Dear Pain,: Tell this pain whatever you want it to know about you. One example is, “Dear Pain, What I want you to know about me is that I’m tenacious and courageous,” etc.
-Is there a quote or saying that inspires you and why does it speak to you?
-Ask, “How am I feeling right now?” Do an intake of your feelings and write them down. Be gentle and curious while investigating.
-Free write on a large theme or topic, such as love, faith, hope, kindness that you choose. Choose to journal on what fits for you right now!
-What brings you joy and can you find some small pockets for that now, in spite of the pain?
After you finish a mindful journaling writing prompt, it’s extremely beneficial for building insight to do a short reflective write about what you just wrote. These short reflections can help ease the extra burden of weight and tonnage/tension that people with chronic or persistent pain carry in their body.
Here is a sample of one way to do a reflective write about your journaling:
When you finish what you wrote, read over what you wrote and try to write a short reflection on this writing. This can be one to two sentences. Imagine you are an objective reporter on the scene trying to write the story of what you just read or saw. Try to write the reflection in this objective voice. Examples would read like, “When I read over my writing I notice that…” OR “I see that…” Or, “As I read over my writing, I notice…, I’m struck by…, I know…, I want to…”, etc.” The key line to start with for your reflection about your writing is, “As I read over my writing, I…”
By journaling, we show up for ourselves, our feelings, our thoughts and we tend to the colorful garden in our mind by putting on the page what’s going on for us internally and externally. Paying attention to our thoughts and what’s going on helps offload some of these worries, concerns and fears and allows us time to hear what’s in our hearts and what we’d like to try to create with our current reality.
You are writing to take care of yourself during times of pain and times of less pain, or no pain. This is an affirming, showing up for yourself, place to inhabit.
Allow your thoughts to flow freely from pen to paper (or in your online journal) and thank you for taking time out to pause, reflect and write for yourself!
I encourage everyone to keep being creative in your own healing through journaling, and other ways that nourish your soul. We’d love to hear from you about this. Reach out to us at [email protected] and share how you “journal for the health of it 😊”, or to get more mindful journaling resources.