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Visual Journaling

Visual journaling is the art of self-discovery; through image-making our truest feelings are revealed – through writing those feelings are interpreted. Through this process the conscious and subconscious minds can have a conversation, allowing your authentic voice and inner wisdom to emerge, awaken and be heard. Being either an artist or writer is not required to do the process of visual journaling.

According to neuroscience research, visual journaling allows for the accessing of the right brain, also known as the “imagistic” brain. The imagistic brain is not capable of engaging in fear or judgment – it merely experiences all information in terms of “do I want to move toward or away from that” – whatever that is; for example, when experiencing the pain of loss “that” might be a sense of loneliness seeking comfort, or sadness seeking resolution, or any other emotion or thought that arises out of grief. The process of visual journaling provides an expressive language of images, colors and symbols with which to explore painful emotions and thoughts that accompany grief – emotions and thoughts that may otherwise be hard to convey through spoken words; it is through this visual voicing of the pain of loss that a healing path can be found and followed.

Visual journaling is beneficial in healing grief by:
  • Providing a way to acknowledge, feel, accept, and let go of uncomfortable emotions connected to grief and loss
  • Helping identify where grief is “living” or being “housed” in the body
  • Helping release fears and self-judgments re: “Am I grieving in the right way?”
  • Giving voice to types of grief that can make mourning difficult beyond the norm
  • Give grievers a concrete avenue for expressing the pain of loss

The Process of Visual Journaling

Visual journaling is best done with an art therapist or someone to guide you through the process. That said, the book Drawing from the Heart by Barbara Ganim can be very helpful in getting you started in exploring visual journaling as a healing art modality.

Essential Supplies:
  • A sketch pad or hard-bound, lineless drawing journal, at least 8” x10” (in a pinch 8 ½” x 11” white multi-purpose paper can be used)
  • A box of crayons (and/or a box of pastel chalks – the more colors, the better)

The Essential Six Steps:
  1. Place a piece of paper in front of you, and all of your color implements before you. 
  2. Set a clear intention – write that intention at the top of your paper. The intention can be something like "I intend to draw an image of my sadness."
  3. Quiet the mind through body-centered awareness (for steps 2 and 3 see the below exercise, “I intend to draw an image of how I feel right now"). See with your inner eye using guided visualization.
  4. Draw your inner images. Draw whatever comes to you either prompted by your inner images or the colors before you.
  5. Immediately after completing step 4, without stopping to think, title and date your image.
  6. Answer these three questions in writing:
  • How did I feel when making this image?
  • How do I feel when looking at your completed image?
  • What is this image trying to tell me that I need to know?
Additional questions that come up related to your image can also be answered.

This classic beginning visual journaling exercise can be found in art therapist Barbara Ganim’s book Drawing from the Heart. It is an exercise that can be done daily when experiencing loss and grief.

Exercise: I Intend to Draw An Image Of How I Feel Right Now

This is a great starter visual journaling exercise that can help you get a baseline reading on where you’re at on any given day.

Close your eyes. Do some deep breathing. Slowly take the air in and let it out. Do this several times.

Now focus in on the feelings inside of your body. See if there are any areas of discomfort, tension or pain, as well as areas of lightness, comfort and ease. Do an inventory of your body. Start with your head and face. Move down to your neck and shoulders, then to your arms and hands. Check each area of tension. Then move down to your chest and abdomen, your back. Then your pelvic area and buttocks. Your thighs and knees, calves and feet.

Go back to any areas of tension. Continue deep breathing and as you exhale, allow the tense areas of your body to relax, one by one.

Each time you release your breath, release the tension right along with it. Name each area and as you release the tension from that area say to yourself: My (body part) is feeling very relaxed.

Now once again, take several deep breaths and allow your awareness to go back into that body part where your attention is most drawn either by tension or a sense of relaxation. Focus on the physical sensation in that part of the body.

Imagine what this sensation might look like if it were an image, either recognizable (a mountain or face for example) or abstract (such as squiggly lines or whatever). If an image doesn’t come to you, either as a vision or an idea, then just imagine what colors and shapes or forms would best express it.

When you are ready, open your eyes and begin to drawn whatever image comes to you that best expresses, how you feel right now.
  • How did I feel while making this image?
  • How do I feel when looking at this finished image?
  • What does this image tell me that I need to know?
Information that is revealed in I Intend to Draw an Image of How I feel Right Now, can lead to the next visual journaling exploration. For example:

If how I feel right now is revealed as anger then exploring “I intend to draw an image of what is beneath my anger” can be a way to get a fuller understanding of the emotion of anger.

If how I feel right now is revealed as fear, “I intend to draw an Image of safety and security” or “I intend to draw an image of what I need right now” can provide what is needed in the moment to help process grief.

If how I feel right now is revealed as confused, “I intend to draw an Image of clarity” or “understanding” might be a next logical

It is important to remember that there is no wrong way to do visual journaling and there are no wrong feelings – your feelings are information telling you something you need/want to know. Also, in the end you are the only one who really knows what your images mean; if you have no idea what your images mean right now, that’s okay - sometimes it takes time for your images to “speak” to you.
Healing Writing

Healing Writing

Healing writing – also called expressive writing or grief journaling - can be a way to explore the many complex and multi-faceted emotions you may be experiencing. Writing that heals is not about recounting the events of your life – it is about speaking your individual truth to yourself so that you can let go of a painful experience and move forward.  The most important part of that truth is putting your feelings, emotions and thoughts on paper; it is through speaking your truth – naming the hurt – that transformational healing occurs. In other words, through the process of writing you uncover deeper understanding, resolution and a way to move forward through your grief.

Consider writing in a journal that is specifically for the purpose of exploring your loss. Date each entry – this allows you to see how your grief flows and changes over time. Keep and re-read what your write – again this helps you to see more clearly your grief’s healing path.

Doing several minutes of relaxing or mindful breathing can help aid in the writing process. One simple technique is to: gently close your eyes; breathe just a little slower and deeper than normal to comfort; and focus your attention on the area of the body where you notice the breath is most prominent (nose, throat, chest, stomach). Do this for several minutes. When you feel relaxed, begin the writing process.

Steps for Healing Writing

  1. Give yourself permission to tell yourself the truth. Write quickly, by hand, without editing your thoughts or pausing to correct grammar, spelling, punctuation etc. Continue writing until you feel “finished”, about 20 minutes (this is the point at which your mental energy will start to ebb). Try to write in a place where you won’t be interrupted.
  2. Include your thoughts, feelings and awareness regarding the events you describe; put down not only what you feel but why you feel that way. Write for yourself – not an audience.

To explore the same story more deeply, consider:

  1. Writing the same story three times on consecutive days: once in the past tense; once in the present tense; and once in the third person.
  2. On another day, rewrite the same story again using your non-dominant hand – for example, if you’re left-handed, write the story with your right hand.

The purpose of rewriting the story many times in many different ways is to see what emerges, what new details and insights arise – what enlightenment shines forth – in the retelling of the same event or story from different perspectives. Rewriting the story can also help you to step back and see “the story” more objectively, revealing the blessings, life lessons and gifts of why this particular life event “happened for you” not “to you” (maybe there were things you thought were a negative at the time but in the end turned out to positively impact your life by putting you on a new path etc.). Research has shown that writing is more effective in easing stress, grief and loss when done repeatedly over a series of days or months.

Writing about grief and loss can trigger strong emotions - don’t be surprised if you cry or feel temporarily sad after writing. Feeling the full impact of your loss is part of the healing process. Exploring your feelings through writing can lead you to the other side of your pain by allowing emotions and thoughts to flow that may get stuck within you due to stress or the pain of loss.

If, however, you have gone through a deeply troubling situation of loss (such as suicide, violent death, the trauma of sudden death, or the inability to be with a loved one while dying due to COVID-19 restrictions), exploring that loss with the help of an experienced therapist or grief support specialist may be needed. Journaling may be part of the healing work you do, but it is not a substitute for professional support.

To learn more about healing writing, visit the Remembering A Life blog and read Writing to Heal Stress, Grief and Loss by Elizabeth Lewis.