In the first months of the year, we tend to reflect on the past and create wishes and intentions for the new year. Now is the perfect time to journal as a way of engaging in conversation with yourself. Whether you need to vent, ask questions, or explore a complicated situation, there’s nothing quite like sitting down with a journal, a pencil or pen, and a few moments to yourself each day. Over the years there’s been so much public interest in journaling that it’s been scientifically researched and proven to increase our ability to cope with anxiety, focus on important tasks, improve our mood, and so much more.
Journaling is a simple activity, and no previous writing experience is needed. Studies show that writing longhand, free-form without worrying about spelling, grammar, or the quality of content boosts mental clarity, health, and joy.
There are multiple ways to journal. Below are three methods and an optional way to prepare the space if you would like to create a special ambience for the practice.
Preparing to journal is simple. All you need is a notebook to write in, something to write with, and an amount of time set aside to do the practice. Some people might like to make the practice more of a ritual by creating a space in the home that is designated for meditation, journaling, and yoga. In this space, you can have candles, calming or spiritual decorative objects, and a comfortable place to sit. If possible, it would be nice to be near a window so you can feel connected to nature.
With or without a designated space, it will be helpful for you to get comfortable, take a few deep breaths, and decide which type of journaling you will do.
Morning Pages to Make Space
As the name suggestions, “morning pages” is an activity designed for the morning. Best-selling author Julia Cameron coined this term for the practice she guides in her beloved book The Artist’s Way. The method is simple:
- Each morning, handwrite in a journal for three pages.
- Do not write more or less than three pages.
- Write whatever comes to mind and keep the pen moving.
- Do not edit or plan what you are going to write, just write.
For the morning pages, simply write whatever comes to mind, like a brain dump. It’s a way to clear out the cobwebs. Cameron says, “I often think they should be called mourning pages, m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g, because they are really a farewell to life as you knew it and an introduction to life as it’s going to be.”
The practice sounds so simple that it’s easy to underestimate its power. The unforeseen benefits of taking this time every day for yourself to clear your mind and start anew will reveal themselves day after day.
Expressive Writing for Course Correction
Whereas the morning-pages exercise by Julia Cameron is meant to be stream-of-consciousness writing about whatever comes to mind, expressive writing as coined by social psychologist James Pennebaker, PhD, is a way to work through something that has made you uncomfortable, specifically trauma. It’s meant to be a short-term tool to help get you get unstuck and move forward in your life.
Pennebaker came up with this practice because he was curious about the mind-body connection for health. He created a speculative study for students who were generally healthy. He asked some to write about superficial things and others to write about a traumatic event. They wrote for 15 minutes each day for four days. Those who journaled about the challenging events ended up visiting the student health center for illness about half as often as those under controlled conditions.
Pennebaker followed that initial study with additional studies and found those who wrote about their traumas continued to show higher immunity than the others.
Pennebaker stresses that this practice is meant to be a short-term practice. Practice for 15 – 20 minutes for three to four days to see if it helps. It is not a panacea; it is meant to be a supportive tool used in conjunction with getting the help and support you need around traumatic events.
- Set aside 15– 20 minutes each day for three to four days.
- Choose a topic that has been challenging for you.
- Write consistently for the allotted time as the thoughts come to mind.
- Do not worry about grammar or punctuation.
- Allow yourself to feel feelings as you write.
- Make the connections between that traumatic event and other experiences that followed.
- After you are finished, take time to be compassionate with yourself.
- Continue to check in with yourself in the coming days and see how you feel.
- If the feelings get too intense at any point, then stop writing and get support.
Pennebaker believes this tool can help because through writing you will acknowledge something that was a big deal, you will force some kind of structure to the event by putting it into words, and you will make sense of it.
“When you do this, it puts you on a different path,” Pennebaker states. If you don’t go through this process, if you don’t bring it to light and make sense of it, it can keep coming back to you and you can’t get away from it. Bringing it to light, addressing it, and putting a structure to it can make a difference.
Pennebaker has also led a group in this type of writing to help deal with the pandemic, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. He continues to speak on the process decades after his first study in the 1980s.
Gratitude Journal for Better Perspective
Keeping a gratitude journal is an easy way to boost your mood, improve your sleep, and adjust your mindset to create more of what you wish for in your life.
An article called Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier published by Harvard Health refers to studies that have shown benefits of gratitude practice such as: brighter moods, better self-care habits, and improved health. Those are only a few of the many benefits of gratitude, which also include better sleep, improved heart health, and stronger relationships.
There are many ways to practice gratitude, including writing thank-you notes, expressing gratitude to others, and cultivating the feeling of gratitude as part of a meditation practice. If you are looking for something that can quickly and easily turn into a positive habit, then a gratitude journal could be the tool for you.
- Buy a notebook or journal to use only for gratitude.
- Each night before going to bed, pick up the journal and sit up comfortably.
- Take a few deep breaths to relax and feel present.
- Think of three things you are grateful for, and write them down.
- If you cannot think of three things, then write down what is most obvious about the day: that you woke up, you are breathing, and that you have a roof over your head, for example.
- Sit for a few moments, feeling what the experience of gratitude feels like.
This practice is more than honoring the objects, people, and circumstances in your life. The practice also allows you to cultivate the feeling of gratitude within you. Over time, you will become more grateful in general, and your gratitude list will flow with ease. You also will get to a place where you don’t have to have something to be grateful for in order to feel gratitude for this moment.
Journaling is a powerful tool for processing thoughts and feelings that otherwise get buried, for cultivating a more positive outlook, and for letting go of the old to make way for the new. It’s a healthy habit to create and can yield especially fruitful results for a new year. As a unique conversation between you and yourself, journaling can be private, illuminating, and healing. Try journaling in the new year for enhanced clarity about your intentions and a fresh, positive perspective.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.