There’s a body of research, including that of James Pennebaker, that shows the writing can be used as a powerful tool for healing with certain caveats. Writing permits us to not just to own our experiences in a different way—a point which may be crucial for an unloved daughter whose experiences have been denied by her mother or family—but also to make a coherent narrative of them. By writing about what’s happened to us, we’re often able to gain not just a different perspective but are able to connect the dots, see cause and effect, in ways we can’t when we’re simply thinking.
Writing by hand engages different parts of the brain than typing and, additionally, is slower which is a good thing in this case. You don’t want this exercise to turn into a longer version of a ranting text.
Writing comes easily to some people and is difficult for many so you shouldn’t feel discouraged if you find yourself stymied at first or staring at a blank page. Many of us have emerged from our childhood or adult experiences and have dealt by putting them under lock and key, and opening the door may feel difficult at first. Don’t start journaling when you’re feeling agitated or anxious because recall, as I’ll explain below, may make you feel worse rather than better. Use journaling when you feel you’re ready to start processing an emotional experience, not when you’re in the middle of it.
Here are six suggestions to make the most of journaling.
- Choose a place to journal
Whether you live alone or in a busy household, your surroundings influence both how you feel and how easily you can access both your memory and thoughts. Sit somewhere inside or out that makes you feel calm; if looking at your desk or kitchen sink just reminds you of all the things you need to do and should be doing instead of journaling, find another place. Ideally, you should have both peace and quiet.
- Turn off your critical voice
You’re not writing a memoir for publication so don’t hold yourself up to the standard of The Liar’s Club or An American Childhood. You are writing for you and to make sense of things so please don’t turn this into an opportunity to feel as though you’re somehow lacking. Take baby steps, if need be. Write down phrases if full sentences are too difficult. This is not a test.
- Keep the goal in mind
Remember that this is a tool at your disposal, nothing more. Your goal is to gain some clarity about your experiences and to be able to process your feelings with greater ease. If writing is making you uneasy or anxious, you should stop because it’s counterproductive.
- Use cool recall
Studies show that journaling can actually set you back if it makes you re-live the moment emotionally—that is, puts you right back in the moment—or sets off a ruminative cycle so that you are writing about and thinking about the same thing over and over. For example, one experiment by David Sbarra and others showed that writing about a recent divorce actually made people feel worse, regardless of whether they wrote about it in a stream-of consciousness and highly personal style or as a first or third person narrator.
Using cool recall—remembering why you feel as you did—may be the key here because recalling what you felt will only have you re-live the moment. As you write, push yourself to focus on why and stop yourself if you find yourself drifting back toward what. This is admittedly very difficult since it tests your skill at managing negative emotion (which is what journaling is meant to improve) but, with practice, it can be done.
If need be, re-read what you’ve written and see if you’ve got the right focus. If not, simply stop for moment. Tomorrow is another day.
- Reflect, don’t task
Writing in your journal should be something you look forward to as part of your road to feeling a greater sense of wholeness; it should not be another item on a “To Do” list that feels daunting already. Writing doesn’t work for everyone even though it works for many and if it’s not your cup of tea, that’s okay too.
- Writing doesn’t have to be about recall
Studies show that visualizing a person with whom you feel safe or a place where you feel calm can quell anxiety and the triggers that make you anxious, and that writing that visualization down in detail strengthens the effect. You can use your journaling for that purpose as well.
Alternatively, research shows that goal-setting is strengthened by the act of writing your goals down, along with the possible impediments to achieving them, and there’s no reason not to have your journaling include that activity. For goal setting, you will actually want to focus in on what you will feel in the future—the very opposite of what you need to do when you’re recalling—in as much detail as possible. It’s useful too to write down your goals in order of importance so that you can set your sights appropriately.
The act of writing, in many instances, can set you free from what’s holding you back, help you manage your emotions, and get you on the road to a happier tomorrow.
Photograph by Carli Jean. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.
Pennebaker, James W. and Janel D. Segal, “Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 55 (10), 1243-1254 (1999)
Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Water Mischel, “When Asking ‘Why’ Doesn’t Hurt: Distinguishing Rumination from Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions,”Psychological Science (2005), vol. 16, no.9, 709-715.
Sbarra, David, Adriel Boas, Ashley E. Mason, Grace M. Larson, and Matthias R. Mehl, “Expressive Writing Can Impede Emotional Recovery Following Marital Separation,”Clinical Psychological Science (2013), xx(x), 1-15.