If you desire clarity, a more positive outlook on life and the ability to manage stress instead of drowning in it, you might want to start keeping a journal. A journal is a tool; a channel through which you can filter your thoughts, release your worries, reflect on your problems, reconcile your past and prepare for your future. It’s much more than dear diary or the daily reporting of your life’s events.
It can be those things, but to reduce journaling to a menial task is to ignore its profound and proven psychological, emotional and physical benefits. These include decreased stress, improved immune function, better communication and healthier relationships.
If you don’t keep a journal but want to start, here are some questions to help stimulate your thought process and get the journal juices flowing.
How do I feel?
When you first decide to keep a journal, you might not know exactly how to start. Recording the events of your life might be the first instinct, but this is also cumbersome and a little boring. A great way to get going, to start moving energy, to offload feelings and concerns you didn’t even know were bothering you is to ask yourself this question: What am I feeling?
How is that feeling affecting your actions, mood or outlook on life? Why do you think you feel that way? Describe the feeling. Take this feeling in any direction. Journaling about the feeling will often help you acknowledge, process and actually move through it.
When I’m feeling blah, I know something needs to get worked out. I grab my journal and start there: how am I feeling? Irritated, sad, stressed, empty, full, excited, anxious? Without any additional probing, once I identify the feeling, the words and thoughts start pouring out. As my pen floats across the page, I often pull out the source of my feelings without even trying.
We spend a lot of our time avoiding bad moods and negative feelings, but when we look right at them through journaling, we are able to work through them. More often than not, the simple acknowledgment of the feeling is enough to dissolve the feeling. Use your journal to have a stare down with the stuff that’s bothering you. You’ll likely win.
How can I change my perspective?
Speaking of bad moods, are you ever just in a funk—particularly the kind of funk where you know there is a way to reframe your present situation but you can’t find the energy to rise above or even attempt a glass half-full mentality? When you’re down and out, but you know you have the power to overcome the dark emotions, and you do, ask yourself this: what am I grateful for?
Get your journal, and scribble down all those things you are grateful for. Knee jerk responses might include: my parents, my house, my freedom, my friends. These are obviously the most important things in life, but you’ll benefit from getting more specific.
Think of the smaller things you would be really bummed to be without. That kale smoothie you had this morning: it was delicious and nourishing, so jot that one down. How about the computer you’re on, the friend who is always there, that incredible yoga class you took or that new song that you can’t get enough of?
Often we already have everything we need. To lift yourself up, acknowledge all the things you already have that you desire. Wanting the life you have is a powerful frame of mind. Gratitude will get you there.
What mental clutter is weighing me down?
Some days, I feel like there are so many thoughts running through my head that they might come pouring out of my ears. Mental clutter can be debilitating. I get to cleaning and untangling them by reaching for my journal.
I learned an exercise for this from Marie Forleo a couple of years ago and still use it. As Forleo says, inner chaos creates outer chaos and I couldn’t agree more. So, when the mental clutter and inner dialogue is near paralyzing, I rely on this simple technique to clarify things. Forleo calls this creating mental white space.
I have my own take on creating mental white space and it goes something like this: On a fresh page in your journal write down EVERYTHING you feel like you have to do, should do, anything you want to figure out, anything bothering you or weighing on your mind. This includes the major and the minor: study for that test, call that friend, get that gift, meet that deadline.
Write it all down, then go through that list and cross off everything that:
a) you have no control over;
b) doesn’t actually need to be done at all; or
c) doesn’t need to get done right now.
Also be very wary of any item that starts with “I should.” Most shoulds can be crossed off—better yet, marked with a big ‘X.’ With the remaining items, make a new list and start to organize your plan of attack. This works wonders.
We’ve covered questions to inspire your journal writing, but what about the rest? What are the rules per se? There are none! Truly, your journal is whatever you want it to be. However, because we all like structure, here are some guidelines on how to treat and use your journal.
Don’t censor yourself: Write whatever comes to mind—incomplete sentences, lists, random words, drawings, song lyrics, anything goes. Don’t edit or repress.
Keep it private: Avoid sharing what’s in here, especially in the heat of writing an emotional entry. Keep these pages for your eyes only.
Wait to read it: Resist reading your older entries, at least for a while, if you decide to read them at all! Reading your own words too soon after writing them might lead to self-judgment and hesitation to write regularly.
Daily, weekly or whenever: Write whenever you want. You don’t need to make a daily commitment. Reach for your journal when you need to let it out, figure it out or go within.
Love it: Choose a journal and a pen that you love to hold and look at. Make writing in your journal a little luxurious and special.
Allowing your thoughts to flow from brain to paper is one of the most underused life hacks we have. Its benefits are endless and are always available to you.
Let this old practice of journaling be the newest way you express self-love.
Do you journal? If so, feel free to share your approach!