Part 1: Defining what is journaling
Let's define what type of journaling I'm talking about here: NOT food journaling, not exercise journaling, not even mood journaling. I'm referring to the "diary" kind of journaling. The ones teenage girls do, but without the teenage drama.
Journaling for us, mature women, is a little different. It can be used as a tool for venting our strong emotions, sure. However, if done right, it can also serve as a tool for inner exploration and self-realization. To understand our thought processes. To make sense of our behaviors and what triggers them.
Journaling can be a journey of self-discovery.
How can journaling help specifically?
There's a term in psychoanalysis called "writing therapy," which is basically writing your feelings out… you guessed it, in a journal. There is a lot of research about writing therapy and "expressive writing" and its benefits to emotional health.
Overall, journaling and expressive writing has been found to:
✔ Improve our mood
✔ Release everyday stress or accumulated feelings of stress
✔ Help us shift from a negative to a more positive mindset (Robinson, 2017)
✔ Calm and clear our mind
✔ Let go of negative thoughts
✔ Help us examine our thoughts and change our perspectives about our problems
✔ Enhance our self-awareness
✔ Gain perspective on situations and develop action plans
Scientifically speaking, there's a big difference between writing down your emotions and feelings and thinking about your emotions in your head.
The act of writing is primarily dominated by the left hemisphere of the brain, which is more analytical and rational. It turns out that we are better able to analyze our feelings as we write them down much more than when we just think about them. Thinking can lead to "getting caught" by the emotions that the thoughts may trigger. And many times, an automatic, irrational reaction or behavior may follow.
According to Dr. James Pennebaker, a leading expert in Expressive Writing, journaling is not only beneficial for our mental health, but it also has positive effects on our physical health.
Studies have also found that journaling can:
✨ Improve sleep (by preventing the thought rumination during bedtime)
✨ Enhance immune function
✨ Reduce markers of stress (blood pressure, cortisol, etc)
It's important to know that journaling is not a simple "brain dump ." There are a few techniques that can make journaling more constructive, according to Baikie and Wilhelm.
Here are some tips for optimizing your journaling experience:
👉 Write in a private or secluded space, free from distractions
👉 Write consistently, every day (better to write less, more days than to write more only a few days)
👉 Take some time after your write to read it over and reflect on what you wrote
👉 Don't worry about being "perfect" in writing (grammar, etc), just write as you feel
👉 Keep your journal private - It's yours and yours only.
Now, if you're not used to writing a journal, it can be challenging to start. It's ok. Be patient, and it will become more natural with time.
Here are some ideas if you get stuck:
You can write about…
Experiences – something that happened today, something you felt today, some conversation you had, some symptom you've experienced, something you saw that made you feel a certain way
Emotions – feelings that came up from interaction with people, news, how you feel now or something that has passed or will happen that is on your mind, maybe some worry you have or problem you're going through
Questions - Any questions about yourself or how to deal with a situation, why you're feeling a certain way, how to solve something, what to do about something (why, what, how)
Gratitude – Start by writing what you are grateful for, material or non-material things
Strong feelings – it's easier to write about the intense emotions we are experiencing. Go deep into writing what comes to your head and then go back and refine it if you want. You can review it right after you write it or give it some time (24 hrs) to look back at what you wrote to get some clarity on the issue.
Work – You can write about work-related things, your aspirations, hurdles, your advancement.
Family – There's always something to write about family! Either a memory or some current situation, or even write about someone in your family you miss, have a problematic or excellent relationship with.
Inspiration – You may have heard a fantastic podcast or read a lovely quote – write it down!
Although these are ideas to maximize your journaling experience, there are also things you need to watch out for so you don't turn journaling into a negative routine. Suppose you decide to journal only your negative feelings and not the accomplishments and positive emotions you feel throughout your days. In that case, it will turn itself into a negative experience.
There needs to be a balance between positive and negative experiences in your writings.
I adapted the following suggestions from an article by Courtney Ackerman that I think will help you be aware of what NOT to do:
❌ Don't let your writing allow you to live in your head too much – try to add more trivial stuff. You can write about a podcast or what someone else shared with you. In other words – don't keep diving into your head too much or keep writing only about yourself. You're more than just your feelings.
❌ Don't let journaling turn you into a passive observer of your life – make sure you use it to trace action plans. If there's an unresolved issue, explore ways to resolve it; if there are goals, think about ways to accomplish them. Use journaling as a catalyst for action.
❌ Don't let journaling become an exercise of self-blame – this comes to the idea of not only focusing on negative emotions. Try to observe if you're writing too much about something or just about negative events or feelings; that's why it's essential to review what you wrote to take another look at what's going on.
One other thing: You can draw on your journal or make a photo collage if you want! Get creative if you feel like doing something else other than writing.
I've been writing in a journal for at least 35 years of my life. As a teenager, I started writing about my adolescent dramas, and now I find journaling highly therapeutical.
During my perimenopause years, I've also noticed that writing in my journal has helped me organize my thoughts and feelings about the entire experience and even keep track of my symptoms. In the end, it's a "record" of some crucial moments during this journey.
I totally recommend journaling or "expressive writing" as a healthy and positive habit to have.
Part 2 - The journal itself
I've always written on blank notebooks or "diary"-type notebooks. Journals can be hardcover spiral notebooks, some come on blank pages, some lined, and some even dotted.
In my opinion, what matters most is the cover and the feeling of your medium, that is, where you'll be writing.
It needs to be inviting, inspiring, or at least aesthetically pleasing, so you'll feel motivated to write on it. I feel good looking at the cover of my journal and writing with a smooth pen to make the experience different, enjoyable, a moment for me and myself only.
Nowadays, there are journals with prompts that will invite you to write about themes such as gratitude. Others have habit trackers on them, and others come with ideas for you to write daily. Some are a combination of planners and journals.
You'll have to see what you are drawn to the most.
To help you out, here's a list of my favorite journals:
Spiral blank journals:
Hardcover Blank Journals
These are just some examples. You can find many choices in places like Etsy and Amazon if you are going online or at your local gift stores such as crystal shops.
I hope that you got inspired to pursue the habit of journaling.
In my view, it is something that combines self-care with creativity and serves, at the same time, as a guide to and a record of your life.
And as James Clear author of the book Atomic Habits says: "A lack of self-awareness is poison. Reflection and review is the antidote."
Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11, 338-346.
Stosny, S. (2013). The good and the bad of journaling. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201309/the-good-and-the-bad-journaling
Scott, E. (2018). Journaling is an excellent tool for coping with anxiety. Very Well Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/journaling-a-great-tool-for-coping-with-anxiety-3144672
Gortner, E., Rude, S. S., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms. Behavior Therapy, 37, 292-303.
Grothaus, M. (2015). Why journaling is good for your health (and eight tips to get better). Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3041487/8-tips-to-more-effective-journaling-for-health
Courtney E. Ackerman, (2021). 83 Benefits of Journaling for Depression, Anxiety, and Stress. https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-of-journaling/