“Dear Diary . . .”
Almost every little girl has written those words at one time or another, followed by her deepest thoughts and feelings about everything from the boy in her math class to the embarrassing traits of her parents and siblings. As we get older, that little diary with the heart-shaped lock might change into a battered journal detailing inner turmoil, but the purpose remains the same: it’s a safe haven to record your most intimate thoughts and feelings, dreams and fears.
However, many people give up journaling, considering it to be an activity for children or navel-gazing free spirits. Or, perhaps, they are concerned about being embarrassed if the journal falls into the wrong hands. What they are overlooking, though, is that journaling can be an important part of the process of recovery and healing. Many mental health professionals recommend journal-keeping as part of the overall therapeutic process.
What is Journaling?
Many people resist journal therapy because they do not understand what the process actually entails. Journaling differs from keeping a diary; a diary is more of a chronology of life, a reporting of events without a whole lot of analysis.
Journaling, on the other hand, is far more introspective. It’s a way for you to process all of your thoughts and feelings. Instead of just writing about what happened, you write about your reactions to those occurrences – or even about things that haven’t happened yet. The journal is a safe and private place for you to explore your experiences, fears, dreams, perceptions and reactions. A majority of journals are written in a stream of consciousness style; you can just write everything that comes into your mind without a filter, without fear of judgment. The result is an honest examination of your thoughts and feelings, and the opportunity to make connections and develop solutions that you might not have otherwise discovered in a more structured environment.
For example: for someone working to overcome an addiction, a journal can be a key part of the recovery process. On a day-to-day basis, the patient can write down his or her feelings about being sober, tracking emotions that lead to cravings. Or, they can chronicle their feelings of frustration about their new lifestyle. Over time, the journal helps them recognize patterns and identify the strategies that work best for them to stay in a life of sobriety.
In fact, journaling has been scientifically proven to have both psychological and physical benefits. Studies in the 1970s showed that the simple act of writing down thoughts and feelings provided more mental and emotional clarity, and that spending 20 minutes journaling just three days a week, can improve immune system function and the body’s ability to fight off infection and disease.
How to Start Journaling
While there is certainly no right or wrong way to journal, there are some things you can do to make the process much more effective.
- Use a pen and paper you are comfortable with. Some people purchase a special notebook and pen for journaling, while others just use simple notepads or whatever is readily available. Do what works best for you.
- Journal regularly; the best benefits from journaling come from consistent practice. Set aside time each day to focus on your writing, without either distraction or interruption.
- Don’t self-censor. In the beginning, you may be hesitant to be completely honest in your journal or dig too deeply. Remember that the journal is for your eyes only (you can take precautions to keep it private) and that you never have to share the book. Just start writing and write whatever comes to mind, releasing every emotion you experience. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or your handwriting. Just write and be honest.
- Date all of your entries and re-read what you have written every now and then to look for patterns and perceptions that you may have missed.
- Use journaling prompts to help you get started. Some days you may feel blocked or unsure of what to write about. Try writing a letter to yourself or someone else, or a dialogue between you and someone (or something). Make lists (Things I Am Anxious/Sad/Embarrassed/Happy About, for instance) or write about a fill-in-the-blank sentence like “Today I feel ___.” If you are really stuck, try one of the many journaling guides to help you get started and provide ideas of what to write about.
- Keep your journals private. If you write in a notebook, on the first page, include a notice and a request to anyone who finds the book to not read the contents. If you are especially concerned, shred or burn the pages, or write on the computer and save it in a password-protected file.
Those who journal regularly often say that they cannot imagine life without it – that their journal is a friend, a nonjudgmental sounding board that provides balance and perspective. If you are dealing with a difficult issue or illness – or you just want a safe place to work through your emotions – try therapeutic journaling and reap the benefits.