Why I had to overcome my fear of journalling in order to heal.
A Mindbody Syndrome recovery story.
This is an article aimed at people who have a good understanding of Mindbody Syndrome and have started on their recovery journey.
For those that have not read my other articles, before finding the Mindbody approach I had suffered with 15+ years of severe back pain following a diagnosis of Degenerative Disc Disease in my early twenties. I am now a pain free amateur triathlete and enjoy trying to help others in sharing my recovery journey.
So, why was I afraid of journalling?
Because there was a reason that I suppressed my emotions in the first place! I didn’t want to feel them! The idea of bringing up feelings that I had avoided for decades, on purpose, was a scary thought. And anyway, I was a super positive person. I didn’t want to waste time dwelling on the past!
One of the journalling exercises that had been recommended to me was to draw a line across the centre of a page representing the entirety of my life from birth on the left until the present moment on the right. Above the line I was supposed to write key life events on the timeline such as house moves, weddings, school changes, funerals etc and below the line I would map on to the page any illnesses or pain that I experienced over the years. I was to pick a life event and begin to write about how I felt at that time.
I had read a lot about Mindbody Syndrome at this point and was beginning to come to terms with the idea that these theories might also be relevant to me. Therefore, it wasn’t a great surprise to notice that around the time that my chronic pain started I had a lot of life stuff going on. I was in my twenties with a pregnant wife, at the beginning of a big mortgage commitment that would stretch us financially and was starting out on what I was finding a stressful career.
And so, after a couple of years of avoiding these exercises, I began to create the time and space to give this journalling therapy a real go. After finding the motivation I actually became pretty comfortable at picking away at these life events. I was free writing at speed to allow an unrestricted flow of words, thoughts and emotions to spill out on to the page. I would rant and swear, say things to people that I would never say in person, expressed my frustrations, anger, doubts and disappointments. I swore at my predicament and the injustice of having to live with the burden of excruciating pain.
Finally, I would tear up the paper to signify letting go and then to ensure I didn’t get trapped in negativity I would write 5 things that I was grateful for. This gave me a lift for the day. Admittedly I left each session feeling a little lighter as I sipped a coffee and stared out the window. I felt it was working.
However, there was one event that I was terrified of journalling about. An event that I knew would draw out the darkest of emotions and existential fears.
Up until the age of 16, I was cruising through life. That was until I came home from a school trip to Spain, full of life with my sun-bleached hair and tan. I stepped out of the car with my bags to be greeted by an ice-cold vacuum of energy. My mother who immediately broke down in tears and speaking almost inaudibly gave me the news that my childhood friend had been murdered.
So why not just leave those feelings suppressed?
Because I now understood Mindbody Syndrome and was making huge steps forwards with journalling. The period between painful episodes had grown from days to weeks to months but they were still coming and I wanted them to go. I continued to avoid journalling about my experience at 16 but this nagging feeling kept returning. I was going to have to lift the lid on these emotions that I had been avoiding for such a long time if I was to become well.
I would like to use an analogy that helps me explain what I believe was happening to me at this point in my recovery journey.
Imagine a glass, full to the brim with water. The glass represents my capacity to deal with life stresses. The water represents the thoughts and emotions that those life stressors create. When the water fills beyond the brim it spills over. That represents when I would experience a pain attack.
Those stressors include the daily life stuff that create a host of thoughts and emotions in response to them. Things such as the large email inbox, the challenging customers, difficult family members or friends, the weather, the traffic etc.
On top of those stressors were the thoughts and emotions generated from the belief that my back was damaged and the fear and anxiety that those beliefs created.
Crucially though, I also believe in that body of water were repressed emotions from those more significant life events. Thoughts and emotions that were too painful to deal with and that I had blocked out of my mind with positive thinking. Thoughts and emotions that weren’t allowed to complete their natural cycle such as grief that then stayed in the glass or as tension in my body.
What that means is that I was walking through life with a glass ¾ full of repressed emotion and so, when those daily life stressors came along, as they always will, the capacity to deal with them was greatly diminished and inevitably 3 or 4 times a year I would still crash out with severe pain episodes.
Whilst educating myself about the latest Mindbody pain science reduced the fear and breathing exercises helped keep the water from spilling over, in order to experience much greater healing, I needed to pour out some of that water that had been sat there for years. It was becoming stagnant.
What is journalling anyway?
Journalling is one of a number of tools available to someone working with Mindbody symptoms. It involves the person working through writing exercises as a form of low-cost self-directed therapy. The theory is that the act of writing slows down our chattering brains enough to capture the thoughts and emotions that would normally be swirling and whirling around our body and brain onto paper. Once they are on paper we can see them more rationally. Often completely unexpected words would appear from deep within my subconscious that caught me off guard, it seemed as though the process provided a route for those trapped emotions to find their way out. Sometimes it was relevant for me to rip up the writing and throw it away to signify letting go. At other times it made sense to keep the work for reference.
Which journalling exercise did I do?
There are a countless number of journalling exercises to try. Here is a brief summary of those that helped me most on my recovery journey.
The timeline — As described above this is one to keep and refer back to.
Free write about significant events — 3 x A5 pages around thoughts and feelings regarding those life events which are then ripped up and thrown away. Some people like to burn them if that floats your boat! The act of persisting for 3 pages seemed to get beyond the trivial to the suppressed.
Free writing about anything at all — 3 full pages of A5 of writing about anything. I found it helpful to start starting with something like, today I feel…. Or even just describing what I can see in the room would get things moving. This was most helpful for avoiding the repression of anything new that was arising.
Letters — Writing letters to people (that I never sent) to offload and rant. Including to deceased people, my younger self and even one time to the pain itself. Letting my younger self know that everything was going to turn out OK was nice.
Evidence diary — Another keeper! This one is a record of all the evidence that you have that your symptoms are Mindbody related. For example, the time you journaled and 20mins later your pain was gone.
Belief analysis — Draw a line down the centre of a page from top to bottom. On the left hand side I wrote all the beliefs I had around the pain or other fears or anxieties that I had. On the right I would offer some rational advice or analysis. This was great for understanding how often it was that thoughts and emotions were arising based on stories I was telling myself about people and situations as opposed to reality!
Didn’t it just make me depressed?
It was strange, the fear of the journalling process was worse than the actual experience. I learnt that it was almost like watching a sad film. I could observe the thoughts and emotions and feel them without them consuming me. People love watching sad films because of the cathartic effect. It felt similar to that. I also found it helpful to get into a calm mind-set before making a start. I got into the habit of doing some simple breathing exercises to settle my nervous system before I began and would always finish with a gratitude exercise.
So, did it work?
Yes, it did! I began to realise that I hadn’t grieved. My response to the news at age 16 had to become obsessively positive, refusing to feel any negativity. I realised that I had vowed that I would not waste my life and as a result was constantly living in the future, planning and striving to achieve things instead of living in the present moment and being at peace.
I hadn’t felt the fear and anxiety and deep sadness about the harshness of life experienced for the first time. I grieved for my friend and his family. I grieved for my younger self that had his safety bubble burst open, was so confused and frightened and lacking the maturity or professional help to process what had unfolded. I hadn’t acknowledged the fine balance we walk between life and death and admitted that I was petrified. I expressed anger and hatred for the cruelty of the world.
I began to forgive.
And at last, finally I could let it go.
I could feel the tension releasing from my body and peace and joyfulness taking its place.
As the journalling habit progressed, I became more aware that I was not my thoughts and emotions. I was the awareness of my thoughts and emotions. Sitting in that awareness was such a more peaceful place! If I began to notice any tension in my body that wasn’t clearly caused by exercise I would just journal for a few pages and as emotions were expressed my body would relax.
As life progressed, I began to become aware of emotions arising in real-time for what seemed like the first time. When they came, I would allow them to be there and that if I sat and watched them instead of pushing them away or latching on to them, I learnt that they would just shortly pass. Perhaps it is like a small hole appearing in the bottom of the glass. The emotions would flow in, I would observe them and they would slowly work their way through without becoming trapped.
I believe that pouring that stagnant water out of the glass freed up so much more capacity that I was no longer tipped into pain with the day-to-day life stuff.
Should you journal?
I think it takes bravery to turn inwards along with some will power to create the time but what do you have to lose?
My only word of caution would be that if you are struggling with mental health, severe depression and certainly if you have any suicidal thoughts, you should definitely seek the advice of a mental health professional before undertaking these activities.
Writing this for you was another form of journalling for me. So, I really should finish with today’s gratitude list!
- The butterfly in my front garden that has been entertaining me whilst I type
- The sound of my kids chatting to each other in the next room
- The dark chocolate I am about to eat
- The satisfying thought that this article might help someone I don’t even know
- I am going for a pain free run later today!
If you enjoyed this article, please follow me on Medium as I have a few other short Mindbody articles on the platform and intend to write more. If the ideas arrive!
I wish you luck on your own recovery journey.