How to write your way out of chronic pain

What is journaling?

There are many forms of journaling, but the one I found the most effective in dealing with my own chronic pain was ‘therapeutic journaling’.

Therapeutic journaling is a simple and effective way of releasing the pressure valve on our own internal pressure cooker – which, for sufferers of chronic pain, is often close to bursting, since they are the most likely to repress their emotions so as not to cause a fuss or upset anyone. They are often people pleasers, goodists, stoics and perfectionists, making it harder for them to express the silent rage, resentment, distress, pain, frustration, fear or worry they are experiencing. They would prefer to be the sounding board for another person’s worries than ‘burden’ another with their own.

This is why therapeutic journaling can be such an effective outlet for their unexpressed thoughts and emotions. It allows them to free themselves of pent up emotion, see an issue objectively and gain a sense of perspective.

Put simply, therapeutic journaling involves writing down all your thoughts and feelings without censorship, judgement or the fear of anyone else reading your words. It’s an honest outpouring of emotions.

Your journaling time is private and is your opportunity to let it all out. No holds barred. You can be as angry, hurt or upset as you wish. Use foul language if it helps and don’t even think about spelling errors or grammatical correctness (this can be somewhat challenging to the ‘Type T’ personality).

It can help to imagine yourself as a 5-year-old having an enormous tantrum. Use phrases like ‘I feel angry/sad/hurt/mad because……….’ Don’t hold back and don’t be frightened or ashamed of what comes up.

Write, offload, then delete, throw away or burn. It will feel liberating. Any anger, resentment or shame you feel will lighten and the pressure will release. You will often physically sense the tension leaving your body.

How does journaling help?

Creating an awareness of your thoughts, good or bad, separates you from them. When you can detach yourself from your thoughts you are able to look at them in a more objective manner and gain a different, more positive, perspective on them.

Scientifically proven to do you good..

Clinical studies have shown that journaling can:

  • Reduce pain
  • Allow healthier emotional reactions
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Improve sleep quality and duration
  • Reduce symptoms of depression
  • Reduce stress reactions in relation to a traumatic event
  • Reduce and regulate heart rate

Could journaling be upsetting?

If you have experienced particularly traumatic events in your life, you may initially find journaling too direct or upsetting. This is not to say that journaling should be avoided, rather that other strategies or treatments may be necessary first in order for you to reach the point of feeling safe to journal. Please do seek help from a professional counsellor or therapist if you feel this would be beneficial.

Getting started

Find a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed. First thing in the morning, when others are still asleep, or not requiring you attention, is a good time to write. Take a few deep, calming breaths and make sure you have something comfortable to sit on. Don’t overthink things, and don’t plan what you will write.

Choose your preferred style (you can alternate depending on your needs):

1)      Unsent letters to people who have upset you (past or present). This has two possible benefits: you get to tell the person what you think of them without fearing their reaction, and the act of forgiveness is very healing. Of course, you can always just be bold and tell them to their face! Realistically though, good, kind, conflict-avoiding people pleasers often find this very hard to do.

2)      Exploring emotions in the here and now, and gently inquiring into the thoughts that led to those emotions. Was it really the spilt milk on the floor that upset you, or was it the many small but challenging events leading up to that minor incident that resulted in your angry outburst?

3)      Exploring a traumatic or upsetting event in the past and writing to shed light on how this is bringing up emotions in the present.

Any of the above can take more than one attempt, in order to work through the layers of emotion we hold onto and repress – often likened to the layers of an onion. The goal is to be able to put these thoughts into perspective, reframe them and move on. Please don’t attempt to move onto the next stages before first really allowing yourself to feel the feelings and express them fully, without judgement or criticism. Be a passive observer of your thoughts.

The following guide, written by Georgie Oldfield, founder of SIRPA (https://www.sirpa.org/) in the UK, contains some really useful information on journaling, including the helpfulness of visualization techniques at the end of your journaling, and expressing gratitude for what is going well in your life https://www.sirpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/7-Tips-for-successful-Therapeutic-Journaling.pdf. Georgie has also written a very helpful eBook called ‘Journaling for Health’ https://www.sirpa.org/product/journaling-for-health-ebook/

Sometimes, you may feel the need to search around a little when you begin to write, so try asking yourself the following to help get things going: Am I annoyed, upset, angry, frustrated or disappointed about anything or with anyone?

How long should I write?

How long is a piece of string? Don’t overdo it (journaling can sometimes feel a little emotionally draining), but allow yourself sufficient time to release the thoughts and associated tension you’re holding onto. Nicole Sachs, creator of JournalSpeak™, recommends 20 minutes of journaling, followed by 10 minutes of meditation. This could be in the form of a relaxing guided meditation, or a silent meditation where you observe the thoughts and feelings that arise from the journaling. Allow them to wash over you without judgment or attachment.

It can also be helpful to ask yourself ‘what have I learned?’, ‘has anything good come of this?’ or ‘how can I reframe this?’

Reframing means changing your perspective on a given situation to give it a more positive or beneficial meaning to you.

Then destroy your writing! Rip it up, burn it, delete it.

As Nicole Sachs (https://www.thecureforchronicpain.com/) says ‘Repressed emotions are only powerful in creating pain if they don’t have a voice. Nobody needs to hear this voice but you’.

(I hope journaling will help you, as it did me. This is no longer a daily practice for me, but I find it useful as one of my tools to occasionally return to if I feel any symptoms returning).

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