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Help Yourself Heal With An Unsent Letter

Would you ever consider writing a letter to a body part that was giving you trouble, or to an illness? Or have that body part or illness write a letter to you? Pretty weird, right?

Actually, not so weird. Letters are a wonderful therapeutic journaling technique, particularly the Unsent Letter. This technique is just what it sounds like: you write a letter you will never send. Keeping it personal allows you to express yourself honestly. And, if for some reason you really  never want anyone else ever see it, you can destroy it.

When I was facilitating journaling groups for people with brain injury, participants sometimes wrote an Unsent Letter. Everyone knows what a letter is, and they were able to use it well, sometimes in profound ways. They would write a letter to their brains, delivering a message, such as “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you better,” or asking questions, including “Why did this terrible injury happen to you?” When they shared their letters with the group, we often were deeply touched, sometimes to the point of tears.

Because we are living, breathing Stories, we are embodied Stories—we hold within our physical selves everything we have experienced through our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and beliefs, and this process creates our experience of reality. So if we pay close attention to our bodies—if we listen to them with the “ear of our heart” as St. Benedict might say—we can access the vast storehouse of wisdom held within them. This revealed wisdom can help us heal and live in a more joyful, positive way.

When I had breast cancer six years ago, I wrote both to my breast and to the small tumor there. This exercise allowed me to explore my feelings about the situation, and it was immensely helpful for my emotional state, which I am sure enhanced my physical well-being too. Dealing with recent health issues has once again caused me to listen more closely to what my body is trying to tell me with the changes it has manifested. So, I’ve been writing letters to and from my thyroid. Some enlightening information has emerged, and I know it will help me restore my good health.

How to write an Unsent Letter? First, know that you can write a letter to anyone—living or not, real or imaginary—or anything. Perhaps you need to vent your anger or displeasure with someone but do not want to express it to them (letting it all out in a letter you will never send can sometimes clarify your thoughts, so that you can write another, send-able letter to the person or have a conversation minus the anger). Or perhaps the person is no longer in your life or you don’t know how to reach them, yet you have something important to tell them. You can write such a letter to a part of yourself, say your Procrastinator self or your 10-year-old or future 80-year-old self—or write it from that part to you. Or perhaps you have an illness or injury and have a desire to tell or ask it something. The Unsent Letter is perfect for all of these situations, and many more.

Now I’m that exploring this new health issue, as I write and meditate, my body’s deep wisdom is slowly emerging and allowing me to discover information I can use to become more positive about the situation, or perhaps even to heal it.

 

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

I invite you to write an Unsent Letter to a person, a situation, or anything in your life with which you would like to express yourself. Be as honest and sincere as you can, keep your pen moving, and trust that the right words will come. (No one will see this except for you, remember.) Begin with “Dear ____________” and be sure to end with a closing such as “Sincerely,” “Love,” or whatever you feel is appropriate, followed by your name.

You Are Not a Mind and a Body

You are a mindbody. Or a bodymind. The point is, your mind and body are not two separate entities sort of stacked on top of one another. They exist together as one entity, with inseparable connections:

“There is a complex relationship between thoughts, moods, brain chemistry, endocrine function, and functioning of other physiological systems in our bodies. While an in-depth discussion of this relationship is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that our thoughts can actually trigger physiological changes in our body that affect our mental and physical health. Basically, what you think affects how you feel (both emotionally and physically). So if you increase your positive thoughts, like gratitude, you can increase your subjective sense of well-being as well as, perhaps, objective measures of physical health (like fewer symptoms of illness and increased immune functioning).” http://www.umassd.edu/counseling/forparents/reccomendedreadings/theimportanceofgratitude/

It’s so easy to let our thoughts get the best of us, for better or—usually—worse. We get so trapped in our thought loops and ruminations that we frequently don’t realize we’re having the same not-so-positive thoughts yet again. But I as said in the previous post, if we can learn to recognize physical feelings connected to certain thoughts, we can use that recognition as a signal that there’s something we need to be aware of.

Years ago when I was still working in Corporate America, my job was so stressful I started having agonizing headaches that knocked me flat (along with being horribly depressed). But one day I realized I was unconsciously tensing my neck and scalp muscles so tightly, a pounding headache resulted. I learned to recognize the physical feeling when it started and immediately consciously relaxed those muscle. Headaches gone!

But I was still working there and still intensely stressed. So next I unconsciously began tensing my neck and shoulder muscles so tightly I could not turn my head. I had to turn my entire torso to look behind me—not so good for driving! I went to physical therapy for a while and felt better–for a while. Thankfully, I soon was able to leave Corporate America behind and become self-employed.

Sometime after my liberation, I read through one of the journals I kept during my last years at that job. During the time of the physical therapy, I flowed right through writing a sentence that did not strike me as significant until I re-read it years later: “I think I’ll just sit tight until something better comes along.” Wow! I almost yelped in recognition! In hindsight, I could see how this unconscious metaphor sent my body a message I did not recognize until much later and how my body acted accordingly.

Since then, I’ve learned to recognize certain physical signs that I’m stressed, and once that happens, I can (often) consciously relax whatever part of my body is sending the signal. Amazingly, this calms my entire mindbody; even if the stressful thoughts are still present, they feel more distant and manageable. I also meditate regularly, to encourage my brain toward more calm feelings more of the time.

Now, I don’t mean you should use this skill to ignore or squash painful or difficult thoughts. They do have to be dealt with in healthy ways—and if they are not, they will find a way to bite back! But if noticing certain physical sensations tunes you into your thoughts, you have one more tool to help you stay happier and healthier.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL     

It’s so easy to live in our heads and be disconnected from our bodies. It’s more common than we realize. Once you get the hang of recognizing the connections, though, you will be surprised by how deep those connections are and how telling they can be about your well-being.

See if you can recall a time when you realized your physical state was a reflection of your thoughts. For instance, when your thoughts were angry, what was going on in your body? When you were happy, what were the physical sensations you felt? Write about this for 15 minutes or more, doing your best to describe your emotions as well as your physical sensations.

Your Thoughts Reshape Your Brain

Really. They do.

The traditional belief was that our brains continued developing until a certain age—hitting the high point somewhere in our 30s—but from then on, the possibility for change ended, leaving us sliding slowly downhill into neural oblivion.

Fortunately, new research has shown that our brains are capable of changing for our entire lives. This capacity, called neuroplasticity, means that even while our brains do slow down with age, they are capable of being shaped and reshaped for our entire lives. (In the case of brain injury, it is often possible for new areas of the brain to take over for the injured portions. See The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Normal Doidge.)

When we learn something new, the old neural pathways are overlaid with new ones (that’s the physical change in the brain), creating new patterns of thought and behavior. While we typically do this unconsciously, the cool thing is that we can do it on purpose for our benefit!

As Dr. Rick Hanson says, “There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape—will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest  your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.” (Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time)

Your thoughts create physical changes not only in your brain but in your entire body, including your gene expression. In a very simplified explanation: When you focus on stressful thoughts, your body produces stress hormones, like cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline, that stress your body and your brain. If you stay stressed over time, this causes illness. When you focus on peaceful thoughts, your body produces soothing chemicals, like serotonin, that alleviate stress and can help you and your brain stay healthier. (More on this in the next post.)

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

Three parts to this one. It will take a little while but I think it will be worth it.

  1. What is a negative (but not traumatic) thought you frequently tell yourself? Write it down in a sentence or two, and then write in more detail about it for 3 minutes. Pay close attention to how you feel in your body and where you feel it. What does this reveal to you?
  2. Give yourself a few minutes to release the previous exercise. If you like, give yourself a hug, stand up and walk around. Let your attention to it flow away. Now recall a positive thought you frequently tell yourself. Write it down in a sentence or two, and then write about it in more detail for 3 minutes. Pay close attention to how you feel in your body and where you feel it. What does this reveal to you?
  3. Write for at least 15 minutes about what you learned about how thoughts create reactions in your body. If you can become familiar with the feelings associated with certain thoughts, you can learn to stop or release the thoughts that cause you stress and keep going with the ones that leave you feeling calm and peaceful.

Welcome to A Living, Breathing Story!

Thanks for stopping by.

You know you have a life story. You’ve heard that many times. But what if there’s much more to it? What if, instead of having a story, you are a story—a Living, Breathing Story?

Stop and think about that for a minute. Even with little awareness of the process, over your lifetime you have woven together innumerable threads to create the Story that is the “I” you inhabit right now. Just as an author creates her characters’ reality with the words she commits to the page, you create your own experience of reality depending on how you think about it—and how you think you think about it. Furthermore, your thoughts constantly create reactions and responses within your body, including, of course, your brain and genetic code, causing changes to your physical being. In a very real sense, what you make of your Story makes you: Yes, you are an ever-changing, interactive, living, breathing Story.

It is this Story that creates your experience of reality—your personal account of who and what you believe yourself to be, which determines how you experience life. While it is based on the actual events and experiences of your life, your Story actually springs from the explanations you invent to describe them and their effects on you. “We tell some of the best stories to ourselves. Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized.” (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human)

You are a Living, Breathing Story because of the intimate, inseparable, instantaneous connections between your thoughts and your body’s reactions to those thoughts. This process is so innate and automatic that, most of the time, you don’t even realize it’s playing out in your never-ending stream of consciousness, every moment creating physical, emotional, and mental reactions within you. But as you discover more about your Story and how you create it, you can learn to use this ability on purpose and with awareness, becoming more empowered and adding more joy and ease to your life as a result.

I’ve come to this concept of “Living, Breathing Story” over several years, gradually learning and adding more information. It’s exciting for me to look at myself and the world through these new lenses. And I’m excited to share what I have learned with you.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

At the end of each blog post (or most of them, anyway), I’ll add a journaling exercise for you. Like this one.

One of my favorite quotations about how we create our own experience of reality comes from Antoine de St.-Exupery, who wrote The Little Prince: “We live not by things, but by the meanings of things.” Things—material objects as well as personal or cultural concepts—have no meaning in themselves. We give them meaning based on our own Story, and these meanings further create our Story.

For instance, a wine glass is simply a vessel to hold a beverage. No big deal in and of itself. But I have the last two remaining wine glasses given to my mom and dad on their wedding day and which they used for decades’ worth of special occasions. When I bring them out on my special occasions, I feel deeply connected to my long-deceased father and my mom now in a nursing home hours away. These glasses are precious objects that hold much love and many memories for me. In this way, they help to create my experience of reality.

This same concept holds true for the way we think about ourselves too. When I was younger, I was shy and that meant I would never dream of speaking up in a crowd of people. Years later, I’ve grown comfortable speaking to groups of people, small or large. I’ve discovered I’m just enough of a ham to enjoy it! I changed my thoughts about myself and so changed my experience of reality.

For your journal: What about you? What is something that helped make you who you are today—or, in Story language, helped to create your Story? There are two ways you can do this.

  1. Choose one of your possessions that holds great meaning for you and connects you to someone, represents a special time in your life, or reminds you of a success or even a loss. Write for at least 15 minutes about its meaning for you and what your life would be like without that which it represents for you.
  1. Think of how you have changed your thoughts about yourself over the years, as I did with my shyness. What is your old Story and how did it morph or evolve into a new one? Write for at least 15 minutes on this shift in your perception of yourself.