The following is a list of visual journaling exercises from our previous collaborative research and community-based programs in indigenous communities. These were “situated” within a particular community so please build from these ideas to create context and meaning for your own community.
Create a symbol of how you feel in the present moment and write one word to describe this feeling.
Create a symbol of your day and write one word to describe your day.
If you are having a not so good day, draw or trace a circle. Using lines, shapes, and colors create a symbol of this feeling in the circle. Write down words that describe this feeling. You can take this drawing out of your journal if you choose to.
Create a drawing of your favorite place. Share this place with someone.
Create a symbol of tension and write down a word to describe this state of being. Starting at your feet, focus on tensing up each muscle and then releasing it. Do this until you reach the top of your head. Create a symbol of relaxation and write down a word to describe this state of being.
Create a circle of wellness. Draw or trace your circle and divide your circle into 4 sections and include symbols of physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental activities. Label each activity and share your wellness circle with someone.
Create a circle of family and friends. Draw or trace a circle. Paste copies of pictures (or magazine images) of family and friends (past and present) who have been a source of support. Be sure to include a picture of you. Share stories about each person.
Look at a favorite plant, vegetable, or fruit and create a symbol of it. Share a story about why it is your favorite.
There are a number of proven health benefits correlated with artmaking. For instance, engaging in brief artmaking has been shown to enhance immunity and decrease cortisol levels (Lorance & Warson, 2012; Hayes et al., unpublished raw data). Although, many of these benefits can be transferred to the effects of the visual journaling process, research on the specific effects of visual journaling demonstrated a decrease in anxiety levels and negative affect (Mercer, Warson, & Zhao, 2010). As a result, there is growing evidence for visual journaling as a promising intervention for stress reduction.
For maximum benefit, choose a consistent time of day to work in your journal. Keep a small container of favorite art supplies close by in addition to a small travel case. Health benefits such as increased dopamine and serotonin production can be achieved after 5 min. of sustained visual journaling.
Research on visual journaling has demonstrated that a self-directed approach is just as beneficial as using specific cues (Mercer et al., 2010). Create your own approach and vary it as your awareness grows. For example, visual journaling in response to a specific open-ended theme over a period of time can elicit new themes to emerge. Themes could be as broad as your depiction of wellness. Mindfulness-based practices are a natural fit with visual journaling.
In a 2012 study with southeastern tribal elders, visual journaling was sustained over a two-month period with a 95% response rate among 26 participants (Warson, 2012; Warson et al., unpublished raw data). Preliminary data analysis indicated a preference for depicting every-day life events such as picking peas in the garden, designing quilt patterns, as well as references to family and spirituality. These preliminary findings suggest that mindfulness-based awareness was evident in the re-experiencing of important daily tasks and events.
Why combine images with words? In a comparative study on the efficacy of art and writing therapy on stress reduction, Pizarro (2004) noted that the combined effects of art therapy and writing demonstrated more significant positive changes in terms of perceived levels of stress than writing alone.