by Barbara Stahura, CJF
This is a confusing, stressful time. The world is swirling with rapid changes, leaving many of us agreeing with the cartoon floating around the Internet in which one person says, “ My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” All the chaos and confusion in the outer world cannot help but affect us inwardly. How best to cope?
As I have done for years, when confusion strikes, letting my pen have its say on the page is usually the most helpful thing I can do. One process I have come to depend upon while letting the ink flow is to also pay attention to what’s going on in my body as I write. Using this process, I’ve come to understand that not only to do we have life stories, we are stories—living, breathing stories. Even while being mostly unaware of the process, over our lifetimes we have woven together innumerable threads to create the Story that is the “I” each of us inhabits right now. Just as an author creates her characters’ reality with the words she commits to the page, we create our own experience of reality depending on how we think about it—and how we think we think about it. What makes this process so powerful is that our thoughts constantly create reactions and responses within our bodies, including our brains, which alter our physical selves. In a very real sense, what we make of our Story makes us: we truly are living, breathing stories.
First of all, our brains make us natural-born storytelling animals. They are “organs of story, changing to match the needs of their environment, and specialized to understand story, store story, recall story, and tell story,” writes Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona in Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story: The Promise of Narrative Psychiatry.
In addition, neuroscience has demonstrated that our thoughts physically reshape our brains, thanks to our brains’ ability to change throughout our lives, called neuroplasticity.
Finally, since we are a bodymind, not a mind plus a body, our thoughts constantly affect our physical well-being. For instance, we all know that ongoing stress is harmful and that healthy relaxation is beneficial—and both stress and relaxation result from our thoughts.
Most of the neural changes happen unconsciously and often reinforce the negative, thanks to an evolutionary neural strategy that works to keep us safe from harm. Fortunately, we can consciously and purposefully change our thoughts to reshape some of our neural pathways so we can move in positive directions, build more resilience, and create healthier patterns for ourselves. Adding the practice of paying attention to physical sensations can help us learn more about our thoughts as well.
For instance, here is the process I now often use in my journaling practice when I’m dealing with a difficult or confusing situation. It can take some time to understand the situation and decide what to do about it, but I’ve found it worthwhile. Perhaps you would like to try it. (Please note that if you are dealing with trauma, you should consider journaling in conjunction with a qualified therapist or counselor.)
Sit quietly to relax your bodymind before you pick up your pen. When you feel ready, begin writing about the situation in detail, recounting not only the facts as you perceive them but also how you feel about it and how it has affected you. Do your best also to write honestly about your part in the situation, if any. Your body will give you clues about what is happening (it can take a while to develop this awareness, so be patient). For example, if I feel a tenseness in the pit of my stomach, I know that anger or fear is lurking and needs to be explored; if I feel a sense of release or lightness, I know I’m on the right path.
Next, write to discover your intention for resolving or understanding the situation. Several possible intentions may come up, so as you write, paying attention to what your body is telling you will help you choose the most appropriate one. For me, a physical sensation that feels like a tiny internal spark or “aha!” happens when the right choice appears. This process can take as little as a few minutes, or it can extend longer, even over several times of writing. Again, patience is helpful. Once you have determined your intention, you can then take action to put it into practice. Writing about your progress helps to reinforce the change you want to make.
This kind of process offers two valuable results. First, becoming more in tune with the relationship between your thoughts and your physical state makes you more aware of yourself as a living, breathing story always capable of positive change. Second, that awareness enables you to more consciously choose your thoughts and practice behaviors to strengthen neural patterns that will make it more likely for you to act in this new way again.
Using these techniques has helped me become more self-aware of my bodymind and better able to choose the thoughts and behaviors I want to release or to strengthen. As a living, breathing story, I find that most helpful.
Barbara Stahura, certified journal facilitator, began her journaling work by guiding people with brain injury and family caregivers in harnessing the power of journaling for healing and well-being. Today she presents journaling programs under the umbrella of A Living, Breathing Story: Journaling to Discover Your Empowered Self. She has presented journaling programs for state Brain Injury Association/Alliance conferences, the National Guard Bureau and the Arizona National Guard, people with cancer, equine-facilitated therapeutic groups, Ivy Tech Community College, University of Southern Indiana, and elsewhere. Co-author of the acclaimed After Brain Injury: Telling Your Story, the first journaling book for people with brain injury, Barbara is a member of the faculty of the Therapeutic Writing Institute. http://www.barbarastahura.com