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Harness the power of journaling for mental health: strategies and prompts to get you started


"You should keep a journal.”

Have you ever heard this and wondered why? It's because journaling can absolutely be an effective and empowering tool for managing your mental & emotional health.


Why is that? Because emotions are bodily reactions to some kind of stimulus... and they bring with them energy to manage the situation. That energy inside can get intense and it needs a way to get out. Journaling is one of many ways to let the energy out.


Remember that emotions happen in us for specific reasons, they give us energy for taking action steps. Energy to...


Communicate our needs to others...

Physically move ourselves into or out of a situation...

Create agitation inside of us so that we are forced to pay attention to ourselves and figure out what we need.


It’s often healthy to DO something with our emotional energy. We have some options about what we can DO...we can talk it out, move it out, journal it out, cry it out, laugh it out, and soothe it out.


Journaling is one of the ways to DO something with your emotions. There are myriad ways to approach journaling and there is no “right” way. I mean…if it’s helpful, then you are doing it “right.”


Let’s look at 2 overarching ways that journaling can be useful....spontaneous journaling and forming a habit of regular journaling.


Journaling spontaneously


Some benefits of spontaneous journaling (doing it when needed to help yourself through something):


Relief from your spinning mind –

  • Writing it out tells your brain that it’s okay to slow the spinning it because the info is “safe” in the journal and there’s no need to keep repeating it

Space to put words on a strong emotion –

  • Finding words to describe what you are feeling actually helps decrease the feeling.

  • Simply put, the part of your brain that uses language and attaches meaning (frontal lobe) requires your brain to pull energy away from the emotion part of the brain (amygdala) that is all ramped up.

Venue to gather thoughts & feelings before sharing them with others.

  • Situations that create strong emotions often involve other people. Journaling can help you get clarity on what you want to share and polish up the way you’d like to say it.

  • Basically you journal a rough draft so that the relationship with the other person does not get negatively impacted by your most raw, strong emotions.


Options for spontaneous journaling:


Option 1: Go for a stream-of-consciousness approach.

A helpful option when words easily tumble out of you and bubble over.

  • No parameters, no editing. Just putting on paper whatever is rolling around inside you.

  • It’s most helpful to limit the play-by-play of what happened and focus more on the thoughts and feelings you have about it

  • Some people find it helpful to use a letter-writing strategy for this one. You write a letter to a person you are frustrated with or hurt by and say all the things to them you are thinking and feeling. In this context, the letter is an exercise for managing emotions, not a letter to be sent.


Option 2: Focus specifically on making sense of your emotions and thoughts

A helpful option when feeling emotionally confused or overwhelmed


In this scenario, it can be helpful to hone in on what exactly your emotions are and what they’re communicating to you about your needs or a change you want. Some prompts:

  • What’s happening that is causing me distress?

  • What am I feeling right now? (see article for help)

  • What has happened in my life before now that contributes to this feeling?

  • Why do I feel (emotion) about (situation)?

  • What about (situation) makes me feel (emotion)?

  • What is hard or upsetting about this situation?

  • What do I want?

  • What do I need?

  • What is the meaning of my reaction to this situation?


Option 3: Focus on problem-solving and exploring solutions

A helpful option when you have pretty good clarity on your thoughts & feelings but want to identify what can be done with them. Some prompts:

  • What are my options for handling this (situation or emotion)?

  • What are the pros/cons to my various options?

  • What would (person I trust) suggest to me in this situation?

  • What’s in the way of handling this (situation or emotion)?

  • What support do I want or need for (situation or emotion)?

  • What resources do I have for handling this?


Option 4: Walk yourself through some introspective questions to assist processing:

A helpful option when you feel stuck or numb.

  • What am I feeling right now? (see article for help)

  • What happened that led to this feeling?

  • What is hard or upsetting about this situation?

  • What do I want?

  • What do I need?

  • What resources do I have to get through this?

  • If I could wave a magic wand to fix things, what would be changed?

  • What am I avoiding?

  • What am I fearing?

  • What threats or dangers am I imagining?

  • What about this can I control?

  • What about this is outside of my control?

  • What am I resisting?

  • What realities might need to be accepted?


Journaling regularly

Some benefits of consistent journaling as a part of your routine:

  • Allows regular time for introspection and growth

  • Offers a safe outlet for thoughts & emotions

  • Gives you a place to log significant situations and reactions

  • A tool for an intentional start and/or ending of the day

  • Primes you to feel comfortable journaling and appreciate journaling as helpful when spontaneous issues come up too


To have success maintaining a habit of regular journaling:


1. Make it fit your personality

  • Use the method/medium that you prefer

  • do you prefer: an audio journal, handwritten, typed on mobile/computer, phone app, etc.?

  • Use the style that you prefer

  • do you prefer sentences/paragraphs, bullets, lists, word bubbles, strings of thought, poetry, lyrics, prayer, etc.?

  • Include creativity if you like - doodles, sketches or media clippings, creative lettering, different colored writing utensils, etc.

2. Make it easy

  • Keep the bar low about frequency when you are starting.

  • Any amount is a good amount

  • Pick a time that can most easily become part of your routine

  • First thing in the morning? On your lunch break? Before heading into the house after work? Sunday nights before the week starts?

3. Make it judgment-free

  • Try to give yourself permission to write whatever you want, even if it seems bonkers.

  • Journaling is the space where you can be honest with yourself and say the hard and hurtful things. You can release emotions from your insides.

  • Try to give yourself permission for it to look however you want – sloppy, pristine, pretty, organized, chaotic. Whatever – it’s for you.

  • Try to avoid thoughts or concerns about grammar, complete thoughts, penmanship.


Options with regular journaling:


Some folks find it helpful to have a protocol or framework to follow each time.


Option 1: Identify and focus on your primary life domains

Your values and domains will vary...here are some samples

  • Physical wellness how do I feel in my body? How am I doing taking care of my physical self? Do I want to adjust anything? How am I talking to myself about my choices with my physical body & health? What words am I using as I describe how I look (are they kind or critical)?

  • Emotional wellness how are my moods and emotions? How am I doing taking care of my daily emotional experience? How am I talking to myself most of the time? What options do I have for shifting things in the direction I want?

  • Relationship wellness am I as connected as I would like to be in my main relationships? What’s missing? What could be shifted to improve things? Which relationships nurture me? Which ones deplete me?

  • Social interactionhow do I feel about the amount of social contact I have? How do I feel about the quality of social contact? What would like more or less of? How do I feel in my body when interacting with other people?

  • Work/education/career how do I feel about my work/education? What are my short- and long-term goals in this area? How’s my progress on these? Am I satisfied with my progress? What do I want more or less of?

  • Sense of meaning/purpose – what things give me a sense of meaning and purpose? How is the amount of this in my life right now? What are my plans and goals for getting this need met?

  • Play/fun/adventure how do I feel about the amount of rest and recreation in my life? How am I meeting this need? How is the amount of play and fun in my life?


Option 2: Quick journaling

Just use one or more quick prompts that make it easy to keep up the journaling habit. Reduce the time required and still improve your headspace.

  • One highlight/positive moment from the day

  • One frustration/difficulty and what you need in order to feel better about it

  • One thing you feel grateful about or appreciative of

  • One thing you did that’s positive for yourself or others

  • One thing that shows progress on a goal you are working on (even if it’s just the goal to journal regularly)

  • One thing you are looking forward to about tomorrow

  • One positive self-statement

  • One intention or mantra for the day

  • One achievable goal for the day


Option 3: Emotion tracking

Use the journal to pay attention to your mood state consistently. The more you pay attention, the more you can identify what you need and how to get it.

  • Use a scale of 1-10 to rate the intensity of your feelings

  • Use an emoji or smiley face system

  • Pick a color or a word to describe your mood that day

  • Select one overarching emotion from the day (refer to the Feelings Wheel in this article)

  • Select a song or movie or character that reflects your mood


Troubleshooting


I don’t know what to write.

  • Pick one of the many questions above to start with and just see what comes out.

  • Purchase a physical journal that comes with reflection questions and prompts.

  • Try a journaling mobile app (just be mindful about your privacy and how your data is treated).

  • Search for providers and online programs who send daily emails or texts with prompts.

  • Morning pages method - in a book entitled The Artist’s Way, the author introduces an idea called “morning pages” where you spend time each morning just dumping out whatever comes to mind. No editing or re-reading or guidelines. It’s a way to clear out the gunk before starting your day.

When I did this regularly, I noticed a significant shift in my focus, energy and mood for the day. A lot of my morning gunk was anxiety about the day ahead or rumination on tasks to complete. Putting that all on paper made it easier for me to stop the over-thinking.


I feel so much…I don’t even know where to begin.

  • Try narrating in third person instead. As if you are describing what a character did in a show. It can give you a little distance from the overwhelming emotions and let you describe things a little more easily.

“Heather didn’t sleep well and woke up cranky today. That definitely set the stage for the argument with her mother. Her mother is always giving unwanted advice and making her feel like a child, so of course it didn’t land well when Heather just called to ask a quick question.

Heather was pretty disappointed with herself for raising her voice at her mom though. She’s feeling pretty ashamed of herself right now and wants to make things better.

  • Try writing about a song that fits your mood. Explain about why the lyrics or musical tone match your mood or situation.

  • Try writing about a character in a show/movie/webcomic and how you can relate to them.

  • Try the stream-of consciousness method mentioned above.

  • Try these 2 questions:

  • If I had 3 magic wishes right now, what would they be?

  • What threats or dangers am I imagining?


I feel worse after journaling.

If you end up re-living upsetting situations, conversations, and actions you took (or didn’t take) when you journal, it can certainly be distressing. If this is the case for you:

  • Try shifting your focus in the journaling to what you need in order to feel better about the situation(s)

Do you need support from others or yourself?

Do you need to learn something new to avoid a repeat situation?

Do you need to pull back from people/situations that have hurt you?

  • Try getting it all out and then destroying it as a way to “rid” yourself of the intensity (tear it up, erase it, burn it, delete it, etc.).

  • Try not looking back over what you wrote...treating it more as a dumping ground, rather than a land to revisit.


I forget to do it.

  • Try setting a reminder alarm on your phone.

  • Try telling someone about your plan to journal so you have a little accountability and someone who can support you and check in about it (your therapist could be this person)

  • Make the bar really low, like just journaling on Sunday nights for 3 minutes. What is the smallest step you know you can achieve? Start there and ease into it.

  • Review again the different methods for journaling. Usually we more easily remember to do things that we find to be helpful, so it’s possible that the forgetting is connected to the actual method or type of journaling you are trying.


Your journaling takeaways


To recap and repeat…there is no right way to journal. If it’s helpful for you, you’re doing it “right.”


If the way you've tried journaling is not helpful, play with your approach and protocol. For example, people are often surprised how cathartic it can be to do a journal via audio memo and say everything out loud that the brain is spinning on.


For those of you in therapy, journaling serves as a terrific complement to the introspection and processing you do in session. You might find that you land on insights that make your therapy sessions even more effective.


What do you think? Did you come across an idea or strategy you would like to give a try?


Sometimes regular journaling just isn’t enough to manage high anxiety and powerful emotions effectively. If you want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage anxiety & other emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.


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