The Journal Ladder and A Few Cautions

Brain Injury Blog by Barbara Stahura

September 26, 2012

The Journal Ladder and A Few Cautions

You can begin journaling by simply putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and writing free-form, whatever comes to mind. Yet, for someone who may have experienced a horrible experience that caused a brain injury, someone with PTSD, or their stressed family caregivers, that kind of “free writing,” as it’s called, may not be the healthiest strategy. It could even be harmful.

This brings us to one of the few cautions to consider when journaling. Dr. James Pennebaker, PhD, who was the first to study the effects of writing about painful experiences, knows that some very traumatized people who write about their experiences could suffer negative reactions to the writing. It’s common to feel a little sad or upset after writing about a painful experience—and also to recover quickly. But for some people, writing can cause such emotional pain that the writing is harmful rather than helpful. So Dr. Pennebaker created the “flip out rule.” He explains, “If you feel that your writing about a particular topic is too much for you to handle, then do not write about it. If you know that you aren’t ready to address a particularly painful topic, write about something else. When you are ready, then tackle it. If you feel that you will flip out by writing, don’t write.”

Kathleen Adams, LPC and founder and director of The Center for Journal Therapy, often asks many of her therapy clients to journal. She says free writing may not be a good strategy for people who have been severely traumatized. By writing without any kind of structure, as with free writing, it’s possible for them to write themselves “off the emotional cliff,” without any way to pull themselves back to safety.

So she wrote The Way of the Journal, which is a workbook that guides people through what she calls “The Journal Ladder.” The structured journaling techniques progress from very simple and safe to more complex and potentially more emotional. (These techniques also work well for someone who wants to ease into journaling and learn various techniques along the way.) Using the workbook helps people to learn safe journaling structures, comfortable pacing, and containment, so that emotions don’t get out of hand.

The first technique is simply to write one word at the end of a sentence stem. For instance, “A word that describes me is…”The Journal Ladder then moves through various techniques such as the 5-Minute Sprint, Character Sketch, and Dialogue, ending with Free Writing, where, as Adams writes, you “begin by just beginning.” She reminds journalers to “know your own signals. If you start to feel like you’re out too far or under too deep, drop back to a lower rung on the structure/pacing/containment ladder.”

One other caution about journaling is to remember to write not only about the negative experiences in your life, but to also include positive ones, too—even positive phrases or words in the midst of a “down” journal entry. Research has shown that  journaling only about the painful events will tend to keep you in a negative emotional state. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write fully about anger, sadness, and grief, for example, but if you notice that you continue along that same path for a while, consider finding ways to write something more positive, even if only a sentence or two.

Next time: A Sampler of Journaling Techniques






The Way of the Journal

By Kathleen Adams, LPC, Sidran Institute Press, 1998.

Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma & emotional upheaval

By James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., New Harbinger Publications, 2004.

Opening Up: The Healing Power Of Expressing Emotions

By James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., Guildford Press, 1997


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