Words are powerful. And written down, pen on paper, they can be powerful enough to help with and significantly decrease anxiety, depression and stress. Several studies have been conducted that document the positive impact of journaling on mental health and overall wellbeing. But don’t just take our word for it, give it a shot for four weeks and experience it for yourself.
In this blog post, we cover the basics of journaling like where to start, what to write about and when. We also give an overview of the myriad of benefits, explain different journaling techniques and give you some journaling prompts to get you started.
What is journaling all about?
A journal offers you a safe space to truly connect with yourself. Its pages are a place where you can be completely honest, raw, vulnerable and open with yourself. You can express yourself fully and allow any worries, pain and shame you carry with you to exist outside of yourself – on paper. This way they take up less room in your head and make space for something else. Journaling helps you to process things differently by letting them flow out of you rather than just keeping everything bottled up and in your head. Many people describe it as cathartic and report that they understand their experiences in new ways through writing them down and sometimes stumble upon interesting insights about the world and themselves. In that sense, it is a wonderful, cheap and very flexible self-care and stress-management tool as well as a mindfulness practice that you can tweak to your heart’s content until it fits your needs perfectly.
How to journal – the basics
There is no right or wrong way to journal. It is a practice that is meant to serve and help you. Therefore, your intention should be consistency – and yes, that includes holding yourself accountable – but without putting pressure on yourself.
You can get started with any type of notebook but you might prefer to buy a journal that looks and feels a bit more special to you. If you use a lined journal it can help to keep your journal entries neat and tidy. If you opt for a blank journal, you’ll have more freedom in how you layout the pages and maybe even get inspired to add some drawings or doodles to your musings (more on that later). You might also choose a special pen that you want to write with but none of that matters very much. The most important thing is that you keep both, the journal and a pen, close by and actually sit down to write in it.
When to journal and how often?
You can journal on an as-needed basis. However, to start off, you should aim for something more regular like daily, every other day, or even twice a week. Some people prefer to write in the morning before they start their day. Others prefer a brain dump before they go to sleep at night. Any other time of the day is fine as well. The key is to prioritise it as an impactful self-care practice with short- as well as long-term gains and make time for it. This means, when you’ve committed to writing every other day, you try to keep this promise to yourself – even if you don’t quite feel like it.
It is usually the days when we feel resistance to being fully present with our thoughts and emotions or think we don’t have the time that we need the practice the most.
Especially when you are writing about an anxiety or panic attack, you shouldn’t put the journalling off for too long. It is most helpful to write about and explore it when the experience and the thoughts and feelings that came with it are still somewhat fresh on your mind.
A few important DOs and DON’Ts of journaling for mental health
- When picking up the pen to explore your thoughts and emotions, go about it with gentle curiosity. Let your journal be a judgement-free zone. Every thought and every feeling are welcome. It’s about fully meeting and coming home to yourself, not about condemning yourself for having a human experience.
- Set an intention before you begin: Set a goal for your journaling session. It can be as simple as answering the question “what is the purpose of doing this practice today?” Keep that in the back of your head as a reminder and something to aim towards as you write.
- Be mindful of negative thought-loops: What you don’t want to happen is going over the same upsetting event or worries over and over and over again. If you notice this is happening, it’s important to course-correct by becoming aware of the story you are currently telling yourself and reflecting on how you could think about it differently.
Why does journaling help? The benefits of journaling
Most of us don’t realise that we have zero control over our thoughts. They come and go, many of them without us becoming fully aware of what they are and how they impact us. Journaling can help us to slow the endless chatter in our heads down as we can only write one thought at a time. It allows us to identify the stories we are telling ourselves, helps us to declutter our minds as well as process and make sense of our thoughts.
Journaling promotes a greater sense of wellbeing
You might be surprised by what your thoughts look and sound like once you put them onto paper. Many people who start journaling express how silly their thoughts sound when written down and are instantly put off by the practice. However, that’s a great thing to notice: We realise how some of our thoughts might be irrational or exaggerated or simply not reflect accurately what actually happened. Having them written out will help us become aware of our thought processes and patterns. And by paying attention to the stories we tell ourselves, we can challenge them and put things into perspective. This way, journaling becomes a tool that helps us to self-regulate the emotions that are triggered by our thoughts. We can ground and soothe ourselves by giving voice to what’s going on inside us. Never underestimate the power of words and how we can nurture ourselves through language. Journaling also supports releasing tension and by helping us manage our thoughts and emotions better, brings us back into our own power. Clinical psychologist Barbara Markway explains in an article on “How to Keep a Thought Diary to Combat Anxiety” that she wrote for Psychology Today: “Only when you’re fully conscious of your thoughts do you gain the power to change them.”
Clarity + insights
Journaling promotes mental clarity and can lead to surprising insights about ourselves and the world at large. By starting a conscious dialogue with our thoughts we will hopefully get to a place where we can articulate our fears and pinpoint where our anxiety and/or distress is coming from. This will lead to us understanding ourselves better and ideally enable us to meet these parts of ourselves with kindness and compassion.
Matthew McConaughey has a great approach to journaling and how to gain insights from it that make a difference in his life. He explained in an interview with Joe Rogan that he re-reads old journal entries to notice what choices he made that led to him having an awesome day and tries to identify positive patterns in his life. The focus is on his strengths and what he is doing right, which allows him to make systematic changes to his day-to-day life that promote more good days.
Journaling improves our communication skills
Writing a journal forces us to name our emotions and express our thoughts in a more or less coherent way. We also become more self-aware and reflected. Both combined will without a doubt improve our communication skills and subsequently lead to deeper, more meaningful connections with others.
Scientists have shown that journaling promotes better sleep. This only makes sense. Instead of holding all your worries and emotions in, doing a brain dump before going to bed can help to let go of whatever moved, impacted or bothered us during the day and put our minds at ease. By writing about and reflecting on it we are doing conscious work to process and resolve things, so our subconscious doesn’t need to work so hard (in the form of dreams) while we sleep.
Stronger immune system
Journaling doesn’t just improve our mental but also our physical health: Studies have found that expressive writing increases the production of antibodies, strengthens our immune system and leads to fewer visits to the doctor’s.
Cheap and extremely flexible self-care practice
As far as self-care practices go, journaling is one of the cheapest and most flexible ones. Even if you decide to splurge on a brand-new journal and a pen you really like, it will stay at a one-time investment of £15-30. You can write anywhere and at any time and tweak the practice to fully suit your needs. It doesn’t get much more flexible than that.
Different types of journaling
Journaling is an extremely personal practice. It is a tool that is meant to serve your mental and emotional health. Therefore, make it your own. Make it fit your needs. Experiment with different types of journaling and/or mix them up until you find out what works best for you.
Traditional journal: You write about your day or week, the events that happened or stood out and that you’d like to remember.
Stream-of-consciousness/free writing journal: With this technique, there’s no structure you adhere to. You write down whatever crosses your mind. Don’t censor yourself, don’t edit yourself. Just let it flow. It doesn’t even need to make sense or be grammatically correct. You’ll be surprised how liberating it feels and what comes to the surface.
Expressive writing: Choose a topic or situation and write away for 15-20 minutes. This technique is about expressing our deepest thoughts and feelings regarding an area of your life or a situation you find emotionally challenging. The goal is to gain a better understanding of yourself, become aware of patterns, identify key obstacles you are facing and eventually learn and evolve from them.
Worry or Stress Journal: When you are taking the time to become aware of your worries, fears and things that cause you stress, you want to use the space to reflect on them as well and find ways in which you could think differently for each one of them.
Gratitude/affirmation journal: A gratitude list is one of the most impactful journaling practices. Read our blog post “How writing a daily gratitude list will change your life” to learn more about this powerful technique.
Bullet journal: Sometimes we can’t be bothered to write excessively or even full sentences. A bullet journal is perfect when you want to do a brief check-in with yourself, (where am I at mentally and emotionally just now?), write to-do lists for the next day before you go to bed, dot down the small things you accomplished today and give yourself credit for them, keep track of short- and long-term goals.
Thought diary to combat anxiety: This approach is based cognitive-behavioral therapy model and very methodical about recognising and changing thoughts that cause you anxiety. You make five columns in your journal. In the first column, you describe the “case” or situation you find yourself in. In the second column, you write down how you feel about it. In the third column, you note your thoughts. The fourth column is titled “illusions” and all about challenging the story you are telling yourself about the current situation. Are you being realistic? Is everything based on facts? What is the evidence? We often get caught up in imagining worst-case scenarios and it’s our concerns about what might happen (not what is actually happening in the present moment) that cause the anxiety. In the last column with the header “reality”, you try to come up with the most probable, realistic outcome for your situation. You aim to break self-deception.
Artistic journal: A study has shown that a combination of writing and drawing or doodling your emotions and experiences leads to the biggest mood improvements. You don’t need to be Picasso or Van Gogh to benefit from allowing your creativity to run freely on the pages of your journal.
If writing really isn’t for you, try a video or voice diary where you record yourself, speaking your thoughts out loud and finding words to express your emotions.
- Write a letter to your body
- Write a letter to your past self and offer encouragement and compassionate guidance
- Write a letter to somebody from your past who triggered you or whose memories still trigger you (you don’t even have to send it) —> get everything off your chest that you’d like to say to that person/that you’d like them to know
- How am I feeling? Why am I feeling this way? Where in my body am I feeling it? Write down physical symptoms —> how does anxiety manifest in my body? What triggered this/these feeling(s)?
- What was I thinking and envisioning before, during and after my anxiety attack? Where was I? Who was with me? What was happening around me?
- Where is my anxiety coming from/what triggered it and what can help me/what can I tell myself to cope (better) with it?
- What about __________ is important to me?
- What are my common triggers and reactions and how can I use that gap in-between for freedom and growth?
- When was the last time you failed? What have you learned and how have you grown from the experience?
- What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles you have overcome?
- What lessons have you learned about life?
- What is something I need/want to let go of?
- What is the one thing I wish I could change?
- What would it feel like to forgive myself?
- What is stressing me out/What makes me feel overwhelmed right now?
- What story am I currently telling myself and is it really true? How do I know it is true? Do I have any evidence/proof that it is absolutely true? Is there any proof that I might be telling myself a lie?
- What activities do I find calming/soothing?
- If I could make one promise to myself what would it be and why?
- What’s a quality or trait that I love about myself?
- Lists to keep: first thought in the morning, nice things people say about me, anxiety triggers
- I am most worried about…/I feel most upset when…/ I feel at my best when…
- How will I take care of myself today?
Mindfulness practices at New Life Portugal
At New Life Portugal, we understand mindfulness as one of the pillars of sustainable wellbeing. We have woven it into the fabric of our programs through various types of meditation, practices like “Noble Silence” during breakfast, mindfulness-based group excursions and other modalities that we offer.
Our wellness retreat and recovery centre is a mountain sanctuary, set in the breathtaking backdrop of the Serra Da Estrela Natural Park. We chose this location to allow you to slow way down, bring awareness to your present moment experience and take it in with all your senses.
If you are struggling with stress, anxiety, depression or are simply looking to replenish your resources, we have you covered with the four different paths of our unique program. Each one of them can be tailored to your individual needs. Our professional team will support you in finding the perfect balance between nurturing and challenging you on your path of personal growth and healing, so that you can make all the right shifts, in all the right places, for your specific goals.
If you have any questions or would like to inquire about a stay at New Life Portugal, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.