Journaling is really helpful for healing because it is a way to explore your thoughts and feelings. It can feel like a huge release to get them out onto paper- by writing them down we allow them to exist outside of the mind.
Journaling can follow a ‘stream of consciousness’ approach, whereby we allow the flow of the words to take over- this helps to get into the subconscious where a lot of our trauma is stored.
Your journal is private– you can write any and everything in there. You don’t have to show it to anyone. It doesn’t have to “make sense”. Just let the words flow and you will be surprised at how much calmer you feel after getting it out- and how much you can learn about yourself.
It can be difficult to know where to begin- which is where prompts come in. Journal prompts are simply short statements or questions that allow us a starting point.
Of course you can just write freely, but prompts can give you a place to begin which helps when you are staring at a blank page.
Here are 5 journal prompts to help you get started.
1. What do I like about myself? What are my best qualities?
When we are feeling low, it can be hard to think of things we love about ourselves.
Survivors of traumatic events often have a voracious ‘inner critic’- a nagging voice constantly reminding us of everything ‘wrong’ with us, commenting on our mistakes and failures in life, telling us we should have done better.
It is possible to silence this inner critic, and one way of doing this is by challenging our negative assumptions about ourselves.
Use your journal to make a list of your positive qualities -and trust me, there are many!
In our dark moments it can be healing to look over such a list, as a reminder of reality when we are perhaps disconnected from it.
Are you a kind person?
Do you make people laugh?
Perhaps you can cook well, play an instrument, speak more than one language?
Do you look after your pets well?
Do you care about the environment?
Are you a loving parent, a good friend or partner?
How do the people who love you describe your positive qualities? Don’t be afraid to ask- the people you are closest to have a much clearer view than you- especially when the inner critic is raging.
2. What brings me joy? When do I feel happiest? What does happiness feel like for me?
Depression can suck all the joy out of our lives.
If we spend some time reflecting on the feeling of joy and thinking about what brings us joy, we can discover ways to rebalance our emotions during times of distress. We can discover our passions and use this knowledge to forge a fulfilling career or find a way of life that allows us to experience more joy.
As survivors we often struggle to identify feelings.
It can be both useful and enlightening to define what each feeling means to us, what we experience inside our bodies and minds when we are feeling a certain way.
If you struggle to define it in words at first, it can be helpful to use colours- what colour is happiness to you? Can you draw it? Could you draw your ‘happy place?’
Don’t worry about the drawing being “perfect” or even good- the whole point of the journal is that it is for your eyes only.
Let’s say you have drawn a yellow sun shining over a field of endless bright flowers. Try to imagine you are there. Feel the soft breeze, smell the flowers, hear the birds chirping away contentedly in the background.
From that safe space inside your vision of happiness, try to describe how you feel inside your body. Do you feel warm? Light? Full of hope? Safe? What physical sensations are present? If you drew a sun, could it be because happiness feels warm? What is the significance of the flowers, the field, the sky? Is joy brightly coloured to you?
If joy were a sound, what would it be? Why do you think you chose that sound? To remain in your body, return to your senses over and over. What does joy taste like to you? What does it smell like? If joy smells like fresh flowers, why not buy yourself flowers as often as you can? If it tastes like rice pudding and jam, try keeping a few tins in the cupboard for when you are feeling fragile.
Think about what situations bring you joy- perhaps cuddling with a pet, walking on the beach or being creative. Joy can be found everywhere- it can be as simple as organising your sock drawer! These small accomplishments and moments of self-care build up over time into a feeling of contentment and pride.
3. What makes me sad? When do I feel saddest? What does sadness feel like for me?
It is just as important and enlightening to explore our sadness. For some survivors, sadness is a familiar emotion; for others less so. Sadness can manifest as anger, and anger can manifest as sadness. Part of the grieving process is getting in touch with both our sadness and our anger, and expressing them in a healthy way. Journaling is one way to approach that.
You can outline your sadness in the same way as your joy. Describe it in words or colours. Ask yourself why you chose those colours, why you chose those images to portray your sadness.
Next time you feel upset, sit with the feeling- what does it feel like, not in your mind but in your body? What physical sensations does the sadness bring? What are some situations that have made you feel sad in the past. and what is it about the situation that was upsetting for you? This is how we begin to understand our triggers.
Are there situations in the past where you have felt disproportionately sad (more sad than the situation really warranted?). For example, maybe a friend or partner did not return your text for a few hours, and you became distraught because you started imagining that something bad happened to them, or they were cheating on you. These are your abandonment and betrayal wounds playing out. Later on, perhaps they answered to say they had been asleep or their phone had died. Do you think the extreme reaction you had was a true reflection of the situation, or was it more to do with core wounds that need attention and healing?
If you are someone who finds it difficult to get in touch with the feeling of sadness, and usually find yourself expressing negativity with anger, you might find it easier to journal about anger first. To properly grieve, we have to express a whole range of emotions, and they will come in their own time. It is important to take your time with this whole process and let it unfold naturally.
4. What makes me angry? When do I feel angriest? What does anger feel like for me?
A lot of survivors are afraid to express feelings of anger. This could be because as a child, showing anger was met with anger from parents or caretakers, and so we learnt to suppress it. It could be because we feel like once we get in touch with our suppressed anger, it might result in violence towards ourselves or others. For these reasons it might feel safer for us to express or feel our sadness, rather than anger.
Healing means getting in touch with our anger and expressing it in healthy ways. What happened to us was fundamentally wrong, it was unfair and unjust and we have every right to feel outraged at what our child selves were subjected to. Of course, this applies equally to survivors of trauma and abuse in adulthood. Allowing ourselves to feel that anger is us placing the blame squarely where it belongs, rather than blaming ourselves.
We can begin to approach angry feelings in the same way outlined above for joy/sadness. Write, paint, or draw your anger any way that feels right to you. What colours did you choose? Which words? What shapes look like anger? How does your body feel when you are angry? Perhaps anger is fiery, hot, energetic for you? Or perhaps it is icy, cold, numb? There are of course no wrong answers here. The important thing is to make a connection with your own feelings, with your own expression.
Think about some situations that have made you angry in the past. Can you get to the root of them, and discover what it was about that situation that made you feel that way? Maybe you were angry with your mother because she forgot she was supposed to pick you up from somewhere, or came late? Do you think you were truly angry with her, or do you think you felt abandoned or betrayed in some way? Did you feel unimportant or helpless? Again, getting to the root of these emotions can help us tremendously with identifying and healing our core wounds and triggers.
5. What does being triggered feel like for me? What are some of my triggers?
If you have worked through one or more of the above prompts, you may now be starting to get a clearer picture of your triggers– those situations, words, places, people (and so on) that can worsen your symptoms or bring on an episode such as an emotional flashback or period of depression.
It is crucial to understand what our triggers are if we want to work towards neutralising them rather than just avoiding them. One way to do this is to put some space between the trigger and the reaction, and we do this by being mindful of our own internal landscape.
Once we have a good idea of how we feel when triggered we will start to notice this more readily in everyday life, and this creates the space for us to step back, realise we are triggered and use various techniques such as grounding and proper breathing to lessen the severity of the episode.
Think back to the last time you were triggered and try to describe the experience- again, in words or images. You may have felt the world was spinning, or that you could not breathe. You may have felt a sense of overwhelming dread or like you were dying. A lot of survivors report that they feel very small- as if they were a child again, helpless and scared. Remember- your experience may be completely different to another person’s and that is okay. Just try to get a good description of the feeling.
Once you have described the feeling- essentially ‘labelled’ it- it becomes easier to identify triggers. The last time you were triggered, what were you doing? Who were you with, if anyone? What were you talking about/watching/listening to? Were you eating? Were you at home or out somewhere? Which room in the home, which time of day? All of these details are important.
If you use our journal to document triggers, you will begin to see patterns- for example, perhaps you will notice you often feel triggered in the bath, or in your room at night- and you experienced abuse during bath time or night time. It could be that certain topics in television programmes or films trigger you, or being in large crowds, or even certain people that have physical characteristics that remind you of an abuser.
Once we start to identify these patterns we can work with them- is there a way you can feel safer in bed at night, for example using a teddy bear or hot water bottle, having a night light or soothing music, or having a routine of checking for locked doors/windows before you settle down?
If certain topics are triggering for you, those are definitely topics to be addressed with a therapist to get to the root of why they are triggering- if you do not have a therapist, it can be useful to use these topics as journal prompts to really explore the reasons. Often, just being aware of a trigger and accepting it can be enough to lessen its impact on our lives.
Take it slowly!
As with all types of trauma work, journaling should be done with care. If you feel overwhelmed at any point, it is okay to take a break. What you are doing is incredibly brave and you should be very proud of yourself for taking steps towards your own healing, and there is no need to rush. Maybe you can write for a couple of hours and then you will need to take a week to assimilate and integrate what you have learned, and that is perfectly fine!
As survivors we often place huge amounts of guilt on ourselves, and that is not healthy, so keep reminding yourself that there are no hard and fast rules for healing, it is a process that will unfold in its own time.
Always remember that you have survived the worst. A beautiful life awaits.
Ten Ways to Heal Trauma Part One, Part Two
Survivor’s Guide to Self Soothing
Trauma bonds (and how to break them)
Emotional Flashbacks- and how to cope.
Understanding the Freeze Response to Trauma
5 Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults
Trauma Symptoms you didn’t know were symptoms
5 Journal Prompts for Trauma Healing
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