Make Your Life’s Story Better with Journaling by Barbara Stahura

Everyone has a Story after TBI

motorcycleWhen a hit-and-run driver left my husband, Ken, with a TBI just nine months after our wedding in 2003, I was thrown into the chaos of caregiving with no training and no advance notice. Horrendous months followed, as Ken struggled to recover as much of his abilities and his former self as he could, and I struggled to care for him (and not so much for myself) while picking up the parts of our life he had formerly handled. A counselor told me I had secondary traumatic stress, a condition I had never heard of, but she was right. Fortunately, I had earlier discovered a practice that became my saving grace during this time.

Over the years, I had kept a journal periodically, and the day after Ken’s accident I began journaling in earnest. My journal went everywhere with me—hospital, in- and outpatient rehab, doctor’s appointments—and I filled pages every day. This was almost instinctive, since my confusion, anger, and grief desperately needed an outlet. As I later discovered, telling the story of these days—and especially my feelings about them—to the pages of my journal was one of the best things I could have done.

Unknown to me at the time of Ken’s accident, “expressive writing,” or writing down our thoughts and feelings about an experience, has been shown in numerous studies to provide therapeutic benefits for body, mind, and spirit. A journal is an excellent place for this kind of writing, since its pages accept whatever you have to say without judgment or criticism. As Kathleen Adams, LPC and founder and director of The Center for Journal Therapy, says, “In moments of ecstasy, in moments of despair, the journal remains an impassive, silent friend, forever ready to console, to confront, to contain, to cheer on. Its potential as a tool for holistic mental health is unsurpassed.”

In your journal, you need not be concerned with being a “good” writer nor about spelling or grammar. No prior experience is needed. All you need is to give yourself permission to write, and to write as honestly as you can. Take precautions to keep your journal—paper or electronic—private, and you can pour out your heart, dive deep into your soul, and find release and healing. From there, you can begin to envision the possibilities of your new, post-injury story.

Everything is Story

All human beings are born storytellers, and being injured or being a caregiver doesn’t change that.  We live by story and literally could not survive without it. In fact, “Brains 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 Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD, in his book Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story: The Promise of Narrative Psychiatry. “Everything is story, including our identities, our selves, our meanings and purposes, our theories about the world.”

After a brain injury dramatically alters the familiar story of your life, it becomes crucial to discover and create a new story if healing is to take place. Learning to move from your former story to your current one literally changes your life, as well as your brain. You function better, empower yourself, and open the door to positive change.

For instance, say you continually yearn for the way you and your life used to be prior to the brain injury. By focusing on your old story—what you have lost and what you can no longer do—you lock yourself into a painful place where healing is not possible. But when you find a way to create or discover a new story—what you still have, can create, and are able to accomplish—your life moves forward.

Use Your Journal to Start Making Changes

Anita Roddick, the late founder of The Body Shop, said, “Every change begins with a story.” And you can begin the changes required by your post-injury life in the pages of your journal. The first step is to begin writing stories of your current life, in small pieces over time (you can journal effectively in only five to ten minutes a session). Then you can envision possibilities for the future and slowly move toward making them a reality. You may be surprised at the many possibilities, large and small, that open up to you.

Girl writingThe way you tell your story need not be fancy or particularly creative (although you can later revise your journal entries into something more formal if you like). The idea is to let the words flow to the page with as little editing or censoring as possible. This allows your subconscious thoughts to come to the surface, bringing to light nuggets of insight and inspiration that can offer hope, healing, and a way forward. (One caution, though: If writing about a traumatic experience makes you feel excessively frightened or apprehensive, please do not write just then. Wait until you’re feeling stronger or can talk with a therapist.)

You maybe surprised by what you discover. In my journaling groups for people with brain injury and family caregivers, many participants have reached new levels of self-understanding. They tend to realize hidden strengths and, over time, find more acceptance of their situation and use that place as a lift-off point into the future.

Not all insights produced by journaling are dramatic. But they don’t have to be, either. By simply letting yourself write whatever comes to mind, you will amass the story of your life over time, in all its juicy, dull, glorious, and mundane details. And as you continue, you will notice patterns, trends, and recurring thoughts, which you can change as needed—yes, by writing about the changes you want to see and how you will make them happen.

Benefits of Journaling

Journaling with the intention of personal growth empowers you. It also offers an opportunity for self-exploration and self-expression that simply talking or thinking cannot do.

The results of the studies of expressive writing show that it can enhance physical health and strengthen the immune system; produce long-term, positive changes in mood; boost working memory (which can improve performance at school or work); and improve your social and work life.

For someone with a brain injury, it can also

  • Enhance written and verbal communication skills
  • Stimulate cognitive and executive skills (following direction, organizing, planning,    sequencing, attention, processing, etc.)
  • Promote post-injury self-awareness (deficits and strengths)
  • Assist in planning for the post-injury future
  • Promote dialogue and understanding with family members and others
  • Encourage self-expression after a trauma and major life disruption
  • Prepare for community re-entry
  • Offer community and support when done in a facilitated group.

Journaling offers a kind of self-expression and self-empowerment that traditional post-brain injury therapies do not. By recording our words on the page, our journal becomes a kind of container, holding our stories and making them more manageable. Journaling is an effective, simple way by which you can make your story—your life—better.

About the Author

Barbara Stahura, certified journal facilitator, is co-author, along with Susan B. Schuster, MA, CCC-SLP, of After Brain Injury: Telling Your Story, the first journaling book for people with brain injury. She presents journaling workshops around the country to people with brain injury, family caregivers, and others, and is a member of the faculty of the Therapeutic Writing Institute and the Lash & Associates speakers bureau. She lives in Indiana with her husband, Ken Willingham, a survivor of TBI.


Special Collection on Brain Injury Journey

Special Collection on Brain Injury Journey

This article is posted with permission from Brain Injury Journey – Hope, Help, Healing, Vol 1, 2014.


One response to “Make Your Life’s Story Better with Journaling by Barbara Stahura”

  1. Stacey says:

    I am sooo thankful I found this page!! I will start to write in my journal every single day from now on. *Thank you sooo much!!!****Stacey****

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