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Words That Heal

Brain research confirms the strange relationship between words and the neurological underpinnings of emotional trauma. In the brains of patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, memory of the event is accompanied by pronounced activation of the visual cortex and limbic system, which governs emotions and their manifestations in the body. The brain’s speech-production center is deactivated. It is as though an image of the trauma were permanently stamped on the brain. And because of the deactivation of the speech center, the memory seems incompatible with words. Indeed, “There are no words to describe what I’ve experienced” is something patients often say.

But deliberately turning these images into words can alter the way the experience is encoded in the brain. Verbalizing the trauma can shift the brain’s balance and help lessen the impact of uncontrolled emotions.

Psychoanalysis—“the talking cure”—has praised the liberating power of language for many years. But the role that private journals play has always been eclipsed by the importance of the analyst’s couch and, more recently, anti-depressant drugs like Prozac and Zoloft. I often recall my arrogance in laughing at a friend who claimed he didn’t need to undergo analysis because he’d been keeping a journal every day for 20 years.

Some enlightened practitioners, including Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, have always treated the private journal with a sense of respect. In The Artist’s Way, poet and author Julia Cameron outlines a program based on writing three pages immediately on ­awakening. The exercise is designed to unblock the artistic energy essential to personal and professional creativity.

Try it yourself. For the practice to be most effective, your journal needs to follow three simple rules. It must remain strictly personal; don’t read it to anyone, except perhaps your therapist. It must be honest; don’t waste any time lying to yourself. And it must be updated on a regular basis. That’s the real trick. Do your writing at times and at lengths that suit you—say, 20 minutes three times a week—and stick to your timetable with discipline and dedication. You’ll soon find that the journal itself takes over.

Related Links:
What’s Your Memoir–In 6 Words?
10 Reasons to Start a Journal and 10 DIY Journals
Re-Writing Your Painful Story

Read more: Exercises, General Health, Guidance, Health, Mental Wellness, Natural Remedies, Spirit, ,

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Megan, selected from The Intelligent Optimist

Ode, the magazine for Intelligent Optimists, is an international independent journal that publishes positive news, about the people and ideas that are changing our world for the better.


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7:38AM PDT on Apr 15, 2012


9:17AM PST on Jan 28, 2012

Great article to read. I used to keep a journal and found it very therapeutic. I had stopped keeping a journal only because of my very busy lifestyle. I am thinking of starting one again. Thanks for sharing.

8:01AM PST on Jan 19, 2012

I always journaled... when I became an adult I quit because I wanted to keep many things from my children's prying eyes... :-) But yes, it helps to write things out.

3:09PM PST on Dec 26, 2010

This is very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

9:42PM PST on Dec 8, 2010


3:57AM PST on Nov 27, 2010

I have a sketch book and some crayons on my night stand. It is nice just to draw whatever you want, no rules or time limit, it's just you and the paper...

1:22AM PST on Nov 19, 2010

putting you're thoughts on paper gives your brain "time off", it doesn't have to remember everything because it's registered. You can take a distance of it and the next day have a refreshing thought on a problem or whatever is there.

3:40PM PST on Nov 17, 2010


6:09PM PST on Nov 16, 2010

Great advice.

6:32AM PST on Nov 14, 2010

Thank you for posting. Whenever I'm really bothered by something and just can't stop thinking about it, writing about it always makes me feel better. It allows me to organize my thoughts and purge the emotions that are driving them. So if you're not ready to keep a daily diary, just try writing about the big stuff and see if it helps.

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