Visual journaling is the art of self-discovery; through image-making our truest feelings are revealed – through writing those feelings are interpreted. Through this process the conscious and subconscious minds can have a conversation, allowing your authentic voice and inner wisdom to emerge, awaken and be heard. Being either an artist or writer is not required to do the process of visual journaling.

According to neuroscience research, visual journaling allows for the accessing of the right brain, also known as the “imagistic” brain.  The imagistic brain is not capable of engaging in fear or judgment – it merely experiences all information in terms of “do I want to move toward or away from that” – whatever that is; for example, when experiencing the pain of loss “that” might be a sense of loneliness seeking comfort, or sadness seeking resolution, or any other emotion or thought that arises out of grief. The process of visual journaling provides an expressive language of images, colors and symbols with which to explore painful emotions and thoughts that accompany grief – emotions and thoughts that may otherwise be hard to convey through spoken words; it is through this visual voicing of the pain of loss that a healing path can be found and followed. 

My client Beth (not her real name) had a series of losses that led her to my door: the day before her daughter’s wedding to be held at the family farm, her husband announced he was leaving her for another woman. Within a short time, Beth lost her marriage, her home, the family she had built, and the farm animals and horses she dearly loved. And then not to long after, first her mother, then her father died. Overwhelmed by accumulated grief, Beth began having a series of health issues; the pain of loss was taking-up residence in her body, making her sick. 

The first visual journaling exercise we did together explored a chronic bladder inflammation that according to Beth’s doctor could never be cured. The stated intention of our first exercise together was “I intend to draw an image of what I am holding in my bladder.” What was revealed stunned Beth – she was angry, intensely anger at her husband and the way he ended their marriage - and she was holding that anger in her bladder (revealed as an image of a yellow upward spray of liquid she titled “Pissed Off”) . Having been raised to be a “good girl” meant never expressing anger and so Beth was holding her anger at her husband inside rather than releasing it. The next time I saw Beth her bladder issue had cleared-up, never to return. Beth and I repeated this process in the aftermath of the overwhelming grief she felt at the loss of her mother and father. And again, visual journaling helped Beth gain clarity regarding her emotions of grief and loss; that clarity helped her to heal.

As Beth learned, visual journaling is beneficial in healing grief by:

  • Providing a way to acknowledge, feel, accept, and let go of uncomfortable emotions connected to grief and loss
  • Helping identify where grief is “living” or being “housed” in the body
  • Helping release fears and self-judgments re: “Am I grieving in the right way?”
  • Giving voice to types of  grief that can make mourning difficult beyond the norm  
  • Give grievers a concrete avenue for expressing the pain of loss

The Process of Visual Journaling

Visual journaling is best done with an art therapist or someone to guide you through the process. That said, the book Drawing from the Heart by Barbara Ganim can be very helpful in getting you started in exploring visual journaling as a healing art modality.

Essential Supplies:

  • A sketch pad or hard-bound, lineless drawing journal, at least 8” x10” (in a pinch 8 ½” x 11” white multi-purpose paper can be used)
  • A box of crayons (and/or a box of pastel chalks – the more colors, the better)

The Essential Six Steps:

  1. Place a piece of paper in front of you, and all of your color implements before you. 
  2. Set a clear intention – write that intention at the top of your paper. The intention can be something like "I intend to draw an image of my sadness."
  3. Quiet the mind through body-centered awareness (for steps 2 and 3 see the below exercise, “I intend to draw an image of how I feel right now"). See with your inner eye using guided visualization.
  4. Draw your inner images. Draw whatever comes to you either prompted by your inner images or the colors before you.
  5. Immediately after completing step 4, without stopping to think, title and date your image. 
  6. Answer these three questions in writing:
  • How did I feel when making this image?
  • How do I feel when looking at your completed image?
  • What is this image trying to tell me that I need to know?

Additional questions that come up related to your image can also be answered.

This classic beginning visual journaling exercise can be found in art therapist Barbara Ganim’s book Drawing from the Heart. It is an exercise that can be done daily when experiencing loss and grief. 

Exercise: I Intend to Draw An Image Of How I Feel Right Now

This is a great starter visual journaling exercise that can help you get a baseline reading on where you’re at on any given day. 

Close your eyes. Do some deep breathing. Slowly take the air in and let it out. Do this several times.

Now focus in on the feelings inside of your body. See if there are any areas of discomfort, tension or pain, as well as areas of lightness, comfort and ease. Do an inventory of your body. Start with your head and face. Move down to your neck and shoulders, then to your arms and hands. Check each area of tension. Then move down to your chest and abdomen, your back. Then your pelvic area and buttocks. Your thighs and knees, calves and feet.

Go back to any areas of tension. Continue deep breathing and as you exhale, allow the tense areas of your body to relax, one by one.

Each time you release your breath, release the tension right along with it. Name each area and as you release the tension from that area say to yourself: My (body part) is feeling very relaxed.

Now once again, take several deep breaths and allow your awareness to go back into that body part where your attention is most drawn either by tension or a sense of relaxation. Focus on the physical sensation in that part of the body. 

Imagine what this sensation might look like if it were an image, either recognizable (a mountain or face for example) or abstract (such as squiggly lines or whatever). If an image doesn’t come to you, either as a vision or an idea, then just imagine what colors and shapes or forms would best express it.

When you are ready, open your eyes and begin to drawn whatever image comes to you that best expresses, how you feel right now.

  1. How did I feel while making this image?
  2. How do I feel when looking at this finished image?
  3. What does this image tell me that I need to know?   

Information that is revealed in I Intend to Draw an Image of How I feel Right Now, can lead to the next visual journaling exploration. For example:

  • If how I feel right now is revealed as anger then exploring “I intend to draw an image of what is beneath my anger” can be a way to get a fuller understanding of the emotion of anger. 
  • If how I feel right now is revealed as fear, “I intend to draw an Image of safety and security” or “I intend to draw an image of what I need right now” can provide what is needed in the moment to help process grief.   
  • If how I feel right now is revealed as confused, “I intend to draw an Image of clarity” or “understanding” might be a next logical

It is important to remember that there is no wrong way to do visual journaling and there are no wrong feelings – your feelings are information telling you something you need/want to know. Also, in the end you are the only one who really knows what your images mean; if you have no idea what your images mean right now, that’s okay - sometimes it takes time for your images to “speak” to you.