Journaling for Stress Relief
I think of journaling as a mental download. I use my journal as a way to process feelings, make observations, note the things that seemed to work out well and things that definitely did not. It’s a practice that I’ve found helpful throughout the years and have turned back to in recent years. Some days it’s a quick note, other days once the pen starts going it just seems to go and go almost on its own. The paper is the BEST listener. It doesn’t judge or complain or compete for attention. It doesn’t even care if you tear it up or get food on it. The paper is a place where you can let it all fly. All the debris that you wouldn’t dare say out loud can be put in the journal. It clears out the cobwebs and makes me feel lighter, freer, more spacious. This is why I like to journal at night. It eases the mind before trying to sleep and keeps me from ruminating as much throughout the night. There are many different ways to use a journal. I started a practice of writing AT LEAST 2 sentences a night, and it relieves the pressure of feeling like there’s no time (just 2 sentences if that’s all I have in me), makes it an easy little chunk, and helps me stay committed to the practice that has been a beneficial self-care routine for me. Some people journal once a week or once a month and also find great benefits.
I wanted to learn more about this practice, so I decided to dive deeper. What is the magic of journaling?
Studies have found that journaling, often called expressive writing in research studies, led to reduced blood pressure, improved immune system functioning, improved mood, reduced symptoms of depression, and improved memory. These are all systems that are impacted so deeply by chronic stress. It may help people face difficult emotions they were avoiding, and mentally process events in their lives. In this research review by researchers at the University of Minnesota, expressive writing was found to help improve the mental health and social-emotional functioning of youth who are refugees, asylum seekers, or immigrants who experienced war trauma. No matter your daily life, we all experience struggles and difficulties. We may feel like we somehow don't have the right to be upset about these things - the breakup of a relationship, or an argument with a colleague, because at least we have food to eat and a roof over our heads. This awareness of the pain of others is valuable, but it is not a reason to discard our own pain. Minimizing your feelings as less important than the emotions of others leads to denial and repression. This can progress to numbness. When we devalue our own sorrow, we become immune to the sorrow in others. Fully experiencing our own hurt is a path to compassion toward others. Accepting and allowing our emotions connects us to our fellow human beings. Giving our own struggles a voice through journaling can help release them, lighten your mental load, and find self-compassion.
Journaling allows people to clarify their thoughts and feelings, gather valuable self-knowledge, and can serve as a problem-solving tool.
Often, it’s easier to come up with solutions when it’s out on paper. Psychologist James W. Pennebaker, PhD has studied the effects of expressive writing extensively throughout the years. In a now classic 1988 study, he and his colleagues found that college students who journaled about painful experiences reported more positive moods and fewer illnesses over time. Journaling about traumatic events – whether it is a big event trauma or smaller but not less significant daily stress -- helps one process those heavy feelings by fully exploring and releasing the emotions involved. Using writing as therapy engages both hemispheres of the brain in the process which can allow the experience to become fully integrated within the mind. A 1994 study by psychologists and an outplacement firm followed 63 professionals who had been laid off from their jobs. The experimental group participants were told to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the layoff and about how their lives, both personal and professional, had been affected by it. In the control group, people were told to write about their plans for the day and their job search activities. In a non-writing group, participants were given no particular writing instruction. Researchers started tracking employment status. Participants who wrote about losing their jobs were much more likely to find new ones in the months following the study.
Journaling can reduce stress by serving as an escape or emotional outlet for negative thoughts and feelings.
A 2011 study highlighted the positive impact journaling had on adolescents who struggled with worry and self-doubt before test taking. Ninth graders were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was told to write expressively about their worry and feelings related to the exam for 10 minutes prior to the start of the exam. The other group of students was told to write about which questions they thought would be on the exam for 10 minutes prior to taking the exam. The study found that those who expressively wrote about their feelings in their journal outperformed the control group who wrote only about test content. This turned out to be especially true for the students who identified themselves to be anxious or suffering from test anxiety.
Journaling can help improve physical health.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) found that patients struggling with a chronic illness who kept a journal about their thoughts experienced fewer physical symptoms than patients who did not journal. The study followed 88 patients who experienced a variety of chronic illnesses that included rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and fibromyalgia. The researchers asked them to journal for 15 minutes, 3 days a week for the 12 weeks of the study. They found that the group of patients who wrote about their thoughts and feelings displayed reduced mental distress, anxiety, and stress compared to the group that did not journal. The journaling group exhibited greater perceived resilience and fewer days that pain inhibited their usual activities. 14 Journaling Prompts for Stress Relief
Journaling doesn’t release tension from your body like yoga does, but it’s a great complimentary practice to add to your self-care repertoire. It can help with overall stress reduction as well as self-knowledge and emotional healing. Journaling is a way to put down what you are carrying. Everyone has things they are carrying and it can feel so liberating to just put it down. If you are blocked and not sure what to write about, try these journaling prompts to help get the ink flowing.
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” — William Wordsworth
1. I find myself repeating this over and over in my head today:
2. Right now, I feel challenged by ________. I feel supported when ________.
4. The things that help me the most right now are…
5. What would feel nourishing in this moment?
6. I am thankful that I…
7. How might this stressful experience also contain helpful nuggets of information?
8. What’s not wrong in my life? Here are three things that I can think of right now:
9. If I knew that anything I asked for would be answered, I would ask for ________.
10. What do I want my life to FEEL like?
11. What is great in your life right now? What current situations are you thankful for?
12. What expectations of others can you let go of?
13. What is one thing you can forgive yourself for?
14. What is an impossible standard you’re holding yourself to? How can you adjust that standard to be more realistic?
Which of these prompts did you need the most today?
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