Write to Heal: Science-backed Journaling to Address Anxiety, Chronic Pain, and More.
What is the one category of therapeutic practices most often ignored by medical providers?
TDC: Too Darn Cheap.
Today, we are going to share an overview on one of the most effect, accessible TDC practices for mental and physical health: journaling.
Journaling is the perfect example of a “TDC” intervention. It is science-backed, effective, and easy to use, but because no money can be made from a technique in this category, medical providers simply don’t talk about it.
There are two types of journaling that are particularly effective for pain and anxiety management:
- Expressive Writing
- Gratitude Journaling
While, Expressive Writing has had over 1,300 peer reviewed studies on how effective it can be for your physical and mental health, it is never really “prescribed” by a provider because the medical system cannot charge money for it. The same is true for Gratitude Journaling!
But here at Flowly, it is our mission to share with you techniques and approaches that are truly readily accessible and backed by science. That’s why our founder Celine Tien led this workshop, Write to Heal, for our community.
You can watch the replay here:
To make this workshop even more helpful, we have included all of the notes and instructions below.
So here are the steps for and science behind Expressive Writing:
How to Do Expressive Writing:
- On a scrap piece of paper, write down your thoughts and emotions
- Now destroy that piece of paper
- Move on
It is really that simple!
This is why it works:
It works because when you do expressive writing, you create a space between yourself and your thoughts. This is important because anxiety, pain, and even anger are both a psychological and physiological response to a threat.
As many of you know, there is a key system in our body that controls all our unconscious bodily reactions like heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and even sexual arousal. That key system is the Autonomic Nervous System.
You can typically think of the Autonomic Nervous System in two parts:
- The Sympathetic system —> “fight or flight” mode
- The Parasympathetic System —> “rest and recovery” mode
When your body believes there is a threat, it activates “fight-or-flight” mode which is expressed as increased heart rate, muscle tension, blood pressure and more. This is the mode where all your anxiety, pain, and anger live.
The threat that triggers this response can be a physical threat, but it can also be a mental threat. Mental threats can be hard to manage because the danger signal, the threat, is in your own head. This can exacerbate or cause pain, anxiety, anger, and more.
However, when your body recovers, there is a “rest and digest” mode. Your body is relaxed, your heart rate is low, and your body can heal and recover in safety.
So just as creating space between yourself and a physical threat allows your body to feel safe, you can “escape” a mental threat by also creating distance. This is where expressive writing comes in.
Famed neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”
Expressive writing helps to create a space between you and your thoughts. By actually writing down your thoughts, the source of your mental threat, on a piece of paper, there is a physical separation between your brain and those words. In that space, we gain the freedom and the power to choose our response.
When you encounter something that might be trigger for an anxiety response or pain, you can immediately create distance between yourself and the trigger by writing it down. By doing so, you can actually impact your brain through expressive writing.
In fMRI scans, researchers saw that when people did expressive writing, their amygdala, the emotion center of the brain, quieted down. By using this technique, you can literally teach your brain to turn off your anxiety and pain responses. It is the first step to sending your body into “rest and digest” mode to feel comfort and safety.
Now that you know more behind the “why” of expressive writing, here is a reminder of the steps of how to do it for yourself:
- Take out your piece of paper
- Physically write out your thoughts and emotions: it can be incomplete sentences, phrases, words, it does not need to make sense. It can be negative, positive, irrational, rational, imaginary, anything!
- Now destroy the scrap piece of paper- tear it up!
- Throw it away.
- Do not think about or analyze what you wrote, just move on with your day
Expressive Writing Tips:
- Choosing a consistent time of day to practice expressive writing will help it become a habit and reduce overwhelm about incorporating this practice into your life.
- You can write as little or as much as you want. We recommend starting with three minutes a day, and seeing how you feel.
- It can be easier to write in the third person, so instead of saying “Today I feel”, write “Today the hero feels” as if you were a character in your own story.
Here is one more journaling technique that has been proven to improve mental health: gratitude journaling. You may have heard of this technique before, or it may be totally new to you.
Gratitude journaling is very simple: each day, write down three things you are grateful for that day.
Gratitude is the state of being thankful or appreciative, so choose any three things that put you in this state. It may sound almost too easy to be effective, but here is why it works:
Gratitude journaling is a regular practice that can help us change how we perceive challenging moments. Glenn Fox, a researcher who studies the effect of gratitude on the brain, says, “grateful people tend to recover faster from trauma and injury. They also tend to have better and closer personal relationships and may have improved health overall.” In fact, in brain imaging scans, you can see the changes in people’s brains who have been gratitude journaling for over three months.
Ready to try this technique for yourself?
Remember, the more you do it the easier it gets- and the stronger the results!