We live in troubling times. The liminal surround of the Covid-19 pandemic threatens physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. Even before the pandemic, modern-day rubes spread divisiveness and deception as public policy. All the while, the climate crisis looms in the background will increasingly destabilize the lives of billions for generations to come. Can journaling help alleviate some of the tension, stress, and anxiety of the human drama?
Liminality is the essence of our time. A liminal encounter invokes a profound sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, and insecurity. A liminal state is a transitional state in which the life you once knew has vanished and the life you must now inhabit has not fully revealed itself. You are held betwixt and between the irredeemable loss of a known and familiar state and an impenetrable mystery. You can’t go back. You can’t move ahead. You feel like you are lost and alone in a dark forest.
Covid-19 has imposed liminality in every corner of the world. The modern-day rubes spit their lies and deceptions to impose discord and violence. And the Anthropocene Age, potentially the final human age, reminds us that the planet may not be able to support life as it has in the past. My grandchildren will experience the beginning of this.
How can journaling help when everything we seem to encounter is permeated with liminality?
Your experiential milieu in life is unique. Your context of time and place and how you move through life is your own. The events that occur in your life are mostly out of your control. Even if you are used to adapting to changes in your life, the present global context is a profound challenge for anyone. The momentum of life feels wildly out of control right now in ways we have never experienced before.
The approach to preserving mental health and cultivating wellbeing remains the same. All you can control in life is your own reactions to what is happening around you. That is the extent that you can exercise complete control. You have partial control over some things in life, such as the kind of work you engage in, when to go to the grocery store, or deciding to learn a new instrument.
Most of your experiences in life are out of your control. All you can do is practice control over your inner life and offer your new habits and abilities to the world around you.
Journal writing is a way to converse with the demons of your own conjuring. Anxiety, for example, is a personal demon of mine. My relationship with it has evolved over the years, and journal writing has been a positive influence. Does anxiety still cause discomfort? Of course, but my goal has never been to vanquish it from my experience. Working with a demon like anxiety is a pathway to becoming more fully human. Part of being fully human is knowing that life will not always feel good. Nor is it supposed to.
Using writing to foster enmity with an undesirable emotion is harmful. You can’t conquer demons and believing that you can makes matters worse. You are placing yourself into conflict with yourself. Your inner demons don’t die, but their problematic nature evolves when you close the gap between what you write and what you do. Demons are natural but uncomfortable energy systems moving in you. Your task is to take responsibility, acknowledge their presence, and begin a conversation you would rather not have.
My inner demons have been far more rambunctious lately. My sensitivities to life have been intensified during the pandemic. The chaos of today’s world incites stronger emotional responses in my body. The divisiveness via politics and wealth feels like a death kneel. It feels like the fabric of society as well as the equilibrium of nature are rapidly deteriorating. Like many of you, I feel a turbulent emotional struggle within. Some scientists say there is still time to limit the looming catastrophe of climate change – to limit – not to prevent. There is no going back now.
This is the kind of stuff you will never be able to “write away.”
Demons like this kind of human drama. It gives them more to work with. And it can be hard to accommodate the feelings and emotions conjured within. The best I can do is to turn into those emotions and begin the work of describing what I am feeling or sensing as clearly as possible, trying to locate where it lives, understanding its lines of force and how that energy is moving through my reactions and behaviors out into the world, and then beginning the work of changing those reactions and behaviors if they do not serve individual and collective wellbeing.
Does writing about your demons in a journal provide catharsis? In my experience, there is a brief sense of relief that arises from writing something down that has been troubling. It allows me to begin seeing it. To give it shape. And form. Writing is, I believe, the best medium to do this in because of the nuance of expression you can bring to your work.
However, clarifying your demons in writing is not a solution, it’s a beginning. As described in previous articles in this series, transformation occurs when you take your words out into the world of experience. My most valued self-discoveries occur when I create a sense of interplay between what I write in a journal entry and what I attempt to do with that writing in everyday life.
A transformative journal writer will strive to develop and refine the capacity to observe, focus, and experiment with their words. This is the essential element that elevates journal writing to the status of a creative practice. Just writing words down and then leaving them behind improves nothing that matters.
Can journal writing contribute to improved mental health and wellbeing? Yes, under certain conditions and in limited ways. Journal writing isn’t a solution for anxiety, but it is a way to work with it and learn about it in a deeply personal way. There is no guarantee you will magically feel better. You will never be completely anxiety-free. But you will have better insight into its influence and how you can develop a better relationship with it.
- In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, James Pennebaker outlines the use of writing to confront traumatic experiences to alleviate emotional distress and reduce the potential for physical illness. It is a landmark study in the use of writing to promote greater physical and mental health.
- Writing About Emotions May Ease Stress and Trauma, provides a balanced perspective that resonates with my experience: ” The act of thinking about an experience, as well as expressing emotions, seems to be important. In this way, writing helps people to organize thoughts and give meaning to a traumatic experience. Or the process of writing may enable them to learn to better regulate their emotions. It’s also possible that writing about something fosters an intellectual process — the act of constructing a story about a traumatic event — that helps someone break free of the endless mental cycling more typical of brooding or rumination. Finally, when people open up privately about a traumatic event, they are more likely to talk with others about it — suggesting that writing leads indirectly to reaching out for social support that can aid healing.”
- If you are new to journal writing, read How to Journal: A Complete Guide to Getting Started with Journaling by the International Association for Journal Writing.
- 83 Benefits of Journaling for Depression, Anxiety, and Stress provides an overview of the potential benefits associated with “effective” journaling.