All About Journaling
I am well aware that people feel either totally in support or totally against journaling- and that's ok! There are certain times -such as when we are in a really raw/ vulnerable place, or if we are in fight/flight/freeze mode- where journaling isn't helpful. Journaling from this headspace can lead us down a dark "rabbit hole" of thoughts that aren't healing or enjoyable, and I'm really sorry if you've had a negative experience like that previously.
Still, I think it has a place and I find journaling to be a very helpful tool for these reasons:
1) It requires us to set aside time to look inward and consider our thoughts and emotions
2) It leaves no room for avoidance
3) It provides us insight into our thoughts and emotions that we may be unaware of
4) It allows us something to look back and reflect on in our healing journey
5) There are many different types to try depending on what we are seeking to gain from it
For those reasons, journaling can also feel really uncomfortable. It requires us to sit down with the thoughts and emotions we maybe spend all day trying to avoid and acknowledge them, make space for them, and consider how to use the information they are giving to us.
Remember, Uncomfortable ≠ Unsafe
For the record, I'm not a fan of telling people to get a pen and some paper and just "see what comes up". In my experience, this type of unstructured journaling can feel aimless, unhelpful, and even set people backwards.
Instead, I strongly prefer guided forms of journaling that help us hone in on a specific topic, focus, or barrier. We all process things differently, so -of course- one style of journaling is not going to work for everyone. Your journaling should support what you're working on or towards and doesn't need to just be a recap of your day. Some options I recommend include:
Prompt journaling involves, you guessed it, following topic/ emotion/ goal specific prompts to help us look deeper, evaluate, and gain more insight into our experience. I often offer curate prompts to my clients who find this style to work well for them- covering topics, such as: relationship strain, needed boundaries, spirituality, self-esteem, etc. Covering 1-5 prompts in one-sitting is plenty and there are many free resources and prompts online. Here are several prompts about relationship strain, as an example:
-What is currently working for me in this relationship?
-What is not currently working for me in this relationship?
-How have I tried to express my discomfort/discontent? How was this received?
-What feels like the best next step in prioritizing my needs/ wellness?
“Brain Dump” A Brain dump is a releasing form of journaling that allows us to take all of the swirling thoughts in our mind and place them on a piece of paper, with the set boundary of time. Often, this is helpful for people who feel stuck in anxious worried thoughts, and it can be done at bedtime if you feel your thoughts keep you awake. To start, set a timer (1-5 minutes) and start releasing exactly what is filling your mind.
If completing during the day, review what you have written when the time is up. Is something coming up repeatedly? Do you notice a theme?
If you are completing this before bed, be intentional about releasing the thoughts onto the paper and know that it will be there tomorrow, so it can leave your mind.
“Gratitude Journal” A gratitude journal is another great tool, helping us combat negative thoughts and increase our awareness of good happening in our lives. The reason a gratitude journal is effective is similar to why affirmations have such a positive impact on our brain (read about it on the blog here). In a nutshell, our brain gives priority to thoughts that follow the path of "least resistance", meaning that if we think negatively most of the time- those pathways will be deepest- and vice versa for positive thoughts. Thankfully, we have the ability to create new positive pathways by increasing positive thoughts, which is where gratitude comes in. Keeping a gratitude journal can be as simple as writing 3-5 things you are grateful for at the end of every day. You can also choose one thing you are grateful for to write about in-depth.
Note: Sometimes gratitude can feel really dismissive of how we are feeling and in-genuine. If that's true for you right now, skip it! I get it, in fact- I wrote a whole blog about it.
“Mood Tracker” Mood Tracking is a great way to stay in tune with your mind-body connection, and increase awareness of how everything going on around you is impacting your mental health. A mood tracker is a way to check in with yourself regularly and ask, “what emotions am I feeling today?”, “where is my stress level?”, “how am I sleeping/eating?”, “how are my interactions with those around me?”, “have I been consuming more alcohol/substances?”, “what external things are affecting me?”. Day to day, we don’t always notice small changes in our answers to these questions, but tracking it over a course of time can tell us a lot about what increases and decreases our mood.
Snag a copy of my free Anxiety + Stress Mood Tracker, here.
“Journaling To Others” Sometimes the things we want to process are our relationships with other people and one powerful way to do this is by writing a note to someone without the intention of ever sharing it. Similar to the releasing benefits of a brain dump, writing to someone allows us to say what we want to say, express our feelings and/or frustrations, and purposefully dedicate time towards acknowledging the impact that a situation/ relationship is having on us. By putting all of this onto paper, we free it from our mind and can reveal truths we may not uncover if we had to consider how someone would react reading the words.
“Lists” Finally, a very versatile and helpful form of journaling is making lists. The great thing about list journaling is that you can choose a new topic/focus for your list every day and cover a lot of different topics. For example, you could make lists about what is making you happy currently, what you want to work on, habits you want to keep, habits you want to break, goals for the month, and so on. If you are someone who loves to check boxes off of your to-do list, this may be the perfect way to tune into your thoughts in a goal-oriented manner.
Ok- that was a lot!
I hope it has given you some new ideas of things to try or introduced you to a new way that journaling could possibly be helpful.
Meredith Waller MSW, LCSW
Based in Boulder, CO and offering online counseling throughout Colorado
-Certified Shame-Informed Treatment Specialist
-Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional