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Visual Journaling, Self-Regulation and Stress Reduction

An art therapy perspective of visual journaling and its benefits.

Key points

  • Visual journaling is one of the basic methods used in art therapy.
  • Visual journaling can be a simple, yet empowering experience of “telling without talking” about abuse or assault.
  • Visual journaling can be even more effective with writing, by helping survivors translate their experiences and put them in context.

Visual journaling [aka art journaling] is a practice that has a long history among artists. The 2009 publication of The Red Book (Carl Gustav Jung’s visual images and accompanying text) is considered by many to be the quintessential example of visual journaling.

Because of its history in art and psychiatry, visual/art journaling has also become one of the basic methods used in art therapy (and perhaps even one of the “top 10 art therapy interventions”). Among creative art therapy approaches to trauma intervention, visual journaling has been used in a variety of ways to help survivors not only cope with hyperarousal and distress but also as a means of stress reduction and self-regulation.

In trauma intervention with individuals who have experienced interpersonal violence, visual journaling can be a simple, yet empowering experience of “telling without talking” about abuse or assault. For child survivors of abuse, loss, or neglect, I regularly introduce a “drawing journal” with specific child-friendly prompts and activities.

Visual journaling serves as a “transitional object” for these young clients to continue the process of reparation post-treatment and to remind them of ways they can self-soothe, self-regulate, and de-stress through drawing and other forms of image-making. In fact, I encourage everyone, adults included, to keep some sort of visual journaling practice in between sessions and after art therapy has ended.

Like many art therapists, I also keep several personal art journaling projects going simultaneously. Some are daily image-based musings and observations about the here-and-now; others are visual scrapbooks of ideas or images that intrigue or inspire me. But despite the fact that visual journaling is widely used by art therapists themselves and recommended to clients, it is not well-defined through a set of specific methods or best practice models. There is very little research to indicate just how visual or “art” journaling is helpful to help clients or support wellness. Most of the available research is about short-term experiences of written journaling rather than art journal and focuses on traumatic events, loss, and medical illness via writing strategies.

Research on visual journaling for trauma recovery

James Pennebaker’s research team has contributed most of what is known about this type of journaling in terms of recovery from trauma. Pennebaker discovered that personal self-disclosure via writing is not only good for emotional health but also boosts physical health as well. In brief, putting pen to paper to write about the troubling experience may help to make the experience more manageable. Says Pennebaker, "When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experienced improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function.”

Art therapist Elizabeth Warson, Ph.D., is one of few researchers who has used visual journaling extensively and measured its impact via qualitative and quantitative outcomes. She proposes that self-exploration through visual journaling is an approach to treating stress, particularly with those individuals who have experienced intergenerational trauma. With American Indian and Alaska Natives populations, visual journaling is an emerging best practice in the treatment of historical trauma present in these cultural groups. Based on preliminary data, visual journaling has helped these individuals externalize traumatic stress and strengthen concepts of well-being.

How visual journaling works

Both Pennebaker’s and Warson’s findings bring up some questions about just how visual journaling actually works as a form of stress reduction and emotional self-regulation. For example: Can art journaling be effective on its own or is it necessary to also include writing or oral storytelling as part of the process? Does visual journaling provide specific benefits that differ from writing about emotionally distressing events?

Based on what is currently known about trauma recovery and existing anecdotal information, my sense is that visual journaling may work best in tandem with written journaling. When an individual experiences traumatic reactions, in essence, the lower parts of the brain respond with fight, flight, and/or freeze; at the same time, the higher brain is often overwhelmed by recurrent or intrusive thoughts or avoidance of thoughts related to the traumatizing events. Perhaps visual journaling and written narratives work in two complementary ways:

  1. Creating an image, even a simple one with colors, lines, and shapes, expresses the sensory parts of the traumatizing event. It is a way to tangibly convey what words cannot adequately communicate or explain in a logical, linear way.
  2. Writing about the image and the event, as Pennebaker recommends, not only translates experiences into language but also performs another important healing function. Creating a written narrative may actually begin the process of detaching from intrusive thoughts and putting upsetting feelings (sensory memories) into a chronology. Rather than remaining a disturbing mixture of free-floating emotions, experiences are placed in an objective, historical context.

In brief, visual journaling adds an extra component to written narratives in terms of self-expression. Exactly what that synergistic combination entails and how it helps to reduce stress, serves as a form of self-care, and restores emotional equilibrium post-trauma is still unknown.

In the next post, I’ll describe some of the more popular practices and techniques used in visual journaling that support stress reduction and self-regulation for trauma and loss and can enhance your visual vocabulary and self-awareness.

Keep Calm and Art Therapy On,

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC

© 2013 Cathy Malchiodi


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