The Why's and How's of Therapeutic Journaling
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Do you know that writing in your journal can be very therapeutic?
If you haven’t tried it yet, maybe it’s time to give it a go.
In fact, the term journal therapy or writing therapy exists.
And it is exactly what it sounds like- journaling with therapeutic elements. It is more than just diary keeping or writing in a journal.
If you are in therapy, perhaps you are familiar with the concept already. Maybe your therapist has occasionally asked you to write in your journal about a specific issue that troubles you or has given you prompted exercises to reflect on.
Journal therapy is a separate therapy modality nowadays, that mental health professionals can train on. But journaling is an inseparable part of the work of many psychologists -myself included-, because there are just so many benefits to gain from it.
What makes journal therapy different from just writing in your journal?
The main difference is that it is not just about recording events as they occur- but introspecting on those events, reflecting on the thoughts and feelings they brought about, analyzing them, and further freely and non-judgmentally interacting with them.
Therapeutic journaling has been found to help with a number of issues, including but not limited to:
WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT: BENEFITS
I am a great advocate of using writing with therapeutic purposes as I strongly believe there are just too many benefits from spilling your soul onto a piece of paper.
By recalling and recording significant internal and external events, you actively help your memory. Not to mention that you can go back and evaluate what place you were at some time ago and actually remember the phase, just because you had written about it.
Putting your thoughts and feelings on paper rather than bottling them up within you, and further dwelling on them endlessly, is actually cathartic.
Especially in times of distress, writing down what’s going on within you brings about an immediate sense of relief. Painful thoughts and emotions lose their detrimental power once externalized, and their intensity decreases.
Helps with Focusing on Positives
Especially if you have experienced traumatic incidents in your life, you may have a tendency to focus on negative aspects, and disregard the positive memories, feelings, thoughts and insights.
In such a case, writing with a focus on positive experiences helps train your brain to pay closer attention to them. This way, you actively help yourself remember positive experiences, and also come back to them when required to remind yourself that not everything is dark.
Insights and Sense of Clarity
Therapeutic writing can be intensely insightful. As you allow yourself to express parts of your inner world freely, without judgement or criticism, you may often find yourself gain new perspectives and realize new insights on issues that you previously struggled with.
Journaling therapy helps you organize and structure your thoughts around specific issues. Resolutions and new ideas may occur to you effortlessly, because by writing, you become in touch with your Wise Mind and your inner resources, as well as your unconscious.
Like Rumi says, “The Universe is not outside of you. Look into yourself, everything that you want, you already are”- meaning that all the answers to your troubles are within you already.
Therapeutic writing may just prompt them to come closer to the surface.
Enhances Creative Expression
Journaling can greatly be combined with art and any form of creative expression. Art is healing, by default. You can experiment with whatever feels more relevant to what you want to express.
I have a friend whose journal is really a work of art: she uses different markers, colours, fonts, letter sizes , doodling, drawing, sticking pictures etc in her journal, always matching her inner state.
Even a couple of words per page is sufficient. You can allow yourself to express freely- after all, what matters is that you do just that.
The journey means much more than the destination. The destination when you write, is actually unknown.
Relaxation and Coping
Because of the healing and cathartic effects of journaling, it is often recommended as a self-regulation coping method. It is an adaptive alternative to dysfunctional coping mechanisms people employ, such as self-harm, substance and alcohol abuse, overeating, etc.
Journaling brings about relaxation, especially after hyperarousal, but it can also reactivate you from hypoarousal- when you feel completely numb, inactive and depressed.
There is actually extensive research evidence that therapeutic writing has significant positive outcomes on health.
Silences your Inner Critic
Journaling therapy is not so much what you write about, but that you take the time to write, to introspect, to allow yourself to express freely. This can help quiet the critical voices in your mind.
Boosts the Therapeutic Process
If you are in therapy, journaling between the sessions keeps the process rolling.
It keeps you actively engaged with the content of the sessions and in the flow of introspection. By staying actively involved with the therapeutic process, your defenses are weakened and your Psyche remains open.
This way, you extend the benefits of therapy beyond the therapy session. Journaling could be the defining element that can help you realize the actual benefits and effects of therapy; it is a way to supersize therapy.
Monitor Progress and Inner Processes
With or without therapy, journaling is a great way to monitor your inner processes and progress. By looking back to what you wrote earlier, you evaluate both how far you have come, as well as the issues that you keep coming back to, that keep obstructing your progress and growth.
By bringing your thoughts and emotions relevant to particular events to the spotlight, you essentially become more mindful and conscious of what’s going on within you. Your self-awareness therefore increases.
HOW TO DO IT: TIPS AND IDEAS
I saw a great acronym about writing therapy, and this is just WRITE!
What will you write about? Choose your topic.
Review/ Reflect on it. Give yourself some time to fully connect with the issue at hand. It can help to first focus by taking a few deep breaths until you are in touch with your Self.
Investigate your thoughts and feelings. Start writing and keep writing, do not judge, just let your thoughts and emotions flow as they come. Maybe you will be inspired to challenge certain thoughts as you see them appear on the paper- just write whatever comes to your mind.
Time yourself. It may help to start by writing within specific timeframes, at least at first. For instance, try for 5, 10 or 15 minutes straight. You can increase the timed writing sessions as you go.
Exit. Make the most out of your writing session by rereading what you have just written down and further reflecting and evaluating it with a couple concluding sentences. That’s a way to take the zest of it with you.
Be Authentic and Creative
For each of your writing sessions, make a conscious commitment to be as close to yourself as possible. Experiment, allow and feel free to just be yourself- honestly, authentically, and unapologetically.
Write a Letter to Yourself
An idea is to write a letter to yourself, about the place in life where you are right now.
Alternatively, think about the different Parts of yourself- for instance, your Inner Child, your Inner Critic, your Ideal Future Self, your traumatized Parts.
You can use writing to allow a dialogue between different, often conflicting Parts to unfold. Writing a letter to yourself can help clarify your thoughts and promotes healing.
Write a Letter to Someone Else
If there is a person in your life with whom you have a difficulty or something you would like to discuss, a great idea is to write a letter to them in your journal.
Just write all those things you would like to express to them, if you could- but without actually sending them this letter.
In this way, you can structure your thoughts about the issue that troubles you on paper. This can clear the path to actually contacting them and communicating in a clear and conscious way.
If you have lost someone close to you, another beautiful writing exercise is to write a letter to them, expressing all of those things that you did not have a chance to do while they were still alive. This is a wonderful way to process grief.
Just write whatever comes to mind in a stream of consciousness for a limited time period (e.g. 15 minutes). Allow free associations to form in your mind. Just scribble down everything, no judgement. Let it flow.
Use personal photographs to stick in your journal. These can serve as reminders of meaningful moments that you can further reflect on.
Answer questions such as "What do you feel when you look at this picture?" and "What would you like to say to the people, places and things in this picture?" to get you started.
These are prompts that encourage meaningful writing. Below you can find some examples.
*The thing I most worry about is…
*My happiest memory lately is…
*I have difficulty sleeping at night when…
*The definition of a great day for me is… (write about all of the things that would comprise a fulfilling day that would leave you smiling wide, engaged, content and happy)
*If I could talk to my teenage self, the one thing I would say is…
*The values I would like to live by are…
*Right now, I am…. (elaborate). I want to be…
*I really wish others knew this about me…
*What I would like to change or improve about my romantic relationship is…
*What I mostly love about my partner is...
*The experiences that have been critical in defining me as a person are…
*My goals for the coming month are...
There are quite a lot of ideas for journal prompts online, but these could get you started!
Just allow for a catharsis of everything and anything you worry about right now, just for 10 minutes.
Once it is out of your head and onto the paper, give yourself permission to leave it there for now, and return to it later, not allowing any of this to further interfere with the rest of your day.
Victory and Gratitude Record
Write down everything that went well today, all of the victories and accomplishments, no matter how big or small.
This can do wonders for your sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, and can also foster an attitude of gratitude and appreciation towards your life.
Positive Word Focus
Pick a single positive word that you would like to focus for today, for example trust, gratitude, appreciation, love, friendship, courage, kindness, inspiration etc.
Write about all the possible ways you have experienced this word lately, and all of the ways you would like to still develop.
Focus on an issue that you have been concerned about, and ask yourself supportive and encouraging questions about it, just like how a good friend would do. Then answer each of these questions honestly and authentically. Allow for dialogue to develop. This exercise enhances self-compassion.
If you are in therapy, choose to enhance and accelerate the therapeutic process by shortly scribbling down what each of your sessions was about, shortly after your session, that everything is still fresh in your mind.
This can help remember significant insights but also prompt new questions and themes to further develop at subsequent sessions.
In my opinion, there are far too many things to gain from therapeutic journaling. That's why I encourage my clients to try it out as a means to enhance our work together.
The single greatest benefit of therapeutic journaling for me, is that it helps you get a better grip of whatever is going on in your life. It makes you more conscious and aware of all the little steps you take, both forward and backwards.
And living life consciously rather than just letting the days pass you by, is a most valuable choice you can make. Starting today. Why don't you try it out for yourself?