“Support groups don’t seem to work for me. I do get something out of them when I’m there, but day in and day out, sometimes it feels like more than I can bear. Is there anything else that I can try?”
This is a question I commonly hear from parents of children with autism or other special needs. Often we are told to take one day at a time, and that is a helpful concept when we are trying not to be overwhelmed about the future. But what can you do when one day is just too long and too hard? Try reaching for a pen and paper. Keeping a diary, or “journaling”, can be an extremely effective tool for discovering our innermost thoughts and releasing tensions. Setting aside 10-15 minutes to put your thoughts into words may just help to reduce your stress or get its physical symptoms under control.
Many people believe that it is easier to hold in their feelings, but nothing could be further from the truth. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, stressed that emotional factors could be a contributing cause in disease as well as a factor in recovery. In more recent times, research psychologist James Pennebaker and others have found a mountain of evidence that demonstrates that disclosing our pain when we=re suffering through a major upheaval can greatly improve our physical and mental health. Conversely, holding it in can lead to recurrent health problems as serious as colds, flu, high blood pressure, ulcers, and even cancer.
Having a child with a disability certainly qualifies as a “major upheaval.” The inhibition of our upsetting thoughts and feelings is physical work, the burden of which can lead to long-term health problems. People who can open up in a group generally report that they enjoy it and learn from it. In addition, their health notably improves–which incidentally provides the scientific basis for the rapid increase of self-help groups for all sorts of problems. But “one size does not fit all.” Not everyone can open up in a group, and even for those who get great benefit, the group isn’t always there at the time you may need comfort and support.
According to Pennebaker in Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others (New York: Avon, 1990), writing about our inner turmoil can also be therapeutic. Writing helps us to organize and understand our thoughts and feelings. Keeping a journal that we write in with some regularity can thus be extremely helpful for our physical and emotional well-being. By translating the feelings about the events into words, we can gain perspective and understanding about ourselves and what has happened. When we confront upsetting circumstances by talking or in writing, we are often relieved to discover or rediscover that we are not alone, and this helps us gain insight. We can see ourselves as just ordinary people who happen to be going through a difficult ordeal, and this may be a great consolation.
On a practical note, don’t let journaling become a stressor in itself. Writing as a method of emotional release should be done when you feel the urge. It can be daily, weekly, monthly, or just when you feel like it. One technique is to try writing in response to a question. Here’s a few to get you started:
- What’s been really hard about being a mother or a father today?
- What have I learned from this?
- What moment that gave me pleasure or satisfaction?
- What contributions have I made to my child and my family today?
- How do I feel about my life in general?
Another way to approach this is to complete a sentence stem. Here are a few that I use in the workshops I present:
- The best thing about my child is…….
- The worst thing about my child is……
- A feeling or thought that I am embarrassed about is…..
- Something that made me proud lately happened when…..
- The worst thing about my spouse is……..
- The best thing about my spouse is……
- The nicest thing someone said to me lately was….
- I hope that……
- I grieve about my dream that will never be….
- 10.I dream a new dream that…..
- My child has taught me that…
- I am becoming a better person because…
Try to just let it flow. What comes out may surprise or enlighten you. Often in a conversation the flow of the interaction will unleash thoughts we never knew we had. Writing expressively can do the same thing. Thoughts and feelings will emerge from your inner self. The important thing is to look for meaning and growth. Merely writing about the same painful things over and over will not bring healing. Focus on thought as well as emotion in order to tap into your inner healing power. Keep track of your growth or change as you write about your experiences. Searching for new realizations and understandings will keep you on a path of healing.
Web sites about journaling can help you get started. http://healing.about.com/cs/selfactualization/a/journaling.htm , for example, offers techniques, and tips. If you don’t take to journaling, or if you tend to get more upset instead of less, then try another approach: go to a support group, talk to a fellow parent or close friend, read a good book on the subject, or seek assistance. Sometimes a mental health professional (a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist) or a member of the clergy can be helpful to you in understanding your needs. Some people are reluctant to take this step, but when it becomes hard to function from day to day, this kind of help may be in order. Just as you would consult a specialist for your child if necessary, do likewise for yourself. It is intelligent and wise to acknowledge your own needs as well as your child’s. You deserve it.