Journaling as Story Telling

Journeling As Story TellingBy: Dr. Robin B. Dilley, author of In A Moment’s Notice: A Psychologist’s Journey with Breast Cancer and a licensed psychologist,

Story Telling is something that most of us enjoy. There is nothing more mesmerizing than getting lost in a well-told story that takes you from your life and into the life of another. Story Telling is seductive, alluring, and hypnotizing. Journaling is one way of telling a story, especially your story. Ah, I hear your insecurities now. “I don’t have a story to tell. My story would be boring. I don’t know how to write. Blank paper scares me.” Yes, all of that is true. So was learning to walk scary when you were a baby but look at you now. Amazing what can happen when we try something that makes us a bit pensive.

It is my belief that each of us has a story to tell, actually many stories to tell. Many women and some men have experienced Breast Cancer and other types of cancer, but none of them have experienced it just the way you experience it. . Breast Cancer created new stories and experiences in your life that you had never encountered. It created many first time events. The psychological research on journaling feelings, experiences, thoughts, fears and hope has been positively documented over decades. It is an easy tool for each of us to use. New research just recently showed some interesting data.

A study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer published in the Psychological Science Journal asked 50 students to attend a lecture. Half were to take notes on lap-tops and the other half were to take notes the old fashion way, on paper. Afterwards they were given a comprehension test. The results were not even close. The students who took paper notes scored significantly higher. This process is called analog note taking. The question became, “What causes this level of success in analog note taking?” Mueller believes it is due to a phenomenon called “desirable difficulty” which is a small roadblock that is in your path that actually improves your understanding of a topic. The actual process of writing with pen and paper forces synthesis in the brain of the material being written. Thus, if you are taking notes and writing down your cancer journey you are in fact synthesizing it and integrating the emotional piece of this journey with the physical healing. Even if you never re-read a word that you write it is helping you integrate your story into the tapestry of your life.

Cohn, Mehl, and Pennenbaker wrote in their article on Linguistic Markers of Psychological Change in Events Surrounding September 11 also published in the Psychological Science Journal reported that a study of 1,084 regular journal writers in found that significant processing of language changed positively over a period of two months as the participants processed the events of 911. This study was over a period of four months. Two months prior to 911 to allow researchers to understand the depth and style of the person journaling. Then the event of 911 and two months after in order that the researcher could note any difference in language, style, and depth. The days of 911 and the few weeks following researchers could see an emotional distance in the writer. In the beginning language was difficult, simple and distant as if the writer was just reporting what he/she was hearing. But as the writer continued to process this event language became closer to his/her original style and emotional trauma became more personalized and began to trauma showed a decrease linguistically in the six weeks post 911. Again we see positive evidence supporting the fact that keeping record of your feelings, experience, thoughts, and dreams is a very important tool to self care and psychological healing. Even though this data may not seem particularly exciting to you, I invite you to begin a new chapter in your self-care process during this cancer journey of yours and begin to record on the outside with pen and paper or even on your computer what is happening on the inside. Think about the events of your day, your treatment, your feelings, your thoughts as chapters in your book. Expand a sentence, a feeling or and event into a page.

For instance, what was it like for you when you heard those words dangle like sharp pieces of heavy metal from our doctor’s mouth, “I am sorry, you have cancer?”

How loud was the earthquake in your soul when those words began to fall into your conscience, knocking over every single inch of personal safety?

Who did you tell first? Who did you tell last? Who did you not tell? Why? Were you protecting yourself or the listener of your story?

What did you fear most? How did you avoid your story? Did you put your head in the sand? Did you face it head on? Did you play psychological dodge ball with the thoughts in your head?

Begin on the blank page to tell your story. Your whole story including your secrets, your fantasies, and all of the mumbo-jumbo of thoughts and emotions. After writing at least a full page or twenty minutes worth you can put it away and distract yourself with the routine of the day. Tomorrow write again. One event and memory will lead to the next. Choose a time of day that is best for you to write. Use colorful and easy to write pens. Find a journal or a composition book that fits comfortable in your lap or on your desk
Begin to look forward to your safe place to tell your story. The pages are mum and will keep your secrets. The pages wait eagerly for you to touch them tenderly or even angrily with your pen. Trees gave up their life so that you can heal. Be grateful of the opportunity to share with the pages what it is like to be you and what is like for you to be going through this part of your journey.

If the blank page is too startling for you, maybe you could start with letter writing? Letter writing is a safe way to get your creative juices flowing. Choose someone to write to such as yourself, your God, a super-hero or even an ancestor that has already transitioned to the next chapter of his or her story. If you had a great relationship with a grand-parent, an aunt or uncle or even a teacher along you path, then pick up your pen and tell them your story. Allow yourself to become comfortable with uncomfortable words such as terminal, treatment, surgery and pain. Allow yourself to relish in stories of connection. Who did you meet along the way that made your journey a bit softer, easier, and hopeful. There are so many stories you have to share, stop reading this and get to writing.

Enjoy the moment. Dr. Dilley

Dr. Robin DilleyDr. Robin B. Dilley, author of In A Moment’s Notice: A Psychologist’s Journey with Breast Cancer is a licensed psychologist in the State of Arizona. Her eclectic practice allows her to cross diagnostic barriers and meet clients in their need assisting them to respond to life in healthy and empowering ways rather than react to life’s circumstances.

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  1. Great post! I resonate with so much of what you say here, I’m definitely finding blogging about my journey through cancer very therapeutic.

    Liked by 1 person

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