Journaling and Creativity Have the Power to Help Us Live Well
Chronic illness turned my whole world upside down. A decade ago, I became ill with multiple chronic conditions, including POTS, CRPS, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and lupus/UCTD. For several years, my symptoms were completely debilitating and made it difficult for me to function and complete basic everyday tasks. As such, I began focusing all my attention on finding ways to cope and manage my illness.
Though I was taking my medications and supplements, exercising as much as I could tolerate, and eating well, I was frustrated by the fact that my symptoms weren’t improving much. So I turned to alternative ways to cope and searched for a distraction from the crushing fatigue, vertigo, and widespread pain I was experiencing.
I made the decision to sign up for a painting class in 2015 and instantly fell in love with the way painting made me feel. Not only was it a welcome escape from my symptoms, but it energized me and helped me feel connected to my authentic self again. I knew then that painting would become a big part of my life and my self-care routine.
It turns out that painting, and other forms of creativity, have many proven benefits to both our physical and mental health. Practicing creativity helps boost the immune system and improves memory and cognition. Being creative also helps to lower stress, anxiety, anger, and depression.
In addition to painting regularly, I also started journaling and writing often. One of the most difficult things about living with a chronic illness is coping with social isolation and the feeling that no one else can quite relate to what you’re going through. So I turned to my journal to express my thoughts and experiences freely. Journaling was very cathartic in that sense, but it also helped me to document my daily symptoms. Eventually, this allowed me to recognize patterns related to my symptoms, which helped me manage them better.
There is extensive scientific research that shows the numerous positive health benefits of journaling and expressive writing. The psychologist and researcher Dr. James Pennebaker’s studies on this subject revealed that expressive writing about traumatic or emotional experiences on a regular basis improves emotional well-being. Additionally, expressive writing actually improves physical health – it lowers blood pressure, helps improve immune system function, mitigates stress, and improves lung and liver function.
Over the past several years, I’ve enjoyed using guided journals that contain inspiring or thought-provoking writing prompts. (One of my favorites is Meera Lee Patel’s “Start Where You Are.”) I wanted to find a guided journal that contained writing prompts related to chronic illness and disability. When I searched and searched but couldn’t find one, I decided to create my own!
Over the last couple of years, I wrote and illustrated “The Healing Journal: Guided Prompts and Inspiration for Life With Illness.” The book was born from my personal experiences living with illness – from my struggles to my triumphs — as well as my experiences talking with many other people who live with chronic conditions. It’s full of positive affirmations paired with journaling prompts that relate to the common challenges that arise from living with a chronic illness, such as learning to advocate for your health amongst medical professionals, as well as with friends and family. It was important to me to illustrate the book myself, as painting has been such an integral part of my own healing. The book is full of my watercolor botanical paintings, which are intended to bring soothing elements of nature indoors to people who may have difficulties getting outside.
Through “The Healing Journal,” I hope to share with other chronic illness warriors that journaling and creativity have the power to help us live well. The prompts in the book encourage the reader to write expressively, think positively and mindfully, and develop the self-care tools and strategies that are uniquely suited to them and their illness.
The very act of writing and illustrating “The Healing Journal” was therapeutic for me. I’m grateful to now be in a place where my chronic illness, though still present, is relatively well-managed and plays a much less limiting role in my life than it did previously. My greatest hope is that my story inspires others living with illness to try picking up a pen or a paintbrush! (Let me know in the comments below if you do!)