By Jaime Collins
“My thoughts are private. What if someone sees my writing?”
“My hand writing is awful.”
“Ugh… sounds like work. I don’t need more work.”
Not everything about journaling is perfect. On the other hand, my experience and the experiences of people who’ve attended my Journaling classes find the payback well worth it.
For one, don’t worry about handwriting or grammar. You don’t have to even re-read what you put down. It’s the act of writing out our thoughts that heals us and frees our minds. Many people want to do their writing on a keyboard or online, and that offers real benefits, too. Keep in mind for maximum impact, as research on the effects of journaling concludes, the very act of writing down feelings by hand is in itself therapeutic.
What It Is and Why Do It
Journaling is: a) exploring our thoughts and feelings and the events in our lives, b) a release valve for anxiety; one always waiting for you right at the end of your pen, c) a pill that taken every so often magically lifts weight off your shoulders, and d) a soothing balm for your soul.
Journaling is also less about what we see in our lives and more about what we don’t see. If our brain were a box of worms, journaling would take them all out, wash away the gooey mess, and line them all up where we can plainly see how each of them wiggles. In doing so, it clarifies our thoughts and feelings and helps us gain a valuable understanding of ourselves.
Given the mind/body connection, it’s no surprise journaling offers physical benefits, too. Studies show journaling decreases symptoms of asthma, arthritis, and other health conditions. It improves our focus, and it strengthens our immune system, which could prove even more important as we head into cold, flu season combine with a global COVID pandemic.
Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
As a treatment for stress, anxiety, and depression, journaling bears a close look. Though men experience it, too, depression is the most common mental illness facing women and non-binary gender identities. We feel it especially intensely now during this pandemic. It’s very real, and nothing to be ashamed of. I clashed with it this year like no other, and I am living proof you can overcome it. If the feelings depression brings on weren’t bad enough, having it also means we’re less likely to take good care of ourselves, to get preventive care like mammograms, or to take other healthy steps in our lives.
By the way, if you’re curious whether what you’re feeling is depression, you can find a quick depression screening quiz on our Southwest Health website at southwesthealth.org/depression-quiz/.
The good news is 80% of people who get some treatment for depression, overcome it. Treatment can include medication, therapy or counseling, and basic self-care and self-compassion steps – like journaling.
The pandemic also changed how we spend our time. Many of us have taken to spending more time looking at screens. Though we could be reading more books, getting into our love of music or art, or spending more time walking and biking, it’s just as natural to turn to things that comfort us (like screen-time) and we all know those things can range from healthy to harmful.
Most of us are feeling a sense of loss – or feeling lost – like there’s something we need to do or should do. Time stretches on, and the social anchors and activities that formerly made us smile and laugh more are missing. Journaling is an intentional practice that can fill some of that time and help us heal. Writing forces us to slow down and re-engage our minds in a healthier way that promotes healing from our losses.
How to Do It
Whenever I teach a journaling class, we begin by free-writing for 5 or 10 minutes. Free writing is simply letting your pen put down whatever comes into your mind at the time. When the class finishes that task, we read through what we just put down and then go back at it, free-writing for another 5 or 10 minutes. Doing this gets us into the flow of journaling and helps us get comfortable with spilling your thoughts onto paper. You can do this, too.
Fact is, you write your own prescription for how to do it. You can write long or short. Or simply make a list, like a list of things you’re grateful for. You can journal daily or a couple times a week or weekly. How much is all up to you and always on your schedule. You can write about your day. Or write a series on a special interest. Or use one of these prompts to get you writing:
- One thing I now realize I used to take for granted is ______.
- I could not survive without _____ during this pandemic.
- What I’d like others to know about me is ______.
- Identify and write about one fountain and one drain. That is, what fills me up, and what drains me?
- What are ten things I want to do in the next 10 years (after COVID)? Write down anything whether you believe it to be possible or not. Then on other days, you can pick something from this list to detail your desires and plans for the future and see into what could prevent you from getting there.
- I feel safe when _____.
- What’s troubling me right now is ______.
- Today I’m really missing ______. Or, I’m having a hard time with _______.
- What sound or taste or smell or sight made me feel good today?
- What’s one thing I could let go of that would benefit me? What’s one thing I could begin?
- Here are three of the most beautiful past events in my life and why they were so special.
- What relationship is most important to me and why?
- What are three things that went well today?
If you only do one thing, number 13 in this list you might consider doing on a daily basis. It’s a proven stress reliever, and a powerful exercise, especially at night before bed. You’ll find listing and writing about those three things stirs helpful and lasting feelings of gratitude. And speaking of gratitude, writing down a list of the people and circumstances you’re grateful for in your life is also enormously helpful.
If all this feels like too much when you’re already feeling overwhelmed, try just writing down a few hopes for the next day. Then, you’ll have an outline of where you want to go. Having a plan is like sharpening your axe; it will make the work easier. You can even look back on your notes during the day to steer yourself back on track.
Feeling stress and anxiety is normal, especially now. There are many ways to deal with those feelings, and journaling is one method – a healthy, productive, scientifically proven method. In writing, you process complex and worrisome thoughts and channel them in ways that will ease your burden and free your soul.