What do such varied, world-renowned figures as John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Ernest Hemingway and Ronald Reagan all have in common? Answer: they kept journals.
Far from being an outlet just for angst-ridden teenagers, journaling is a useful therapeutic tool which people of all ages can benefit from.
In this blog post, I'll touch on these powerful benefits of journaling for mental health and show you how to get started. But first, let's make sure we're on the same page in regards to defining journaling.
Keeping a diary isn't the same thing as keeping a journal.
With a diary, you primarily record daily events and happenings in your life — the straight facts, in other words. Journaling, in contrast, zones in on your reactions and perceptions to those events in hopes of gaining clarity and making positive changes where necessary.
At its core, journaling is like getting a glimpse into your soul where thoughts and emotions roam free without fear of criticism. It's in this place where you can find meaning surrounding the circumstances of your life and identify areas to work on. All it takes to tap into this place is adopting a stream of consciousness writing style, free from self-monitoring.
Journaling is particularly helpful if you struggle with depression or anxiety as it helps to gain better control of your emotions, which improves mental health. That's why it's one of the best therapeutic tools and it doesn't even have to cost you a penny!
That said, it's advisable to be under the care of a therapist if you find it difficult working through emotional issues by yourself.
Let's now take a look at 7 ways in which journaling actually benefits mental health...
MENTAL HEALTH BENEFITS OF JOURNALING
1. Gain Clarity
Writing is a reflection of your thoughts just as a mirror is a reflection of your body. Journaling offers you a glimpse into your working mind like no other method can.
You get to know the real you — what makes you happy/sad, what you like/dislike, what you fear and where you find peace. In other words, you gain a heightened self-awareness of everything about yourself.
As a consequence, you find out what you need to do to get more of what you want and less of what you don't want.
2. Build Empathy
When you start to look at things objectively, you can better understand other points of view. One way to achieve this in your writing is to have an imagined dialogue with another person. For instance, how would this other person respond to a question about having hurt you?
When you're open to other perspectives, you blame others less for your problems which help make you a happier person.
3. Feel Calmer
Have you ever written an angry letter or email to someone but never sent it? How did you feel afterward? Did you feel better even though he/she never read what you had to say?
Journaling is a bit like that. Writing about your emotions helps release them so you feel lighter, calmer and less stressed. And you never have to hold back since it's only for your eyes to see.
Letting go of intense feelings through writing helps prevent them from getting stuck in a mental loop, causing you unnecessary suffering.
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4. Solve Problems
Much of the time, we use our analytical left-brains to solve problems but that doesn't always resolve the issue. Sometimes the only way we can arrive at the answer is by tapping into our creative, intuitive and emotional right-brain which is precisely what journaling accomplishes. Having a different perspective can unlock creative solutions you might never have thought of before!
5. Increase Creativity
The creative component in journaling can also spill into other areas of your life like music, painting and sculpting. Once you get rolling, your muse takes over! And like journaling, you can try out new ideas without fear of judgment.
6. Boost Cognition
All of us have experienced great times of joy and sadness in our lives. Journaling can help recall our pleasant moments while improving memory and comprehension. Just the act of organizing our thoughts and presenting them clearly on paper boosts cognition. But what about not wanting to remember the bad stuff? Read on...
7. Track Patterns
Many doctors advise their patients to track physical symptoms to gauge their progress (or lack thereof). Similarly, journaling serves as a kind of "mental tracker."
When you start to write, you may find yourself covering the same territory over and over again, which you only realize when looking back on earlier entries.
These could be negative thoughts and behaviors you've identified or certain people/events that trigger you. By zeroing in on the problem, you have an opportunity to make positive changes which journaling makes possible!
Thus, journaling offers a wonderful opportunity for personal growth.
So, how do you get started journaling? First, you have to know what areas of your life you want to focus on.
WHAT SHOULD YOU WRITE ABOUT?
Dedicated Days for Dedicated Topics
Even though a stream of consciousness writing style is at the heart of journaling, some structure is important to steer you in the right direction. For instance, you could have dedicated days to write about specific topics like:
- The Natural World (e.g., sky, flowers, animals, ocean, etc.)
- Your "Bucket List"
Another idea is to record ALL accomplishments, however small, from choosing an apple over ice cream to taking a bath without requiring help. When you start to look back over your entries, you'll feel great knowing what you achieved.
Include 5 things you're grateful for in every entry you write. Even something as small as the smell of the autumn air is worth noting. Also, there are lots of great memes with powerful quotes and sayings about gratitude when nothing comes to mind.
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So, how do you become a ninja at journaling? You adopt good practices. Let's take a look how...
BEST PRACTICES FOR JOURNALING
Create the Right Environment
Try to dedicate a tiny space of your house/apartment for journaling. You'll start to associate writing with this area which will automatically put you in the right frame of mind when it comes time to put ink to paper. Another idea to get into the writing mood is by lighting candles or listening to soothing music.
Make Journaling a Habit
The benefits I described won't amount to much if you don't write regularly. To get the most out of journaling, it has to become as routine as brushing your teeth.
One reason people have a tough time keeping to a regular schedule is because they believe they have nothing profound to say but this outlook defeats the purpose. Journaling is about writing whatever comes to mind at that moment, regardless of how "deep" you think you're being.
The self-discipline required to maintain a consistent writing schedule also spills into other areas of life, where one good habit begets another, like starting a regular meditation practice.
So, how do you turn journaling into a habit?
Well, I could suggest writing every day but that might burn you out and cause you to give up. So, here's a better strategy…
Aim to write 3 days per week (and keep to the same days), 20 minutes at a time without stopping to edit.
If possible, write first thing in the morning so you can get on with your day without worrying about it later. Plus, you'll likely have an easier time collecting your thoughts.
Review and Re-evaluate
Do you remember the review/quiz that school textbooks had at the end of each chapter? Well, you kind of want to adopt the same idea with journaling. Sure, you could just write and leave it at that but I presume you want to gain something from your efforts, right?
So, here's what I suggest…
Leave yourself some writing space after every entry (or every 10 entries, if you like) to jot down some "post-game commentary." After every week or month, evaluate what you've written as an objective outside observer and ask yourself questions like these:
- What can I learn from this?
- What do I have to do to move beyond this?
- How can I improve this situation? [Or if you can't] What can I do to live with it better?
- Are there any positive outcomes to this situation I hadn't thought of? [If yes] What can I do to make those a reality?
- How would someone else describe the same events I went through?
Now, jot down your answers in the extra writing space and start looking for patterns from week to week and month to month. Note what's changed and what's stayed the same.
Try Different Mediums
Sometimes words can't express feelings as well as other mediums can. That's why things like collages, sketches, photos and even songs are worth trying. Plus, you're more likely to stay interested when exploring different avenues of expression.
But even if you just stick to writing, you have options…
Pen and Paper
Pen and paper are, of course, the tried and true way to journaling. Despite technical advances, nothing beats the personal nature and authenticity of jotting down thoughts the old fashioned way without fear of getting hacked like you could when using an app. Also, making edits is harder and that's a good thing since journaling is supposed to be a free-flowing exercise!
But there are downsides...
For one, there's always the chance of someone getting hold of your journal who shouldn't be. Then there's the possibility of losing or accidentally damaging it. And without a tagging system like apps/software have, it's harder to instantly call up selections from entries.
Still, pen and paper is the most popular journaling method, with the Moleskine leading the pack for most affordable, well-rated journals.
Many journaling apps and software have entered the market in the last few years. A few popular ones include:
You could also use Evernote or Google Keep for your personal journal. Another option is to use a basic word processing program or minimalistic writing app like Ommwriter (which I love) and store your files on Dropbox. Then there's 750 Words which is a great way to stay motivated in a community with other journal writers.
Perhaps you'd like to broadcast your thoughts and feelings out into the world. With this approach, you can get feedback from readers instead of writing in an echo chamber which journaling tends to be.
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NOW IT'S YOUR TURN!
Have you ever kept a journal? What was your experience like? Leave your comments below!