Ask Alistair

Dear Alistair,
I have been struggling emotionally for a while. I am a very private person and don’t really feel comfortable talking to my friends about my “issues”. Also, I don’t think I can afford ongoing therapy with a psychologist. Is there anything else I can do to help myself?

alistairThere are a number of options available to you, the first of which is to draw on the services of one of the organizations that provide telephonic counseling, such as the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) or LifeLine. Both of these organisations provide telephonic counseling services throughout South Africa. Another option is for you to join a local support group, such as that run by SADAG. They run support groups for individuals struggling with Bipolar disorder, major depression and/or anxiety disorders in certain towns and cities. If this does not appeal to you, then you might like to join an online support group and/or find some online counseling.

If none of the above feels comfortable to you, then you might like to consider engaging with some Journal Therapy. This is simply the act of writing down one’s thoughts and feelings to sort through problems and come to deeper understandings of oneself or the issues in one’s life. Unlike traditional diary writing, where daily events and happenings are recorded from an exterior point of view, journal therapy focuses on your internal experiences, reactions, and perceptions. To be most helpful, one must write in detail about feelings and cognitions (i.e. thoughts), as one would discuss topics in therapy.

The benefits of putting one’s thought and feelings on paper are surprisingly many! At the most basic level, it helps give useful emotional and mental clarity. Also, studies show that when people write about emotionally difficult events or feelings for just 20 minutes at a time over three or four days, their immune system functioning increases. Studies indicate that the release offered by writing has a direct impact on the body’s capacity to withstand stress and fight off infection and disease.

It is believed that by recording and describing the salient issues in one’s life, one can better understand these issues and eventually diagnose problems that stem from them. Journal therapy has been used effectively for grief and loss; coping with life-threatening or chronic illness; recovery from addictions, eating disorders and trauma; repairing troubled marriages and family relationships; increasing communication skills; developing healthier self-esteem; getting a better perspective on life; and clarifying life goals. Whether you use a pen and paper, a laptop, or even crayons, journaling can also be a great way to relieve and manage stress.

In essence, journaling allows people to clarify their thoughts and feelings, thereby gaining valuable self-knowledge. It’s also a good problem-solving tool; often, one can hash out a problem and come up with solutions more easily on paper. Journaling about traumatic events helps one process them by fully exploring and releasing the emotions involved, and by engaging both hemispheres of the brain in the process, allowing the experience to become fully integrated in one’s mind.