Have you ever wondered why so many friends, family, therapists and mental health workers advocate journaling as an effective self care and stress management tool?
There is growing research that links journaling with positive influences on physical well being as well as stress reduction (1). According to science the act of writing occupies your analytical left side of your brain, stimulating your right creative side of the brain (1). In a nutshell, writing can lift mental blocks and encourage a free flow of intuition and feeling that can be used to increase understanding of your world, other people, and yourself (1).
There are many positive uses for journaling, some of the most common ones are: creative inspiration, to make sense of overwhelming emotions, improve writing, gain clarity or insight on a troubling problem, to document memories and experiences or to set and track goals. The good news about journaling as a mental health tool is that it can help improve mood and be used as a mindfulness strategy, helping you to prioritize problems in your life, track symptoms and triggers, identify negative thoughts and behaviours and begin the process of building positive self talk (1). One of the greatest benefits of recording your thoughts is the opportunity to track your emotions, this can provide you with a tangible record to help you understand what your feeling, validate it, and the possible reasons why.
A common area of difficulty with journaling is “how do I start? And how do I know I am doing it right?”. The good news is there is no right or wrong way to journal your thoughts, but there are some helpful tips on what makes it most effective and sustainable in the long term. It can be helpful to think of journaling as a safe space for your thoughts and feelings. Something that is just for you and that no one will ever read.
First identify your goal for journaling, it can be as simple as “I just want to get the thoughts out of my head to take a break from carrying them all day”.
Next decide what style of writing works best for you and your lifestyle, not all journaling is created equal. It doesn’t have to follow a structure, you can use images, free flow words and images, whatever feels right for you. You may notice you enjoy the physical act of writing in a notebook with a specific pen, for others it may be typing on a word document, or on a notepad on their phone. If you have accessibility needs, you can use voice recording technology to thoughts. You may choose to reread your entries, chose to skim them ever so often or delete after writing. It is up to you based on comfort, privacy, and your goals for journaling.
Thirdly, set reminders for journaling, a simple ritual can be helpful such as keeping a journal by your bed, setting reminders on your phone, or even having a post it note somewhere that reminds you to journal. The point is to make it accessible, easy, and associate it as a self care activity instead of feeling like homework or another thing on your to do list.
Lastly, journaling is most effective the more you do it, the research suggests 20 minute intervals, but it is also beneficial even if it’s just a couple lines a day. Begin anywhere and let your mind guide you where it wants to go. If you are having trouble beginning, it can be helpful to use prompts or themes for the day. Some popular ones are:
“What am I feeling in this moment?”
“What was the most substantial moment of my day and how did it make me feel?”
“What is something I am struggling with, and how does it make me feel?”
“If I was to wake up tomorrow and all my problems were solved, what would my life look like?”
“What are my top five values? Why are these values important to me?”
“Write about a person who has had a significant impact on your life. What did they teach you?”
“What are some of my favourite things about myself, what are areas or skills I want to improve?”
“What does my (anger, sadness, joy, frustration, or fear) feel like right now, and what does it
need from me? (to be heard, to feel sad, to be understood etc.)”
Having a journal can help us feel more grounded in our daily lives, it can create an opportunity to slow down and get to know ourselves more deeply by revealing intimate thoughts, feelings, or experiences in new ways. Lastly, view your writing as “you” time, as space and time you dedicate to yourself to relax and wind down knowing that you are doing something positive for your mind and body.
(1) Purcell, M. (2016). The health benefits of journaling. Psych Central.