Healing Power of Journaling by Barbara Stahura, CJF

How journaling can help

Journaling can be powerful for healing.

Journaling can be powerful for healing.

Life after brain injury—to yourself or a loved one—can feel as if you’ve been hijacked to an alien planet where nothing feels familiar or makes sense. How can you possibly make meaning or find healing there?

One way: you can write. Simple writing from both your heart and head for just a few minutes several times a week can help you heal and build resilience. “Humans are storytelling animals,” says Kathleen Adams, founder of the Center for Journal Therapy. “When we can make a life experience into a story, we can place it in a larger context. We can interpret it and make meaning of it. We can put the various pieces of the story’s puzzle into place, working with it until it makes a complete picture.” This is journaling.

Adams, a licensed professional counselor, discovered this truth  in her own life thirty years ago as she began journaling to heal from painful life events; she also asks many of her counseling clients to write.

Writing with intention or journaling can help you find clarity, explore your inner self, and envision your future. As the caregiver to my husband after his brain injury a decade ago, I experienced the healing power of writing (and still do). As a certified journal facilitator, I witness writing’s power when people write short entries about life with brain injury and as a caregiver. As Adams says, “Writing has the capacity to heal both psychological and physiological conditions.”

Making it manageable

After a brain injury, when so little in your life feels under your control, writing can help, whether you sustained the injury or are the caregiver. Writing “makes the abstract concrete, and that really helps a lot,” says John Evans, a writing clinician, integrative health coach, and founder and executive director of Wellness & Writing Connections, LLC. “We have all these phantoms in our head. But when you can put a word to what you’re feeling, that makes it more manageable.”

Particularly on difficult days, my journal becomes a container into which I can pour my most tangled, darkest feelings. Transformed to words on the page, they become controllable. Unlike thoughts that flash through my mind, my written words are more permanent, so I can reflect on them. The act of writing in my journal offers some structure, which can be calming. It signals my subconscious that I’m searching for answers or a new perspective, which I often receive.

What kind of writing is best?

You can journal on paper or type on a computer. It's the writing that's important.

You can journal on paper or type on a computer. It’s the writing that’s important.

There are different schools of thought about how best to write for healing benefits. The method you choose depends on personal taste and goals.

In the mid-1980s, Dr. James Pennebaker began researching how people would react to writing about difficult life events, with a model he called “expressive writing.” This model is “a personal, private expression of emotions, feelings, and attitudes more than writing about events or objects,” says John Evans. “It’s putting your feelings on paper in as raw a form as comes to you.”

In this model, people typically write three or four times for fifteen or twenty minutes about a particular topic, usually something stressful. The process invites them to write not only about the event but to explore their deepest feelings about how it affected them. By allowing them to organize their story in writing, including how the experience now fits into the context of their lives, expressive writing offers many healing benefits for body, mind, and spirit. More than 300 studies on journaling to heal have demonstrated this.

While the popular practice of journaling is not necessarily done in the Pennebaker model, it can include expressive writing at times. Journaling “can be expressive; it can be therapeutic; it can be reflective; it can be cathartic,” says Kathleen Adams. “It can also be a list of things to do today, or an objective notation of the weather and the Dow Jones. It’s a fluid form that answers to many names and serves many roles.” As I tell people in my journaling groups, your journal is yours and can be whatever you make it.

You can journal every day, several times a week, or whenever you feel like it (although regularity offers a more rounded story of your life). You can spend as little as five minutes, or much longer. You don’t have to be a “good” writer; no need to worry about spelling and grammar. “If brain injury has caused aphasia or other language difficulties, you don’t even have to write in complete sentences,” Adams explains. “Lists or drawings or mind-mapping with ideas in circles connected by lines, are completely valid ways of expressing.”

Even if a brain injury prevents you from writing by hand or using a keyboard, you can speak your words into a recording device or have a trusted confidante write your words for you.

Journaling can be done over long periods of time, even a lifetime, but be aware of some cautions.


Both Evans and Adams offer a major caution with journaling after a traumatic experience. “An area where I see real potential dangers is when a physician or therapist says someone should journal and then gives the person no direction, no guidance or prompts,” he explains. “The person could begin to write and never move on from the traumatic event.”

Adams seconds this caution. Freewriting, or simply putting the pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and writing, is a popular technique. However, it is directionless, with no boundaries, structure, accountability, or clear end point—not necessarily a safe technique for someone dealing with serious trauma. Instead, Adams says, it’s important when writing about traumatic events to have some kind of structure or containment in the writing, such as a particular technique or even a time limit. In this way, people can avoid writing themselves off an emotional cliff with no way back up.

People dealing with traumatic experiences may want to write in conjunction with mental health therapy or in a safe, facilitated group. While journaling is typically a private activity, “there is something quite remarkable about writing in a group. It is powerful to hear the stories of others; it makes us feel as if we are not alone,” says Adams. “It’s also very powerful to hear our own stories in our own voices in the presence of listening others who are there to encourage us.”

Do your best to keep some balance between positive and negative in your journal, so you don’t find yourself endlessly ruminating about the darker times of your life. Write about your joy and gratitude as well as your sadness and anger. Even a small ray of sunshine can brighten an otherwise gloomy day.

If you want to write

If there is no facilitated group near you for people with brain injury or family caregivers, here are some excellent resources to guide you on your journey:

Adams, Kathleen. 1998. The Way of the Journal: A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing. Baltimore, MD: The Sidran Institute Press.

Goodwin, Lynn B. 2009. You Want Me To Do What? Journaling for Caregivers. Oklahoma: Tate Publishing & Enterprises.

Jacobs, Beth, PhD. 2004. Writing For Emotional Balance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Pennebaker, James W., PhD. 2013. Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval. Denver, CO: The Center for Journal Therapy.

Stahura, Barbara and Susan B. Schuster, M.A., CCC-SLP. 2009. After Brain Injury: Telling Your Story. Wake Forest, NC: Lash & Associates Publishing/Training.

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. Editor of Brain Injury Journey, 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. http://www.barbarastahura.com


Special Collection on Brain Injury Journey Vol 1

Special Collection on Brain Injury Journey Vol 1

This article is posted with permission from

Brain Injury Journey – Hope, Help, Healing, Vol 1, 2014.


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