Journaling to the Center: How Writing Encourages Insight and HealingJune 6, 2013 • By Douglas Mitchell, MFTI, Expressive Arts Therapy Topic Expert Contributor
Did you know that keeping a journal is one of the most effective ways to expressively heal psychological wounds and gain personal insight? Journaling can be used alone or in conjunction with psychotherapy. It is considered an Expressive Arts Therapy modality that requires no art experience. You already have what you need to get started right away. No special writing skills are required, and the materials are simple: pen and paper (or a computer, if you prefer), and a dedicated time and space for writing practice.
Some benefits of regular journaling include:
- Unwinding and recapping: Journaling is a soothing way to unwind at the end of the day, vent privately about things that vex you, and pen your worries onto paper. It is also helpful to recap the events of your day, scribe gratitudes, and highlight events.
- Setting intentions or downloading clutter: You might choose to journal first thing every morning as a way to set the framework for the coming day or unload the brain’s chatter — as in the Artist’s Way’s ritual of “morning pages.” Beginning your day with writing jump-starts your day like a morning cup of coffee.
- Gaining personal insight: By documenting your experiences over time, you may notice patterns that warrant change, reorganization, and omission. After several weeks of writing, take a look at past entries and see if you notice any patterns: negativity, repeating issues, inklings of repressed yearnings. You might even find that you are stronger and more confident as you reread, and that your writing becomes a dear friend and sounding board for you.
- Observing and detaching: While not intentionally, journaling supports reflecting, noticing, and observing. It can support you to either externalize and detach from your thinking brain and emotional center, or deepen and draw you closer to it. One of the main benefits is in supporting a bird’s eye view of what is going on in your life.
Creating Your Journal
There is no right or wrong way to create a journal. You can buy them or make your own. Your journal might be in a spiral notebook, a lined legal pad, or a blank artist’s sketchbook. You might use your desktop software like Microsoft Word for each entry, or try your hand at online journaling software like My Journal 2.0. If you want something that keeps multiple journals — like your daily journal and your diet and exercise journal — without all the bells and whistles, then the text-only version software, All My Journals, is the choice for you. If you want a cloud version that boasts military-grade encryption and is iPhone friendly, try Penzu. Explore several options to find the fit that is right for you.
Whether your journal is digital or handwritten, you get to decide what format it will have. You might write in normal paragraphs, or you could choose to write in a poetry format, in lists, or in brain mapping diagrams. Your journal could include pictures as well as words, similar to scrapbooking. You might want to draw or doodle in your journal, glue images, add stickers, use rubber stamps, or paint amazing collages. If you choose the digital route, you can scrounge the Internet and copy and paste images for visual impact. If you really want to get creative, you can use Photoshop to alter, blur, merge, and do all sorts of creative things with your images. Or, again, you can just use a pen and paper and simply scribe.
There are lots of ways to get started on a journal entry. You might want to get a book of journal prompts (or simply do an Internet search for that term) and respond to one prompt each day. I recommend “The Way of the Journal: A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing,” by Kathleen Adams, as a go-to source. Or you could try free writing, in which you simply begin writing any words at all and keep your pen moving (as in automatic writing) without stopping for about 10 minutes.
If you don’t know what to write, start with the words, “I don’t know what to write today because…” If you don’t have a lot of time, then try five-minute sprints and write about anything on your mind. Another idea is to write about specific events in your life, highlights of your day, or conversations that impacted you. Other ideas are to pick a subject, do a check-in with yourself, capture a moment in time, or reflect on something upsetting to you. There are many more ideas, but these will get you up and running.
One of my favorite ideas is the weekly recap on a Sunday evening. This can really help you to document or highlight the week’s events, give additional attention to a special moment, track your goals, and prep you for the upcoming week. One of the best surprises is the meaning you have captured or insight you have gained. It can also bring a meditative closure to the week — kind of like an appreciative remembering and farewell.
Above all, journaling is a process. It’s not about what you write or how your journal looks. It’s an opportunity to gain insight, reflect, and find meaning in sparse moments of your day. Most of us have 10-or-so minutes to capture our lives. Isn’t yours worth it?
Take the time to explore your thoughts and emotions on paper. With a journal, you can be the witness to your own unfolding story.
© Copyright 2013 by Douglas Mitchell, MFTI, therapist in San Francisco, CA. All Rights Reserved.
Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org. The preceding article was solely written by the author name above. The view and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.
JanetJune 7th, 2013 at 4:09 AM
I think that I am all on board aside from the wekly review.
If I wrote about something that had me down earlier in the week but now I am feeling better, why would I want to go back and relive it?
I am a little bit more about moving on and forward when I can, not rehashing the past.
muncyJune 10th, 2013 at 4:27 AM
@Janet- it might reopen all of the old wounds, yes, but there is no better way to get over that and heal than to go through them again, find out your own role, and what you might do differently the next time. I know that for me writing is a way to allow me to be honest with myself, which is something that I have had difficulty with in the past. I am being open and honest in a medium that is not threatening, and yet allows me to go over different scenarios where I can determine if something could have gone a different way had I done something differently myself. Journaling might not be for everyone, but this is just an opening. You could try anything, painting, music, etc, anything that kind of gives you that outelt and that freedom to say what’s on your mind and in a place where no one else has to know.
Dawn HerringJune 11th, 2013 at 11:44 AM
I love the different benefits and approaches you share here with journaling. Using your journal to detach and observe, gain insight and set your intentions can be a self empowering act in and of itself. When you do this on a consistent basis, it can actually change your life with appropriate follow through. The weekly review is a great idea, giving yourself an understanding of where you’ve been and where you want to go.
I have chosen your post, Journaling to the Center: How Writing Encourages Insight and Healing, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 6/11/13 for all things journaling on Twitter; a link will be posted on the social networks, on my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in my weekly Refresh Journal.
#JournalChat Live is every Thursday, 5 EST/2 PST, for all things journaling on Twitter; our topic this week is Your Journaling: More or Less? as we discuss using our journals to determine what we want more of or less of in our lives.
I appreciate the benefits you shared here and look forward to sharing it with others.
Your Refreshment Specialist
Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter
Author of The Birthday Wall: Create a Collage to Celebrate Your Child
DouglasJune 11th, 2013 at 7:14 PM
Thank you everyone for your feedback and a special thanks to Dawn for passing it on!
All my best,
Jin SJuly 26th, 2015 at 7:12 PM
Thats a very good feedback. Wondering what you think of its implication on society as a whole though? There are times when things like this begin to have global expansion and frustration. Ill check back to see what you have to say.
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