By: Jonathan Bell
There is a good chance that when you saw the title of this article, you may have had a visceral image pop into your head of a Downton Abbey-esque character sitting in their Drawing Room with a fancy pen writing down what they ate that day and dreaming about when their partner would return from war. I should say there is NOTHING wrong with that image and as I say to almost all my clients, “That makes perfect sense that that’s what is happening for you!”. I want to invite you, reader, to visualize a different image of journaling. Take a second and picture yourself first thing in the morning; hair is a mess, sleep crust in your eyes, and maybe some soreness in your back from sleeping wrong the night prior. Then, I want to invite you to imagine not writing a beautifully-worded sonnet, but just writing the first things that come to mind for you. Just letting your mind wander and take you where it wants to go.
Now that we have shattered the image of the Victorian-era aristocrat with too much time on their hands journaling about the latest fabrics of the fall season, I want to explore with you, reader, what the whole point of journaling is and why it might be a helpful tool for you. Perhaps you are reading this and you aren’t in a place where you are able or ready to begin therapy; if that happens to be you then I will especially encourage you to consider taking up this practice as journaling can mirror the process of therapy but simply by yourself and research shows that journaling can be an especially effective tool to help manage anxiety, assess personal priorities, and regulate emotions (Brennan, 2021). Additionally, some fascinating study has discovered that journaling can improve the recovery timeline for individuals after undergoing a physical injury (Rodriguez, 2013).
Perhaps you are in the middle of a major life transition such as a move, starting school, or maybe even in the midst of a breakup. Maybe you are struggling with work and the first feeling that shows up for you in the mornings is existential dread of the day ahead. Journaling can be a space where the things showing up for you in the “here and now” can be articulated without fear of judgment, sort of like therapy! The best part is, that there is no pressure to make sure your handwriting is perfect or thought your spelling is correct because this space is for you and you alone!
So you now may be thinking about how to make journaling “work” and how to optimize this practice for your growth and progress. One of the things that you should know about journaling, is that it is a very individualized process that there is no right or wrong way to go about doing it. However, there are some practical steps and suggestions that researchers have proposed to ensure that the process is sustainable for the user! Here are a few tips to be mindful of as you consider taking up this practice:
- Research shows that the best time to journal is in the morning as we begin our day! As author of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron, writes, “…we have about a 45-minute window before our ego’s defenses are in place in the morning,…writing promptly upon awakening, we utilize the authenticity available to us in that time frame.”
- Establish a writing routine. It’s not necessary to journal every day to notice positive effects (some would say that journaling too much may even cause an individual to ruminate). Find a good cadence that works for you that allows you the space to process your thoughts but not obsess over them. This will change from person to person! Maybe all you need is one good journaling session for 10 minutes a week. Regardless, try and establish a set time and cadence that is sustainable for you and set reminders to ensure that time is protected.
- If free-form, stream of consciousness writing is anxiety-provoking for you, consider using a journaling prompt or even buying a journal that has prompts created all ready for you! In the Resources section of this article, you will find a variety of journals that come with thoughtful prompts and questions for the journalist to use to guide their process.
It’s also important to note that getting into journaling may be a bumpy and arduous process filled with frustrations and stressors-STICK WITH IT! As with any behavior change or modification, journaling will come with unexpected issues but also surprising victories and breakthroughs! Individuals who develop a sustainable journaling practice will notice an easier time articulating their thoughts and emotions, prioritizing their needs, and ultimately having healthier and stronger relationships with themselves and others. Don’t let the fear of needing to be the next great Ms. Peggy Scott (Gilded Age reference) keep you from picking up a pen and a Moleskine and sharing with yourself what’s really going on in that head of yours.