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Top Ten Art Therapy Visual Journaling Prompts

There is a palette of possibilities when it comes to journaling for health.

Visual journaling (aka art journaling) has a long history in the field of art therapy, particularly as an approach to assist recovery from trauma or loss and as a form of stress reduction. Carl Jung is often considered to be the art therapy “poster person” for visual journaling because he maintained a regular practice of visual journaling. He generally created small circular drawings that he believed corresponded to his inner feelings and the archetypal realm of the collective unconscious [for more information on Jung’s visual journaling, see this link].

The previous two posts on this topic address how visual journaling assists emotional reparation and supports self-regulation and stress reduction. Since then many readers have asked about specific art therapy approaches to visual journaling in response. There are numerous books on visual or art journaling on the market with many good recommendations on how to get started or expand your visual journaling practice. In the tradition of the Top Ten Coolest Art Therapy Interventions, here is a list of the more popular visual journaling prompts [in no particular order] used in art therapy, followed by some general guidelines for applying these strategies to your own self-expression and exploration:

1. How Do You Feel Today? This is possibly the most common prompt also called a “feelings journal.” I often recommend to clients that they keep a feelings journal between sessions and to spend a little time each day drawing “how I feel today” using colors, shapes, lines, or images.

2. Spontaneous Imagery. Spontaneous imagery can mean many things; most often it refers to creating a scribble or free-form lines and looking for images within those lines.

3. Non-Dominant Hand Drawing. Lucia Capacchione [see previous post], art therapy/ journaling maven, encourages people to “draw with your non-dominant hand” over time and see what emerges; she also recommends writing with your non-dominant hand as part of a journaling practice.

4. Working Within a Circle. This is sometimes called a “mandala journal.” You can simply trace or draw a circle on each page of your journal and make a regular practice of creating images within and/or outside the circle template.

5. Dream Journal. If you have time first thing in the morning after you wake up, try keeping a journal of visual images recalled from your dreams. Try writing down some key words or phrases first, followed by drawing of the main elements of your dream.

6. Photocollage Journal. If you are not keen on drawing, try collecting your favorite images, words or quotes from magazines or books, and/ or print memorabilia and make a regular practice of creating an image journal. It can be any theme [travel, soothing images, etc] or purchase a Smashbook® [available at craft and book stores] and a glue stick and start gluing.

7. Doodle Diary. Doodling with felt markers or the ubiquitous Sharpie® pens is not only fun, but also has been shown to actually improve memory in some cases. You can also replicate Zentangle® designs or make up your own “tangle doodles” by creating patterns with repetitive lines and shapes. By all means, be sure you are having a good time and getting into the “doodle zone” [a state of creative flow where time is non-existent].

8. Intention Journal. If you have a particular intention in mind [for example, a gratitude practice or a goal to become healthier in the next year], try keeping a visual/writing journal dedicated to a particular intention or vision.

9. Altered Book. Any book [old novel, cookbook, or children’s storybook] can be used as a visual journal; you can use the words and images in the book as part of your journaling or draw/paint/collage over text. The next post in this series will explain this form of visual journaling in more detail.

10. Create Your Own Approach. Draw/paint/collage as you like and die happy. It’s your visual journal, do what seems right for you and in any media that appeals to you.

Here are a few basic guidelines for visual journaling:

  • Just Relax. Many professionals who use visual journaling recommend some sort of relaxation practice before beginning each entry. That can be helpful, but don’t make it into a laborious ritual if it does not feel right to you. Visual journaling itself ought to serve the purpose of stress reduction and emotional regulation. Some times it is best to just pick up your art materials and get started.
  • Record the Date. Write down the date [on the front or back of the page] you completed the image in your journal. If a title or other words come to mind, be sure to write those down, too.
  • Don’t Go it Alone. A visual journal can be a private experience, but if you really want to get the most out of it, an empathetic and reflective witness is important. Of course, I recommend an art therapist skilled at helping you deepen narrative work about your images; a visual journaling group that meets regularly to share creative work and spend time together working in journals is another good option. There are online art communities [like the Art Therapy + Happiness Project] that offer opportunities to connect with other visual journalers, too.
  • Safety First. There is an automatic mantra that a visual journal is a "safe place to express your feelings and experiences.” This is not necessarily true in all cases. We often are inclined to place our deepest, most tender experiences in journals of any kind. I always advise my clients who take up the practice to consider keeping their journals in a safe place if writing about traumatic events, losses, or interpersonal problems. And with my youngest clients, I encourage children I see in therapy to leave their journals with me for safekeeping between sessions especially if they are in danger of domestic violence or abuse.

This is a short list of guidelines, with one more post to come—the altered book as a visual journaling practice. According to art therapist and former National Institutes of Health researcher Harriet Wadeson, an altered book is a form of journaling practice for exploring an altered life. Like all visual journaling, it is a powerful way to tell your story as well as re-story the dominant narratives of your life.

Keep calm and art therapy on,

Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D., LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC

© 2013 Cathy Malchiodi.


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