Yet their influence moves through your imagination when you’re not paying attention.
In this way, we can gain glimpses of insight that are quite useful to our daily lives. Essentially, you get a feeling that you “know something,” but without knowing exactly why.
That knowing comes from processing ideas and mental associations at a volume far too great to hold in conscious thought.
When you take a shower, wash the dishes, or drive home while listening to music, your mind may be processing a problem even though you have let go of the conscious effort of deliberate thought.
Your mind wanders into what neuroscientists have begun calling “the default network.” It’s a mode of thinking based in imagination, discovering loose associations, and processing nuances of your social world.
The number of associations your brain cross checks against other ideas, hopes, fears, dreams and imagined scenarios is so large that you cannot be consciously aware of this level of thinking. It is not, in any way, a precise form of thought. But it is an essential part of your thought process, and it is going on day and night at the subconscious level of thought.
It is here that we can find your darkest fears.
And I mean that literally. The fears held within your subconscious level of thinking are more powerful precisely because they can exist beyond the rational light of conscious consideration.
This is why a nightmare seems less frightening when you try to speak it out loud to a friend. The terror diminishes as its form, which seemed solid just moments before in the world of dreams, unravels to reveal clouds of dust settling to the ground or blowing away.
Yet many of us do not speak our fears aloud. Or our conscious awareness of those fears is below a threshold that allows us to bring them to the surface. So they live in the dark recesses of our minds, sometimes for decades or even a lifetime.
Many of these fears were formed during childhood, when the tendency to dissociate from our fears is much stronger. It’s easier to distract ourselves and refuse to face a cluster of fearful thoughts when our emotional capacity to cope seems certain to be overwhelmed if we tried to face the fear and accept it for what it is.
Add to this the fact that fear is not completely formed by your own personal experience, but also by those of your ancestors. There are, for example, phobias which psychologists call “prepared fears.” These are fears which seem to have been passed down from generation to generation almost as a genetic preparedness to quickly learn certain types of fears.
An example of this is a snake moving through the grass. This prepared fear can develop into a phobia after one negative experience. In contrast, it takes many repetitions of a loud noise or other startling experience to induce a fear response to a gun. While guns are far more dangerous, they do not lurk in the ancient shadows of our genetic code.
When I entered graduate school at Baylor University, one of my burning questions was about fear. I had already experienced what, to me, seemed more than my fair share of fear for a lifetime, though I was only 22 years old. Yet, but my own estimation, I also seemed to have more courage, self-discipline, and confidence than most people. And this confused me.
Why should fear creep so often into my experience of life when consciously I could so easily laugh in the face of fear? Where did the fear then exist if not in my conscious mind?
Apparently, it exists in the world of feelings, mental associations, and subconscious expectations as much if not more than in the conscious mind.
And this is why psychologists recommend journaling.
Journaling is a therapeutic art that has proven time and time again through personal experience and careful research studies to have marvelous powers for reducing distress, calming fears, overcoming past wounds, gaining new insights, and feeling more capable of handling the challenges of daily life.
You see, journaling (especially by hand) slows down the laser of your conscious awareness, allowing it to rest longer on one emotion or problem rather than flitting from one to the next as the mind typically does.
By slowing down to write in your journal, there seems to be a mix of both conscious rationality and bits of subconscious emotion arising in your silent process of pouring emotions onto the page as they arise, unbidden in a stream of associations and random thoughts about the topic at hand.
As such, journaling is an outlet that costs you nothing and yet has many of the benefits of speaking with a psychotherapist.
It’s like a listening ear. A friend to whom you can tell anything without the fear of being judged. Someone to help you process and reprocess complex emotions until you understand them better and feel less overwhelmed by them.
In my mind, journaling is an essential tool for those who choose a life of peak performance. And here I use the term peak performance to mean simply the art of living well, to the fullest of your potential for health, well-being, and happiness.
Do you need to reread your journal entries for them to have this positive effect? No, in one research study of college students, participants were divided into two groups. One group wrote about a particularly difficult event from their lives while the other group was instructed to write some thoughts about recent sporting events.
Both groups deposited their series of essays into a lockbox through a small slot just big enough to fit a paper. They would never see their writing again, and none of the experimenters bothered to read them. But the experimenters did watch the students to see what would happen next.
They collected detailed information about the students’ grades, the number of colds they experienced, and indications about their feelings of emotional well-being. Those outside the scientific field of research that studies the interconnection between psychological health and the immune system (psychoneuroimmunology) are often surprised when they hear the results of the study.
The group of students randomly assigned to write about an emotionally painful event experienced far fewer colds, achieved better grades on average, and reported fewer negative emotions and more positive emotions during the months following the experiment.
If this were a single result, one might argue that correlation does not equal causation, and this random sampling of students might have been predestined to yield such an outcome.
But a careful review of an extensive body of research literature would show you that this finding has been documented again and again across many different groups using many different research methods.
All this is to say that it helps to get your thoughts on paper, even if just for yourself. Because some of those thoughts may be ones you never even knew you had.
And by processing negative emotions, even those from distant memories of sadness and loss, fear and heartbreak, you can find yourself feeling more whole, more capable of trudging on, and perhaps even a little lighter as you blow the dust from the story of your life and sweep out the dark recesses of your own mind.