Affect Regulation · The Process of Therapy · Uncategorized

Journaling 101

journalingTo write in a journal or not to write in a journal, that is the question. Do you dread writing down your deepest thoughts for fear someone might find your journal and read it? If so, you are exactly like most people! I’d like to share a strategy that will respect your privacy while also facilitating the hugely therapeutic process of journaling. I recognize that writing isn’t for everyone, and that it’s important to find what works for you.

The Reason to Write: Emotional Coping

The bubbling up of strong emotions tends to leave people feeling out of control, over-whelmed, and flooded. During these moments, one’s immediate reaction may be to shut down the emotions causing them to feel that way. We do this in all kinds of ways – some healthy and some super unhealthy. Coping well, and healing from trauma, is about being with the emotions and the message those emotions are providing in a more conscious and titrated way. Writing those heavy thoughts down is one way to get them out of your head, see them more objectively, and process some of the emotion connected to them.

Always use Two Journals

Journal 1 – The Dumping Journal
Your dumping journal can be any notepad or piece of paper. What you write on isn’t important, because once you dump the thoughts, you will be destroying the page. A dumping journal can be used to work through strong emotions, such as anxiety, anger, and grief. When you feel the pull of strong emotions, write about it. Literally dump it from your head onto the page – write it, draw it, scribble it, paint it. Write about the situation and about what’s stirring up for you.

Tip: If you sit down to journal and no words are coming – keep writing. Put your pen to paper and just write anything that comes to you. Within a few minutes the flow of thought will start to pour out onto the page.

This journal is called a dumping journal because we dump out the nagging emotions and thoughts onto page. Once complete, feel free to review what you have written, and then destroy the page. Shred it, burn it (safely) – ensure there is no record. The therapy isn’t in keeping what you write down, it’s about getting it out of your head and onto paper so you can work through it. The dumping journal isn’t to be kept because it’s not a reflection of who you truly are – it’s the angry, sad, traumatized, frightened, disorganized, annoyed, and vulnerable parts of you that are simply finding a voice. Each page gets destroyed after it’s been created in order to maintain the privacy of your healing process.

Journal 2 – The Healing Journal
The healing journal is the one that you will keep, so take some time to find a beautiful book to use. On any given day you may want to look back through this journal for strength, motivation, and a reminder of what sustains you. The healing journal is the one that you will to use to document all the good stuff. Some examples include:

  • a technique you learned that helps you cope,
  • something about life you learned that impacted you,
  • an “aha” moment,
  • things you are grateful for,
  • positive memories and photos,
  • the best fortune cookie message you ever received,
  • anything that reminds you of your strength, perseverance, and worth.

Here is how it works:

Whenever you have finished writing in your dumping journal, turn to the healing journal and write something positive. Turn towards gratitude, acknowledge your worth, connect with your peaceful place. Perhaps what you want to do differently tomorrow, or something that sustains you, or motivates you, or all the examples from your past that have demonstrated your ability to persist.

If you have written or processed something pretty heavy in the dumping journal, you may want to do something symbolic that represents a clear division between processing hurts and daily life. Taking a shower or washing your hands can be symbolic of washing it away, have a cup of tea do 10 burpees – whatever works to better enable your brain to recognize the dumping is complete and you are now letting go and returning to the present moment.

Tip: If you journal at bedtime, and then have difficulty settling the thoughts as you try to fall asleep, gently remind yourself that you have already “done the work” for the day and that it’s now your ‘time off’. Pull your peaceful place image back in as often as needed, or use a bedtime story app such as Calm.com to settle in for sleep.

Additional Resources to Inspire Journaling

Rhonda Brynes talks about writing 10 things for which you feel grateful for each day, in her book titled “The Magic”

Kristen Neff talks about journalling to build self-compassion 

The Process of Therapy

Making Time to Heal …without losing the entire day

“Shit happens. It can embitter and traumatize us for the rest of our lives, or we can slowly integrate it, moving through its pain as we become simultaneously softer and stronger, wiser and less cynical. You didn’t choose what happened, but you can choose your path now.” — Jasmine Lee Cori

We all need some down time to reflect and foster personal growth and enhance our self-awareness. For those who have experienced trauma(s), utilizing this “down time” is even more essential to their healing. The experience of trauma often leaves people finding that they are easily overcome by feelings of fear, worry, anxiety, panic, and/or sadness. At the beginning of counselling, and even prior to starting counselling, we may not know how to handle these overwhelming feelings. We may find it easier to “stuff” them away and ignore them. While this may help momentarily, it won’t help you heal from the trauma and it won’t enable you to move on with your life. Creating time to heal is a helpful way to work on the difficult experience while also containing those overwhelming emotions.

  1. Plan a time (no more than 1 hour), in which you will take the time to heal – and make a list of what you could do for your healing during this time. You can do anything you want during this time, such as writing in your journal, talking with a close and trusted friend or family member, reading about trauma and its impact, meditating, working on self-awareness activities suggested by your Counsellor, and so forth. Try choosing at time of day which you know you  will most likely be uninterrupted. A time of the day when you feel strong, when your energy is at its highest. NOTE: In the evening or around bedtime is NOT the most ideal time for this type of activity because it is harder to contain afterward and sleep may become disrupted.
  1. Schedule this time into your day, once or twice per week. Make an honest commitment to yourself to use this time for your healing, and then try your best to stick to the schedule.
  1. Choose a quiet place where you will have your healing time. Perhaps a room or place where you feel safe, comfortable, and strong. Try to use the same spot each time as this creates consistency – something which trauma survivors have rarely had in their lives. If you are using books or journals, make sure that these things can be kept private from the people you are living with. Make sure to turn off your phone during this time, or talk to the people you are living with to ensure you are uninterrupted.
  1. Create a ritual around your healing time – doing so will serve to contain it. This means doing something specific and deliberate before your healing time begins and when it ends. After the set-aside hour, the rest of the day is yours to enjoy. The rituals will allow you to move on from this time without the thoughts lingering throughout the day. The ritual you choose will be unique to you. For example, you might want to start your healing time by lighting a candle, and end it by blowing out the candle. An ending ritual could involve closing the book you were working in and putting it away. An ending might involve making a cup of tea for yourself and listening to your favorite music. Ending rituals that get you moving have many benefits, also. These might include doing some stretching, or going for a walk – something that will instill a physiological sensation of calm, or strength. You could even end your healing time by washing your hands, or talking a shower – both of which can be symbolic of washing away what you were just thinking about and letting go for today. The beginning ritual clearly identifies that your healing time has started, while the ending ritual plays the part of clearly identifying you are finished for now.
  1. It might be helpful set a timer to indicate when your allotted time is up. This way you will be able to better concentrate – and decrease the likelihood that you sit and constantly watch the clock while working through your chosen activities. When your time is up, take an additional 5 minutes or so to finish off what you were doing. Tell yourself that you made progress and that that is enough for one day – be positive and kind to yourself. You have most likely experienced enough abuse throughout your life that you do not need to be perpetuating it by being cruel or harsh towards yourself. If there is something significant that you had been thinking about or working on, write yourself a note for tomorrow as a reminder of what you want to focus on then. Be sure to write it down, as this clearly removes the thought from your mind and decreases the likelihood that you will be ruminating on it for the remainder of the day.
  1. Incorporate containment strategies between healing times. For example, throughout the day(s) until your next scheduled healing time, if thoughts or overwhelming emotions arise, write them down on a piece of paper and put that paper in the place you are using for your healing time. What you are telling yourself is this: “My healing time is over for today. I understand that this is important, that this emotion has meaning and is telling me something – but this is not the time for it. I will make a note to myself to deal with this during my next healing time, but I will not let it take control of me right now”.
  1. Remember that a new habit doesn’t take root overnight – it takes time to embody the change and the healing you desire. You may find yourself at first writing many things down throughout the day to “put away”– or you may find yourself repeatedly writing the same thing down, and that is okay. You are now in the process of training yourself to deal with the hard stuff on your terms. Doing so enables you to maintain strong problem-solving skills throughout the day and will assist you in feeling emotionally in control.

…And One more Thing to Always remember:
Be patient with yourself. At first this may be very difficult, so stay in contact with your Counsellor or a supportive friend or family member. The more caring people you have on your side encouraging you the better. Remember that trauma is something that happens to people, it doesn’t define who you are as a person. You deserve to live a life in which you are free from emotional turmoil and upset. Allowing yourself specific time to heal is a strategy that can enable you to achieve that. At first you may feel as though you have nothing to work on. You might just sit and stare at a blank page and feel unproductive. That is okay. Try a free writing exercise: this is where you put your pen to paper and just write whatever comes to mind without stopping. Research shows that by doing this, eventually what is bothering you will come to the surface. Or, you could start by looking at a picture that triggers certain memories of the trauma. You could also talk with your Counsellor about a starting point that fits you best. We are all unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Healing is a slow process – bearing this in mind may help you keep a realistic perspective of your own process.

Quote From:
Healing from Trauma: A Survivor’s Guide to Understanding your Symptoms and Reclaiming your Life, by Jasmine Lee Cori

Trauma Therapy

Healing Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

The experience of trauma can come from any event which stresses the nervous system or drains our emotional (psychological) resources. Being “traumatized” often refers to the symptoms a person might experience after the event. These can include:

  • anxiety and dysphoria (uneasiness, depression, restlessness)
  • emotionally-based problems (such as irritability and detachment from relationships)
  • intrusive re-experiencing (unwanted memories and reminders, “flashbacks”)
  • avoidance of the unwanted memories and reminders
  • hyperarousal (jumpiness, easy to startle)

Individuals experiencing a life-threatening (or perceived to be life-threatening) event sometimes experience post traumatic stress. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress include:

  • hypervigilance
  • flashbacks (reliving)
  • dissociation

Falling into the anxiety disorder category, post-traumatic stress is considered to be a psychological reaction to experiencing a life-threatening event. The traumatic event usually involves actual death or a sense of impending death/serious injury to one’s self or others.

Traumatic events leave the mind and body in shock. In the aftermath of the experience, we start to make sense of what happened and we begin to process our emotions and reactions. Individuals with post-traumatic stress remain in psychological shock. In order to move on from the experience, we need to look at the experience, and face those memories and emotions. As the famous poet Robert Frost said, “The only way out, is through it”. However, the way in which we look at it needs to be gentle and moderated. Contemplating the entirety of an upsetting situation will only leave us raw and emotionally flooded. We need to look at it in bits are pieces, while taking care to resource ourselves.

Click here to read more about post-traumatic stress and complex post-traumatic stress on my website.

I choose to believe that post-traumatic stress is not a life sentence. I believe that by working with the thwarted energy in the nervous system and creating regulation, we can process the traumatic material and start creating healing. The therapeutic approach I am speaking of is Mind-Body Attunement Therapy (MBAT). Developed by psychologist Kevin Miller, MBAT is based on the self-regulation therapy of research and therapist Peter Levine.

Some great books by Peter Levine include:

Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, The innate Capacity to Transform Over-whelming Expereinces (1997), by Peter Levine and Ann Frederick

In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness (2010), by Peter Levine and Gabor Mate

Trauma-Proofing your Kids: A Parent’s Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy, and Resilience (2008), by Peter Levine and Maggie Kline

Affect Regulation

What is Affect Regulation?

Affect regulation strategies include developing the tools and resources necessary to recognize, observe, modulate, and cope with affects you may be experiencing (affect is another word for emotion). In developing these tools and skills, you will be better able to cope with disturbing emotions as they arise (such as grief, anxiety, anger, fear, frustration, etc.).

Developing the ability to regulate affect begins with learning to identify emotional sensations within your body.

Containment strategies are useful techniques to regulate affect because they can be effectively used to control intrusive trauma memories and images (flashbacks), and disturbing physiological sensations. These overwhelming memories, images, sensations, feelings, or thoughts can sometimes lead to harmful behaviour, making it extremely difficult for you to focus on healing. Learning effective containment skills can empower you and reassure you during difficult times. The term containment is not used here to refer to “stuffing” or ignoring your experiencing. Just the opposite, in fact. It’s about acknowledging the incredible power the distressing memories have, and creating the safe internal place from which to work through them. In her book “Healing from Trauma”, Jasmine Lee Cori describes it as “to contain something is to hold it, to create a place for it, in some ways to protect it”.

“With containment… we learn to discriminate how much (emotion) we an handle at  any given moment without overload. We understand that the point is to keep the feelings from getting so intense that they burn us. We learn to contain a feeling so that it doesn’t run roughshod over us but instead is given a place and listened to” — Jasmine Lee Cori

Because every person is unique, there may be some affect regulation strategies that work well for you and others that do not. Try the strategies that sound interesting to you, approaching them with an open mind and a curious attitude. Try each strategy you select over a couple of days, and write in your journal what the strategy was like for you.

Resources:

Cori, J. L. (2008). Healing from Trauma, A Survivor’s Guide to Understanding your Symptoms and Reclaiming your Life.

Haskell, L. (2003). First Stage Trauma Treatment: A guide for mental health professionals working with women.

Trauma Therapy

About Mind-Body Attunement Therapy

Mind-body attunement therapy (MBAT) is rooted in the science of neurobiology. This fundamental underpinning sets MBAT apart from other therapies, which tend to be rooted in theory. It is an attachment and trauma focused therapy. Mind-body attunement therapy addresses the essential role played by the body, and the experience of emotions in the body. Peter Levine, a pioneer in the field of trauma theory and self-regulation therapies, explains that an incredible imprint is left in the nervous system when a person experiences a traumatic event. When faced with life-threatening danger, our human tendency is to fight, flee, or freeze. Our bodies generate an amazing amount of life-preserving energy. If our physiological response to that danger is somehow thwarted, such as when the danger is over-whelming and we freeze, this energy remains “stuck” in the nervous system. 

Mind-body attunement therapy thus is a body therapy, which works with the experience of emotion in the body (the “stuck” energy in the nervous system). There are basically two “jobs” that we want to accomplish in therapy to create a healthy nervous system. The first is to resolve unprocessed emotional memories that remain locked in the nervous system. These tend to get activated frequently (you likely know they are activated because you react with a high level of emotion which doesn’t seem to fit the situation you are currently in). So these unprocessed emotional memories tend to negatively impact our emotions, behaviours, and thoughts. The second “job” we want to accomplish is to teach your nervous system to return to calm quickly once it has been activated. Research shows that when we are exposed to ordinary everyday stressors, it takes approximately 2 to 3 minutes to return to a sense of calm. Some individuals take significantly longer than that, with activated responses lasting from several hours to several days. Using mind-body attunement therapy, the focus is on resolving unprocessed emotions and teaching the nervous system to calm quickly. Thus, MBAT assists individuals to work through over-whelming experiences without causing them to be re-traumatized.

“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence. Not only can trauma be healed, but with appropriate guidance and support, it can be transformative. Trauma has the potential to be one of the most significant forces for psychological, social, and spiritual awakening and evolution. How we handle trauma greatly influences the quality of our lives.”  — Peter Levine

Resources:
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma: The innate capacities to transform over-whelming experiences.

Miller, K. (2012). Mind-body attunement therapy: Clinical Strategies. Mind Body Attunement Training Centre.