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Should you use a journal?

pink gratitude journal with eucalyptus leaves; use a journal
There are many reasons and ways to journal, all of which are beneficial for someone. Photo: Gabrielle Henderson

Why should you use a journal? Why is journaling so important?

I believe that journaling has numerous mental health benefits. First, it helps a person release some of the thoughts and emotions that you are experiencing and you can do it any time, whether a member of their support network is available. For example, you don’t have to wait until your friend or lover is awake if you feel upset in the middle of the night to express what’s bothering you. Second, it provides a way to observe your own thoughts and emotions. This is a valuable skill for self-reflection and emotional self-regulation. Third, it provides a record of how you have thought about and coped with problems before. You can see later how you have progressed in your ability to solve problems, or draw on past success to solve current problems more efficiently. It can be very helpful in the treatment of common mental health issues like anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief.

Who can benefit from journaling?

I think anyone who can read and write can benefit from journaling. Some people don’t like to do it because it is time-consuming, but so is being upset for hours at a time. At least when you are journaling, you have an opportunity to proactively do something about your feelings and negative thought patterns. Dr. James Pennebaker did a study of the effectiveness of journaling for past negative events, and found that it has long-term positive effects for the participants of his study.

Tips to get started with journaling

Journaling does not need to be done every day, but I think you benefit from doing it regularly so that, like any habitual skill, it becomes a go-to coping skill. Perhaps a goal of every other day is a good place to start. Also, start small with just a few things that you want to share with the journal each day. For instance, I recommend to my clients that you just write down a rating on a scale of 1 to 10 of how good you feel (10 being the best), what you did that day that might have contributed to that feeling, and whether you were hungry, angry, lonely or tired.

You can also benefit from writing down what you were grateful for that day and what you did to contribute to that happening. This is a technique from positive psychology. You can also write a combination of one or two things you were happy about and what you did to contribute to that, along with one or two things that didn’t go well and what you could’ve done differently. The possibilities for journaling are endless. If you are not very verbal, you could have an art journal of drawings or paintings that reflect how you felt that day.

Common mistakes people can make when journaling

angry young white woman in coat & scarf; journaling
Are you afraid that journaling will make your bad mood last longer?

I think the only mistake is being perfectionistic or not doing it at all. It doesn’t have to be pretty, or neat, or anything other than what you need it to be. It’s there to serve you, not as a testament to your knowledge of the English language or penmanship.

Leaving the journal where people can read it might not be a good idea. I recommend keeping the journal in a place no one else can access it. No one must see it, and in fact it is better if you only share it with people whom you trust.

Also, having the expectation of doing it daily turn some people off because you don’t want to be held to such a rigid routine. When I was younger, I used journaling as an as needed coping mechanism, which seemed to work okay for me.

If the inner critic is a problem, you can have a rule that if you start to judge yourself about what you’ve written, then you get to reflect on that in journal about that as well.

Are you afraid to write down what you’re feeling/thinking for fear of it becoming “more real”? I hear that a lot in my (virtual) office.

The truth is, at some point you will be exposed to what you think and feel, whether you tell me about it, write it down, or ruminate about it. In all three instances you are exposed to what you’re experiencing internally. At least when you say it out loud to someone or write it down, you have the chance to see it for what it is: your mental and emotional creation. That gives you the opportunity to think more critically about it, not in a mean way but more like, “is that really true? Are there times when I don’t think that way?” You can also offer yourself compassion for how bad you feel. You might find it’s harder to do that in your head.

Being vulnerable on the page

There are a couple of reasons a person might not want to be vulnerable on a page. One might be that you fear someone finding it and judging them. Another might be that you will judge themselves for what you write. Another reason still might be that you are afraid that if you open your emotions, you will not be able to stop feeling bad.

I would be very surprised if the you continued to feel that after writing about what’s troubling you. However, if you do, set it down and come back to it a bit later after doing something pleasant like walking or deep breathing.

Alternately, you can use a structured system where you just answer one question a day. For example, there are many self-help journals with prompts already written. If the prompt brings up strong emotions, you can follow the journal entry with writing about something neutral or pleasant, such as a place you enjoy visiting or what you can see outside your window. That way, you can switch gears emotionally and mentally.

How often should you journal?

As I said above, I think every other day is good. It depends on what your intention and needs are at the time. I think if you’re feeling depressed or short on energy, having a daily or every other day routine can be helpful but perhaps not realistic. Trying to journal three or more times a week might be a good goal, with the caveat that you should not criticize yourself if you do not meet this goal.

Other journaling tips

If you are truly at a loss as to what to write in a journal, it might be helpful to get a self-help journal with specific prompts. However, those prompts may not be what you need to focus on for that day. I think being flexible and compassionate with yourself is a good idea. If you make an attempt, try to give yourself credit for that. If you want to learn more about how to take care of yourself psychologically, please call me at 661-233-6771.

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