How to Journal After Brain Injury (Even if You Can’t Write by Hand)

Brain Injury Blog by Barbara Stahura

August 9, 2012

How to Journal After Brain Injury (Even if You Can’t Write by Hand)

(Adapted from After Brain Injury: Telling Your Story)

When a brain injury has altered the life of an individual and his or her family, journaling can offer many benefits to body, mind, and spirit for survivors and family caregivers alike. It can be done effectively in only a five to twenty minutes several times a week, and it’s infinitely adaptable to the needs of the journal-keeper. Yet if you haven’t journaled before, you might not know how to begin, or you might think that journaling is a complicated process, and so you never start, thus missing out on a healing, therapeutic process.

The first thing to know is that there here is no right or wrong way to journal. Once you give yourself permission to start writing, you can adapt the process to suit yourself and your abilities. For instance, the most common way to journal is to write in a notebook or paper journal. But if you are not able to write by hand, or if you simply prefer, you can journal on the computer, either by typing your entries or using voice-recognition software. Be sure to keep your journal private so that you can feel comfortable writing honestly; if you keep a computer journal, use a password to protect your journal file.

A third way for those who can use none of these methods is to have a trusted person scribe your words without change or judgment, as well as keep them confidential.

Journaling Tips

While there are no rules for journaling, here are some tips that can help you get the most out of it.

• What you write in your journal is meant for no one’s eyes but yours, so as you write, don’t worry about anyone judging your words, or you. Do your best to ignore your critical inner voice. Just go for it!

• If there were to be a rule for journaling, it would be to date all your entries. This way, you have a chronological record of your writings.

• This writing is not graded and it’s not meant for publication, so don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Trying to make your writing perfect in this way will slow you down. If you spend time trying to decide if you need a comma or puzzling over spelling, that kind of intellectual thinking stops the flow from the deeper places and can keep a lid on the magic and mystery trying to emerge. Just let your hand write whatever it wants to write.

• If possible, use the journaling technique called freewriting. This means you put your pen on the paper and  keep going, usually for 10 to 20 minutes. Set a timer if you have one, and if your abilities allow, don’t stop. Keep your hand on the page, and keep it moving. Even if you come to a dead end for a minute and have to write, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write,” just keep doing that and eventually something new will show up for you to write down. Freewriting lets insights come to light that otherwise might never appear in your conscious  mind, and these insights are like golden nuggets—something valuable and worth searching for.

CAUTION: Be aware of how you feel as you begin to write. If you’re writing about a painful or traumatic subject and you find yourself becoming unreasonably upset, simply stop writing, or don’t begin at all. You can come back later, even much later, and try again, or, if you’re working with a therapist, let him or her know about this. In addition, instead of freewriting, you can try a more structured method of journaling, as outlined in Kathleen Adams’ The Way of The Journal, which helps ease people into writing about difficult subjects.

• Don’t plan ahead what you’ll write and don’t try to be logical. Just write whatever rises up. When you get into the flow of the writing, it’s almost as if the words move directly from your heart through the pen and onto the paper, as if your conscious mind is not involved in the process. That’s good! This flow can be the entry into a whole new insight or connection you’ve never noticed before—the beginning of the new Story of Your Life.

• Do your best to not censor or edit yourself. Just write whatever comes out. If you can’t think of a particular word, use another word, or draw a line instead, like this:  ____________. You can fill in the blank later.

• Be kind to yourself. Don’t judge yourself or your writing. Whatever you journal is simply an expression of what you’re feeling or thinking at that moment. It’s not written in stone, and you can always change your mind later.  Sometimes the words will just flow out of you; other times they will need a push (which is when you must do your best to keep your pen moving anyway). Journaling gets easier the more often you practice it.

• You can simply begin writing about whatever is on your mind, or you can use a “prompt,” which is a phrase or question to get you focused on the writing. Some good basic prompts are: Today I feel/ If I could/ When I was/ When I will be/ How can I __________?/ The best thing/ The worst thing/ Once upon a time/. (After Brain Injury: Telling Your Story contains many prompts.)

Write the prompt in your journal, and then take off from there. Some prompts will really get your juices flowing while others won’t. That’s fine. If you start writing from a prompt and it doesn’t work for you, you can write something else. And if you begin your writing with the prompt, but then the writing takes you in a new direction, that’s fine. Go with the flow of your thoughts, wherever it takes you.

• If a prompt makes you uncomfortable or nervous, feel free to skip it. However, consider two things before you decide. First, no one else ever has to see your writing, so you can be as personal and open as you want. (And you can always destroy the page when you’re done writing.) Second, if you can manage to write about something that frightens you or makes you nervous, chances are your uneasiness will slowly dissolve, and you will be free of it, or at least on your way, as research has found. However, it is important to respect yourself when you really don’t want to delve into something painful and scary. The purpose here is not to force yourself to write about difficult things, but to realize how far you want to go at this point in your journey. If you don’t want to use a particular prompt one day, know that you’ll probably feel more comfortable using it another time. (And if you have a counselor or therapist, feel free to tell him or her about the prompts that make you uneasy.)

• Remember that after you journal, you will be a different person than before you wrote, if only in the tiniest way, simply because you reached into yourself and saw something there in a new way. You put your thoughts on paper and created a new story for yourself, even if it was only a few sentences long. And sometimes, that’s all it takes to begin a great and exciting change.

Relax Before a Journaling Session

A good way to begin a journaling session is to relax and release the cares of your day. This will quiet your mind and help you focus on the writing. You can play soft, soothing instrumental music if you like.

Sit comfortably in your chair, feet on the floor and hands on your lap. Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath as you breathe slowly, in and out, in and out. Feel yourself sink into the chair, then relax further into your body with your slow breathing. Let the tensions and concerns of the day flow out and away. If tensions come back, let them flow away again. Know that you are in a safe, comfortable place. Know that whatever you write will be helpful to you. Continue to relax and breathe slowly for at least five minutes. Then, slowly open your eyes and gently come back to awareness. If you are playing music, you can let it play or turn it off. If you leave it on while you journal, remember that music can affect your mood.

On some days, you may be angry or frustrated. You might just want to vent in your journal. When that happens, feel free to plunge right into the writing without relaxing first. Let it all out on the page! WRITE BIG if it feels good. Who says you have to write on the lines? Ignore the lines and scribble away! Chances are, the act of writing will release your upsetness, and you might even find a solution to the problem. Remember, this is your journal and you are writing pieces of your story.

Next time: The Story of Your Brain Injury

Recommended Reading

After Brain Injury: Telling Your Story, by Barbara Stahura and Susan B. Schuster, MA, CCC-SLP. Lash & Associates Publishing/Training, 2009.

Journaling After Brain Injury,” tip card by Barbara Stahura. Lash & Associates Publishing/Training, 2011.

The Way of the Journal: A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing, by Kathleen Adams, MA, LPC. Sidran Institute Press, 1998.

The Write Way to Wellness: A Workbook for Healing and Change, by Kathleen Adams, MA, LPC. The Center for Journal Therapy, 2000.


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