Updated: May 26
Journaling had always been a bit a turn off to me. It elicited images of a teenage girl writing “Dear Diary” with a heart over the “i”, lamenting her juvenile romance woes. With those cultural images, it was hard for me to see the benefit.
Still unconvinced and not knowing where to start, I did not put pen to paper until a friend introduced me to Dr. Caroline Leaf’s neurocycle process. Neurocycle is a structured five step journaling technique to help train the brain to slow down racing thoughts and manage anxiety. (An app is also available here.)
Feeling like I had a starting point that made sense for me, I began journaling daily. Ultimately, the neurocycle format did not work for me, but it did give me a starting point to evolve and adapt. Over time, I developed my own 5-step daily process:
Body: A few words about how my body felt each day.
After completely ignoring my body until it protested with burn out, I thought it was important for me to formally acknowledge how it felt each day. “Tired” was my most frequent entry!
Mind: The top things on my mind.
It could be quick or lengthy depending on the day. Every few weeks, I reread what I wrote and added new thoughts and perspectives in the margins with a different color pen. This process was inspired by Dr. Leaf’s “Step 4: Recheck”.
Rechecks were not helpful me on the same day, as prescribed in the neurocycle, but with the passage of time and more information, I could have a conversation of sorts with my past self. Over time, this practice helped my brain to distance or unblend itself from big emotions. It helped me develop concrete experiential knowledge that all emotions are temporary and will pass. Reading past entries with today’s knowledge helped me to develop a healthy humor around the intensity of emotion, meta emotion and rumination that rarely panned out as necessary or helpful.
Goals: Small, achievable self-care goals.
Inspired by neurocycle Step 5: Active Reach
For as much as I had longed for a break, it was perplexingly tough to enjoy. Being a Type A feminist perfectionist who just walked away from her career of nearly 15 years, I was in desperate need of a mooring. This practice was simple list, no more than 5 items, of self-care goals I wanted to achieve by the next day. The list included goals like yoga, drink water, put my phone away or rest. The next day, I checked off each goal I completed. I could simultaneously focus on healing and appease my goal-oriented side.
Gratitude: 6 unique gratitude statements.
Another practice I thought was a bit woo-woo. But I gave it whirl after learning that there is growing body of evidence that a regular practice can calm the nervous system and deepen our brain’s resiliency.
I feel compelled to clarify that a gratitude practice is not about looking on the bright side, minimizing or disregarding the hard experiences (aka toxic positivity). It is about asking myself “and what else is true?”
Left to my own devices, I am a “glass half empty” kind of gal. This practice helped to add color and context to my experience. So, when it felt like shit was hitting the fan, my brain could start looking for a glimmer of beauty amongst the shit. Funny enough, it was always there.
For my practice, I wrote out 6 different statements of gratitude daily. (Looking through the entries, I misspelled “grateful” most of the time... 🤦🏻♀️) The statement I wrote most frequently was:
“I am grat[e]ful for this time.”
Heart: Reminders for my heart and soul.
In What Happened to You? by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. and Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Perry provided a metaphor that has been incredibly helpful to me:
Therapy is more about building new associations, making new, healthier default [neuro]pathways. It is almost as if therapy is taking your two-lane dirt road and building a four-lane freeway alongside it. The old road stays, but you don’t use it much anymore. Therapy is building a better alternative, a new default. And that takes repetition and time[.]
With the idea of repetition in mind, I began to write a few short sentences, quotes, or aspirations (not affirmations). I generally rewrote the same ones every day until I was ready to cycle in new ones. My hope was that I was reminding myself every day to take the four-lane freeway. The statement I wrote over the longest period was:
Give yourself a long runway for the things that are hard.
(Emily Nagoski, adapted)
After journaling with this structure daily for one year, I started to notice that it was starting to feel laborious. I read that feeling as an indication to redirect my energies to other pursuits, while still maintaining other portions of my daily mindfulness practice (meditation and yoga).
Still, when I start to feel myself leaning more towards that “two lane dirt road,” I turn back to the practice for as long as it seems to help and be needed. Regardless of longevity, how I experience the world has been forever changed by the practice.
Disclaimer: This is a "one woman shop"! I was not blessed with proofing nor spelling super powers. If you spot a mistake, comment, email or DM me! I thank you in advance for your compassion and grace. ❤️