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How journaling and self-compassion can help to heal physical pain

A few years ago, I was suffering from terrible migraines.

If you’ve never had one before, let me tell you - migraines are not just a bad headache! They affect your vision, and can even take over your entire body sometimes.

I would spend many days each month confined to a dark room willing the pain to go away.

It was around this time that I began going to therapy for a totally unrelated reason. And after a while, I realised something.

I hadn’t had a migraine for over a month.

How had that happened?!

A woman sits in a dark room holding one hand on her forehead. How could understanding our emotional pain help heal physical pain?
Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

The link between mental and physical pain

Contrary to popular belief, the link between physical and mental health isn’t a new one.

In fact, the idea was first proposed by Charles Darwin. He believed that emotions exist to get us to move our bodies in a way that will keep us safe from danger.

Back in caveman times, this might have been a bear that might eat us or the risk of being rejected by the family group and sent out into the cold. Nowadays, we still have lots of things to be aware of that might make our lives unsafe: terrorism, disease, climate change, violence, to name a few.

While your rational brain tries to think through the problem you’re facing, your emotional side causes you to experience physical sensations: you might want to jump, your heart races, you go dizzy, your voice trembles.

All of these feelings are your brain’s way of trying to keep you safe. Maybe it thinks that the safest place for you is in bed, so it gives you a migraine (like I used to get), or maybe it thinks you should run away, hence the need to jump around.

When trauma causes unhealthy physical manifestations

Sometimes, though, when the feelings you are avoiding are caused by trauma, the physical manifestations are even more dangerous.

American psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk tells us that traumatised people tend to “find themselves chronically out of sync with people.” This means that, as long as our minds are defending against enemies, our ability to focus on our needs is compromised and our ability to connect with others is reduced.

This can show up in our lives as drug addiction, alcoholism, eating problems or bodily self-harm. These are all surface-level methods of dealing with painful feelings that we haven’t been able to process.

Puzzle pieces being held next to each other over grass. Does mental pain affect physical pain?
Photo by Vardan Papikyan on Unsplash

The importance of self-compassion

Even though this might all sound a little heavy, there is good news. In the same way that poor mental health can create painful physical symptoms, looking after your mental health can have a positive effect on your body too.

There’s more and more research emerging to show that self compassion is an effective way of improving wellbeing. Speaking to ourselves as we would a friend in the same situation makes us more likely to be kind to ourselves, and this creates positive emotions that make it much easier to cope with the challenges we’re facing.

If you’ve had your symptoms checked out by a GP and want to explore how your mental health could be causing you physical pain, reaching out for help from a therapist is a great place to start. A therapist can help you to explore these feelings in a safe environment.

If you’re not quite ready for that yet, though, journaling is the perfect way to take your first step towards feeling better.

Why would journaling help to improve physical pain?

Journaling is a mindful exercise that helps us to see our thoughts and feelings from a new perspective, therefore giving them less power over us.

By developing self-awareness of our emotions and our thoughts, we can better understand what is happening in our bodies. Understanding why you feel this way does not change how you feel but it can help you exercise more control over your reactions so that these physical symptoms don’t rule the roost.

How to start journaling for your mental health

One journaling exercise that will help you begin to practise self compassion is to list all of the things that are bothering you at the moment.

Ask yourself:

  • What’s on my mind?

  • Where in my body do I feel it?

  • What’s upsetting me, or making me feel angry?

  • What am I resisting talking about that is taking up a lot of headspace?

By doing this regularly, you’ll be able to check in with your emotions and figure out what you’re not allowing yourself to feel. Over time, you’ll have fewer and fewer emotions that stay repressed, which puts less pressure on your body to tell you about them.

Think of it in the same way as checking in with a friend. If you don’t regularly ask how your friends are and what’s new, you’ll lose touch with them. The same happens with your feelings.

A woman in a white shirt holds a journal and a pen. Journaling prompts for mental health.
Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash

Further exercises to help you feel better

Developing a regular journaling practice will be beneficial for you in so many ways, but it takes time to create that habit, and courage to stick with it even when it’s painful.

If you’d like further support to help you journal effectively, why not sign up for my free email series?

Over the course of 5 days, I’ll teach you how to journal effectively so that you can stay consistent and enjoy the many benefits of the practice, including a greater understanding of your emotions and how you can start to feel better. Click here to receive your first email today

And if you would like to talk to a therapist about your feelings and pain, have a read of my blog about How to choose a therapist.


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