In this article, you will learn about journaling prompts for mental health.
Do you ever have an intense emotional reaction that just seems disproportionate to the situation? Does some little thing set you off? And you can’t figure out why?
Do you get anxious, a flash of anger, or an unexplainable feeling of fear? Or do you experience a feeling of “shut down”, exhaustion, or withdrawal? When we can’t figure out where these emotions are coming from, sometimes these feelings are related to childhood trauma or unresolved painful experiences from our past. Trauma changes our nervous system to make us super sensitive to situations that in any way remind us of the pain or danger of our past trauma.
But when we can’t identify what’s underneath those emotions, we often feel out of control in our own life. In this article, you’ll learn 7 journaling prompts for mental health to help you explore how big emotions might be related to past trauma. And you’ll hear about a man who’s fear of flying mostly went away when he did this work. Let’s get better at feeling.
Hidden Trauma Triggers Can Lead To Anxiety Symptoms
Let me tell you the story of a man who walked through these questions with a therapist and it changed his life. Mike was terrified of flying, and because he refused to fly, his family couldn’t do the vacations they wanted to do and he couldn’t take a promotion he wanted that required travel. His wife eventually asked him to see a therapist and so he did.
His therapist asked him to describe what it felt like when he had to fly in an airplane, he said it made him feel anxious, panicky, and out of control. He told the story of how once he had even demanded to be let off the plane right as they were closing the doors.
When asked about where he felt this in his body, he said he felt anxious, jittery, tense, and sweaty, and that he felt like he just needed to “do” something. He couldn’t just sit there.
Then they explored when he remembered feeling these sensations- he saw an image of himself as a 12-year-old boy. He described feeling helpless and panicked but couldn’t remember why.
His therapist didn’t say much, she just let him sit with that feeling for a minute.
So the man just sat there and thought about how he felt as a 12-year-old and suddenly he remembered how that was the year when his dad just left the family and when he left he handed the 12-year-old boy a checkbook and said, “You know your mom is incompetent at handling money I have written down all the bills that need to be paid, it’s your job to make sure that they get paid.”
And the man realized that he had been put in a position where all the adults who were supposed to be in control couldn’t be trusted. And the therapist asked, “Can you see any connection to what that has to do with flying?” And the man said yeah actually, I’m terrified of trusting adults to keep me safe, I feel like I have to keep myself safe, and when I’m on a plane I actually have to trust the pilots and flight attendants.
And as they continued to discuss his fears as he was able to identify them and see what those feelings were really about, he was able to see himself now as an adult, and realize that the pilots were not the same as his parents- they were competent and trustworthy, and he was also not that child any more, he was a capable adult. And as he did this work, his fears of flying decreased immensely.
Emotional Memories Can Be Related To Unhealed Trauma
OK, so sometimes big emotions seem to come out of the blue. You’re walking down the street and suddenly feel scared and jumpy, or your child is rude to you and you snap at him, or your boss says something and it just fills you with an overwhelming heaviness. And you don’t even know why.
That’s because a lot of times, these big feelings in the present moment are connected to deep emotional memories, sometimes of trauma. These memories are stored beneath our consciousness, in our limbic system- the emotional centers of our brain and nervous system. They’re meant to help us react quickly to escape danger like a snake or a physical attack, but sometimes they get triggered even when we’re actually safe.
Larry Chelsey was at a restaurant with an old friend, and the waiter brought a dish to the table and all the sudden his friend was jumping up and screaming at the waiter, screaming about how terrible the restaurant was, and storming out. Larry, his family, the waiter, and everyone in the restaurant were all stunned and just sat there confused.
Well, Larry and his friend were both veterans of the Vietnam war and had spent years being tortured in a prison camp. Larry realized that before bringing them their meal, the waiter had just brought them a dish of white rice, and rice was the only food they had eaten for years in the prison camp. That rice brought up all the old emotions of being trapped and helpless as a POW, and those emotions really had nothing to do with the restaurant or the rice, they were the emotional ruts of unhealed trauma.
How To Journal To Work Through Trauma And Improve Mental Health
Many of your current feelings are actually about old, unresolved trauma. Trauma can be defined as an experience that is too overwhelming for us to process. And where did we experience so many emotions and situations that were big and overwhelming? Childhood.
So, often, those big unexplained feelings are about your inner child, not your current adult.
And when we can acknowledge that inner child with compassion and gentleness, our current adult can heal.
Just to be clear, we don’t fix the past, we don’t change the past, the reason we do this work is because the emotional difficulty is right here, in the present, in our nervous system. Bessel Van der kolk (author of the body keeps the score) says “Trauma treatment is not about telling stories about the past. As long as you can tolerate what’s going on right now, there’s no need for any further treatment.”
We explore the past to gain awareness and compassion of our emotions in the present moment, the change we make to our emotional experience happens right here, in the present.
Before You Journal About Trauma, Consider This Please
Before I tell you the questions to ask- I do want to remind you, that doing any kind of trauma work can be triggering, it can lead to dissociation or intense feelings and that’s why it’s best done with a licensed professional who can guide you through building resources to stay in your window of tolerance and calm your nervous system as you work through your stuff. But I understand that not everyone can access a therapist and many people have gone through more trauma than they can process in just one hour a week.
Not processing trauma can also lead to triggers, flashbacks, and dissociation, so that’s why I teach this stuff on the internet. But please work with a therapist whenever possible and be gentle with yourself, go slow, if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, take a little break and then come back to it. Use grounding skills, get some support from a friend or family member and if it’s too overwhelming, get help before continuing. So let’s do a quick grounding exercise- take a slow breath. Notice our surroundings. Remind yourself that you are safe at this time.
Before your write, you may want to sit down with some comforting objects- some calming music, a cup of hot cocoa, and I do encourage you to write on paper instead of typing- because that forces you to slow down and process as you go, and it makes things more concrete- which makes them more resolvable.
Journal Prompts For Mental Health
OK so here are 6 questions you can ask yourself, (Adapted from Margaret Wehrenberg’s 10 best treatments for Anxiety)
- What do you feel in your body?
- What is the earliest age you remember feeling these sensations?
- Can you create an image of yourself feeling these sensations? Even a snapshot. What else might you have been doing?
- Who else might have been there?
- Is the current situation in any way similar?
- Are these old feelings accurate for the current situation?
Remember, take a slow breath, notice your surroundings, remind yourself that you are safe enough right here and now.
Now I’m not saying that all emotions we have now stem from some unresolved trauma, a lot of emotions have to do with what’s going on biologically or how we’re interpreting situations, and how we think. But when our emotions are disproportionate, they’re bigger than the situation, a lot of those interpretations stem from an experience in the past where we felt unsafe.
When we reprocess those experiences from a state of safety- as an adult, writing about them – we can reinterpret them from a place of confidence and safety and create healing, and probably in the long run become less emotionally reactive.