'Can reveal deeper emotions, triggers': UAE mental health experts on therapeutic benefits of video journaling

The method is especially gaining popularity amongst the Gen-Z

By Anu Prabhakar

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Published: Thu 28 Dec 2023, 9:27 PM

Carolyn Yaffe once had a young patient who suffered from severe anxiety and depression. “Despite countless therapy sessions, she presented difficulty communicating her emotions effectively and became frustrated with her lack of progress,” recalls Yaffe, who works as a counsellor and cognitive behaviour therapist at Medcare Camali Clinic, Jumeirah. The patient, who was in her 20s, found handwritten journaling ‘arduous and time-consuming’ so instead, Yaffe suggested that they try a new approach: video journaling.

The first few videos were hard to shoot — partly due to the patient’s initial hesitation — but soon, she began to find solace in it. “She could express her emotions and she started to discuss her depressive episodes and anxiety triggers, in addition to moments of joy and achievements,” says Yaffe. The patient could watch, study and observe her own progress, which helped immensely. “The videos became a mirror reflecting her emotional journey.”

Video journaling, Yaffe puts it simply, “is a form of journaling where you record thoughts and feelings using a video camera instead of writing them down”. “And as with any strategy, what works well for one may not work well for another. However, when used as part of the treatment plan, it is a robust and evidence-based practice that has proven to be a highly effective tool for many people in therapy.”

Experts point out that besides improving patients’ communication skills, self-expression and self-understanding, video journaling can also provide valuable insight by revealing patients’ patterns, triggers and emotional changes. “Like traditional journaling, video journaling has a tremendous therapeutic effect but with the added benefit of being able to see facial expressions, gestures and voice tones, which can reveal deeper emotions and provide a fuller picture of one’s mental status,” says Yaffe.

The rise of video journals

Dr Jasmine Mumtaz Jahanara, specialist psychiatrist at Lifeline Clinic, explains that although video journaling is a new phenomenon in therapy, people have been using them unwittingly for self-therapy ever since shooting videos became much easier and writing became rarer as it was steadily replaced first by audio recordings and then, video recordings. “People express their emotions through art. With the advent of vlogging, they started expressing their thoughts through video recording… For many, it has helped in self- reflection,” she says.

Dr Nada Omer Mohamed Elbashir, consultant psychiatrist at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi too attributes video journals’ rise in popularity to the widespread use of high-tech gadgets. “Both traditional journaling and video journaling provide a private space to individuals to express their emotions and it can lead to emotional catharsis. It helps to reduce stress, process negative emotions and enhance self-awareness. Traditional journaling, in particular, also helps to improve one’s memory power, helps in goal-setting and problem-solving,” she says, adding that she is partial to the latter for its unbeatable benefits. “Maybe I am old school,” she laughs. “But now people do not carry a pen and paper — they carry mobile phones and laptops. It’s just easier for people to record.”

Pandemic's impact

The Covid-19 pandemic too may have had a role to play. Thirty-five year old Dubai resident Sarah* spent the pandemic all alone at home. “My friends and I, obviously, didn’t meet up and I stay alone. I was fine in the first weeks of the pandemic in 2020 but gradually, my old anxieties resurfaced and I fell into this toxic cycle of ruminating on the past, complaining about the present and worrying about the future. And although I video-called my friends and family every day, you can’t really share these things with them.”

One particularly rough day, when the silence at home felt deafening, she whipped out her phone, pressed record and started talking with no script in mind. “I started talking about fun, random things — like what I had for breakfast and the latest TV show that I was binge watching — but somehow by the end of that 20-minute video, I had become a sobbing mess, talking about my childhood trauma. I realised that my busy, pre-pandemic life hid my anxiety and trauma dangerously well and that I needed professional help as soon as possible,” she says. She quickly opted for online therapy and, as per her therapist’s advice, continued to maintain video journals.

Sarah shudders as she recalls the first time she rewatched that video, just a few days after recording it. “It felt like an electric jolt, but it was a much-needed wakeup call,” she says, “because it was so glaringly and painfully obvious that I was so unwell. I knew I was doing badly, but not so badly.”

This ability to help people express their innermost thoughts and feelings freely has made video journals a popular tool in therapy. “They provide a visual timeline of a person’s therapeutic process and give them the opportunity to revisit older entries,” explains Yaffe. “Changes over time may be easier to recognise visually and being able to watch these videos after some time has passed can provide them with a new perspective on their feelings and experiences — it helps them to discover recurring themes or topics they might not have noticed previously.”

There is also a sense of immediacy in video journaling, as patients can record and sort out their thoughts while also receiving instant feedback. “It enables people to see and hear their thoughts and feelings immediately, thus allowing for instant reality checks and helping them fix distortions in their cognition and perceptions,” she adds.

Choosing what works for you

Dr Jahanara remembers how video journaling once helped a young patient deal with self-esteem issues. “She had authoritative parents and low self-confidence, so she was conscious of her self-image and how she interacted with people,” she recalls. “But she had a creative mind, so I encouraged her to do video journaling both as a self-reflection tool and as a part of exposure therapy. Her self-image improved drastically.”

She feels that in general, the younger generation prefers video journaling while the older generation prefers the more traditional way of journaling with pen and paper. “Video journaling works better … with people who are more creative,” she adds.

Yaffe also points out that video journaling might work better for ‘verbal processors’ — people who clarify their thoughts and feelings through speaking, and those who express many emotions through facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. “Video journaling is perfect for outgoing or extroverted personalities — it may feel more natural to them to talk about their feelings and experiences over writing. It may also be better for visual and auditory learners as they can replay their recordings and further analyse their emotions at a particular moment.” She adds that it can help those with dyslexia or dysgraphia as “it provides a more accessible and less frustrating way for them to express their thoughts and emotions.”

Burglar accidentally takes selfie with victims iPhone
Burglar accidentally takes selfie with victims iPhone

Tips to get started

Stay honest. “This is your personal and safe space and your true self must be reflected. Make sure that your space is private and safe without someone interrupting or hearing you,” advises Yaffe. She also recommends maintaining consistency, and reflecting. “Review your entries and see how you respond.”

Avoid editing the video. “These are for your benefit and they need to honestly reflect what you are experiencing, and not what you think they should look like. Don’t stress about how you look. Remember, this is therapeutic, not an Instagram post. Also, resist the urge to delete entries you may not like or things you regret expressing. These videos are a point of growth and reflection,” she adds.

Dr Jasmine Mumtaz Jahanara explains that one should start at his/her pace. “Allow yourself to flow … Don’t worry about grammar or judgment. Understand that there is no right and wrong. Make it an everyday habit but don’t treat it like a chore. Be creative. And don’t start with an emotion-provoking situation — do not talk about things you cannot handle alone.”

*Name changed on request

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