FMAWARE.ORG. BY JUDY WESTERFIELD, M.A., MFT
- Describe your life as if you lived in a parallel universe where everything was opposite to this universe.
- Pretend you are the opposite sex. Write down what your life’s goals would be.
- Pretend you are 6 inches tall. Describe what you’d see, where you’d go. Where would you live? How would you feel?
- If you could fly, where would you go? Where would you live? How would you live?
- Write yourself an anonymous love letter… and send it.
- Imagine you have an identical twin. Describe how you are alike and how your twin is different from you—and what you think and feel about the similarities and differences.
- Imagine you have a tiny devil sitting on one shoulder and a tiny angel sitting on the other. What does each whisper in your ear about family, friends, work, play, food? What do you respond to each of them?
NOW, I DON’T KNOW how journaling works, or why writing without editing feelings and thoughts can actually make me feel better. No one really knows how journaling about illness or traumatic experience actually improves the efficiency of our immune systems—it just does. No one really knows how journaling creates greater emotional well-being and helps people feel better physically—it just does. My goal in this article is not to cite studies of journaling, or to convince you to try it. I simply want to tell you a bit about why I think it works and how you can get started. And for those of you who already know how powerful journal writing can be, I’ll give you a few ways to spice up the process.
Journaling is a different story (no pun intended!). I periodically do journaling now as an adult and when I read my entries I haven’t a clue what I did on that day. But I do have an intimate picture of what I was experiencing emotionally and intellectually. When I reread my journal I am sharing intimately with the only person in the world who really knows what I’m experiencing: me. There is comfort and truth to that.
“Dear Diary,Today I got up at 7: 30. I was very stiff and achy. Maybe it was because I went swimming yesterday. I was so tired I wanted to go back to sleep. I got up and ate oatmeal for breakfast. Then I got dressed and went to school.”
I kept a diary when I was a teenager. I read it a few years ago. I got a good sense of the activities I did every day and whom I interacted with. But I had no sense of what I felt or thought.
“Dear Journal, Discouraged, exhausted, achy. I hate this hate this hate this and I hate feeling sorry for myself and I hate that no one really understands, and I feel alone with all this. I just don’t have the energy to interact with anyone no energy to be with anyone it feels like I’m sinking—so tired….”
Why Journaling Works
Journaling works in some of the same ways as talking to a therapist, being a member of a support group, or sharing with family and friends.
- We name the unnamable.
We give a face to the invisible. And when we can label a condition and describe an experience, there is relief.
Last month I took a halter test. When the results came back I was jubilant! I emailed all my friends with the good news.
~~ E-mail Re: Judy’s Pathetic Parasympathetic
I got the BEST news!!!! There’s something wrong with me! I just got results of a 24 hr. halter test and my autonomic nervous system is suppressed! (As it apparently is in about 98% of fibromyalgia/ chronic fatigue patients they tested in a small study.) My parasympathetic system doesn’t activate at night! Isn’t that the greatest news ever!!!! Finally, I KNOW why I’m EXHAUSTED and achy 24 hours a day. I’m soooo happy, finally a test that came back positive. Everyone was elated for me!
- We bring thoughts and feelings to our conscious awareness.
I start clients with “free-write.” You write non-stop, anything and everything, without censoring or editing what comes to mind. When we free-write, we put into words what we have buried or don’t want to admit to ourselves. We write whatever pours out, whether it makes sense or not. And then we read it back. We consciously hear what poured out of our unconscious. This awareness leads to choice—we can choose to ignore it, do something about it, talk to someone—and conscious choice is empowering.
- It can calm the stress response.
One of the primary ways to deactivate the stress response is to go on automatic pilot. Journaling without editing, analyzing, or criticizing, is doing exactly that—and as we all know, stress reduction is a top life management goal for fibromyalgia.
- We become objective observers.
By externalizing our thoughts and feelings—writing them on paper—we distance ourselves from our experiences and look at ourselves from a different perspective.It’s the difference between looking at the ground under our feet while we are standing on it and looking at the ground from an airplane. Same fibromyalgia, different perspective.
- Journaling gives us a frame, creates a boundary.
Having a chronic condition like fibromyalgia feels unending. We think it will never get better and it’s hard to remember what life was like without it. Journaling gives our experience a frame. Our thoughts and feelings are contained within the boundaries of our page. And there is comfort in the ritual of closing the book when we are done.
- One-way interaction.
We often don’t acknowledge what we are thinking and feeling to others, so we won’t be a burden or, worse yet, a bore. I often don’t share because it takes too much energy to answer questions, listen to, and interact with a live person. Next to Max, my dog, sharing thoughts, feelings, and secrets with a journal is the best! My journal always listens, never talks back, never judges, is always available and won’t betray my confidence. Journaling is a private process and it’s under my control (one of the few things that is!).
Now here’s the fun part. Let’s get started.
1) THINK CHEAP!
To begin, I recommend getting a spiral notebook with cheap notepaper. How many of you have one of those beautiful journals that you’re too afraid to write in because you don’t want to “mess it up?”
2) ADJUST YOUR MIND-SET
There’s no right or wrong. When you journal, messing up is an opportunity—not a failure. If you think you messed up, write about that.
3) SET A TIME FRAME.
Get a kitchen timer and set it for the amount of time you want to write.
4) USE AN EASY-FLOWING PEN THAT WON’T TIRE YOUR HAND
Some people journal using their computers. I prefer using a pen; handwriting is unique and creates a different connection to your mind. Try both and see which you prefer.
5) FORGET WHAT YOU LEARNED IN SCHOOL.
Do not pay attention to spelling, punctuation or grammar. Just write.
Are we done? Not by a long shot. Journaling is a lifetime tool. You might find yourself doing it daily and then stopping. You might pick it up in times of pain and stress or joy and gratitude. Whatever you feel, whatever you think—it’s a journaling opportunity. Write me and let me know how it works for you. And don’t worry about the spelling, punctuation, or grammar.
- Set a kitchen timer for 10-15 minutes.
- On the first line write I FEEL and then continue, non-stop, until the timer goes off. Never let the pen leave the page.
- If your mind goes blank, just do “loop-the-loops” with the pen until something pops into your mind. Continuously write until the timer rings, and then finish writing the last thought.
- Read what you wrote out loud. This is an important step. It lets you consciously hear what has been silent and unspoken.
The next time you journal you can start with the last sentence from your previous writing; you can start with “I feel” again; or can start journaling with anything you want. Remember, there’s no right or wrong.
Dialoguing with your body (or body part)
- This is one of my favorites. With fibromyalgia we are listening to our bodies all day long. Here’s an opportunity to ask questions, get answers, and talk back!
- Get two different colored pens or pencils—one color for you, one color for your body or body part.
- Using your color, ask your body a question.
- Change colors and write spontaneously the intuitive answer. Remember, it may or may not make sense.
- Keep switching colors back and forth, letting the dialogue unfold intuitively.
- When it feels finished, stop and read it out loud.
Once a day, write down five things you are grateful for. You might find yourself repeating the same things day after day. That’s fine. Remember, there’s no right or wrong.
On your worst days, find something you can indeed be grateful for. On my most painful, depressing, exhaustive days, I write that I’m grateful for being born in the United States, grateful that I managed to brush my teeth—grateful I still have teeth!
- Buy the cheapest spiral-bound sketchpad you can find, or use copy paper. It really doesn’t matter what paper you use, as long as it’s unlined.
- Get a box of crayons. They are inexpensive and help give us permission to scribble. They can also bring up feelings and memories.
- Focus on how you are feeling in that moment.
- Looking at your crayons, intuitively chose the color(s) that represent(s) how you are feeling.
- Using the crayons, mess around. Represent your feelings with a scribble, a doodle, a shape, a blotch, a smear—whatever intuitively comes to you.
- Label or write about your colors and shapes—what you are thinking, how you are feeling.
- Each day check in with your feelings and mess around with your colors. You might see patterns or similarities over time. It’s easy, it’s fast, it’s fun.
Judy Westerfield has been in private practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist in Laguna Niguel, Calif., since 1986. She specializes in helping other therapists with their clients, especially those with life-altering conditions. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1996. Along with colleagues Lynne Everette and Kathe Caldwell, Westerfield facilitates In the Face of Pain creative expression workshops for people with fibromyalgia and chronic pain.