Well + wise: Dear diary

Health + Wellness

August 31, 2023

The power of your words

by Juliet Lam Kuehnle

Many of us have considered journaling or have been told that journaling can be helpful to our mental health. But, many of us are also resistant to journaling or even intimidated by it. We may have a preconceived idea that journaling needs to be quite formal: maybe we have an image of ourselves sitting down with a lined notebook, our favorite pen, feeling some sense of yearning or angst, and starting, “Dear Diary …” 

This image (that conjures up ’80s teen movie vibes!) can certainly work for some people, but there are many other ways to release our thoughts. Some people document specific events, while others capture particular experiences. Some people write more fluidly, expressing a flow of ideas, thoughts or feelings. And others have no idea where to start.

Some of the ways to “journal” that I explore with clients include:

Stream-of-consciousness scribble on whatever paper is nearby

Writing a letter to someone, something or one’s self

Buzzwords/free association of whatever comes to mind

Writing three things each night that you’re thankful for

Doodling images or designs

Typing into your Notes app

Audio messaging yourself

But why journal at all?

Getting our words out can help defuse some of the power anxious thoughts may have. By externalizing or releasing these thoughts, they can live elsewhere rather than continuing to take up so much space in our heads. If we choose to reread what we’ve journaled, we can also identify thought patterns that are leading to anxiety or negative thinking traps. By doing so, we can reframe these unhelpful or irrational thoughts and be more objective.

Research supports all of this, showing that journaling can help manage daily stress and effectively reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms. 

The following is an excerpt from my interview with Shana Hartman, an embodied writing coach and owner of the Embodied Writing Experience. Comments are lightly edited.

What exactly is “embodied writing”?

Literally think about your body: Your hands are a nice connector between your head and your heart. Whether you write pen on paper, out loud, typing, or any communication, you are coming into your body. You are embodying your words and letting them come out. Writing from this place is the most powerful.

This gets us out of our heads and takes us to a more tender place, doesn’t it?

Yes, and it takes a lot of undoing because often the way we have been taught is from a heady, linear, step-driven place. We’ve been conditioned to not trust ourselves, and we have to relearn how to listen to our heart, soul and gut. Embodied writing is much messier, which is the beauty of it. It takes a lot of unlearning to embrace that tenderness. 

When did you know writing was so important to you?

I’ve not always called myself a writer, but I’ve always written. When I wasn’t sure how to express in some other way, writing was the place I could do that. I start by asking myself: “What is showing up? What am I noticing?” I learned early on that it was a way to flex that muscle of giving myself a safe space no matter what was happening outside of me.

What are ways (other than journaling) that embodied writing can look as a support to mental wellness?

I don’t use the “J word” because we have so many connotations around it. I call it “thinking out loud on paper.” It’s like a junk drawer in that it has a plethora of things in it, and if I offered to clean it for you, you’d hesitate because you somehow know what’s in there. It’s a collection of what seemingly is a mess, but at the right moment, you put it in there with intention and you get to take out of it with intention. It serves you to put things in there and take them out if you want. You don’t need to know why, you don’t know if you’re going to look at it again, but let’s just see what happens when you use these pages for that. I don’t know anyone who just writes what’s showing up and has not literally exhaled afterward because now these things that are swirling have been given a home.

What are some prompts for writing?

“What is showing up for me today?” And I always try to connect things to the body: “Where are you noticing that in your body?” And then I love personifying it: “If I gave this part a voice, what might it want to say?” Then I can stay with that, or I can shift: “How do I want to feel?” Then I give myself permission to choose an action step: “What would allow me to enact that feeling today?” There is no one right way to do it. It’s about finding your way and finding what brings you back to yourself amid the chaos.  SP

Juliet Kuehnle is the founder/owner and a therapist at Sun Counseling and Wellness. The full interview of Kuehnle’s “Who You Callin’ Crazy?!” interview featuring Shana Hartman can be found on Instagram @YepIGoToTherapy or wherever you stream podcasts.

Featured image: Juliet Lam Kuehnle, left, and Shana Hartman

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