From Mind & Heart to Pen & Paper: Therapeutic Journaling for Transformation

By Joanna Barrett, LMHC

Do you have a lot of thoughts in your head and a lot of feelings in your heart? 

I have said it again and again, to clients of all ages and backgrounds: 

“Get it out of your head, off of your heart, and onto the page.”

The idea is that you can get it all written down on paper, thereby everything is out of your body and onto the page.  You can release it all to the notebook, close it *gently* and put it away in a drawer.  You can pick it up again later, as needed. 

Many times, at least in the beginning, clients have some resistance and avoidance to journaling.  This is natural and totally understandable.  It can be scary, it’s the unknown of what will come up.  But once my clients open their notebooks and put pen to paper, a new awakening emerges.  

As a regular coping skill, clients share with me that journaling has been incredibly helpful for them to decrease their stress, depression, and anxiety.  I know this to be true for me, as well.  

When I was a younger girl and teenager, I kept diaries to write down all my thoughts and feelings.  It was a place to share my inner world, without input from anyone else.  It was my place to express my deepest secrets and receive some clarity on the world around me.  Writing helped me feel seen and heard, by me and my treasured diary.  

Even in adulthood, I still write, though I now call it “journaling,” where I use a notebook to share my thoughts and feelings to make sense of my inner and outer world → hmmm, I see some similarities to my diary days.  Maybe it’s not so different? 

The benefits remain the same, and the act of writing down my thoughts and feelings can be incredibly healing and beneficial.  Studies have shown that journaling and memoir writing promote emotional health and healing (so much so that there is a Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University!).

Benefits of Writing 

  1. Reduces anxiety, depression, and stress.
  2. Helps clarify your thoughts and feelings.
  3. Tracks symptoms, helps identify triggers, and finds patterns of what is helpful or not.
  4. Offers a space for reframing thoughts and cultivates behavior change. 

Style 1: Freewriting

Freewriting is writing your thoughts, without censoring or editing them. The purpose is to explore your thoughts and feelings and to uncover the wisdom you already have. 

  1. Set a Timer.

Choose an uninterrupted time frame that works for you (usually 10–20 minutes). 

  1. Write Anything and Everything.

Write down exactly what you’re thinking, regardless of how strange or silly it seems to you—and write it quickly so you don’t have a chance to censor yourself. Don’t edit anything out.  Just write. 

  1. Don’t Worry about Grammar or Spelling. 

Freewriting can lead to more typos and misspellings—and that’s okay! Don’t interrupt yourself to correct mistakes; just keep writing.

  1. Write Until Your Timer Goes Off

If you’ve run out of things to write about, write about that feeling, or keep writing a repeated phrase until something new comes to mind. Keep writing until the time is up.

  1. Reread Your Entry Afterward. 

You may choose to reread your freewriting – or not!  If you reread it,  look for opportunities to gain insight from yourself, without judgment.  You may choose to write down a few sentences at the end of your entry about the things you found surprising, or your experience reading your freewriting.

Style 2: Journaling to Challenging Your Thoughts

  1. Write Your Worries.

Start by journaling for 5–15 minutes. Write about anything and everything that is on your mind.  Don’t censor your thoughts.  Describe the events that are currently causing stress or anxiety (sometimes it isn’t what is currently happening that causes stress or anxiety, but the concerns you have about what may happen in the future).

  1. Reread and Get Curious.

Ask yourself: 

— LIKELIHOOD: How likely is it that this will happen? How do you know? Are you sure?

— REALISTIC OUTCOME: If what you fear does occur, could it be less of a negative experience than you think it would be? Could it be neutral or even positive?

— BETTER OUTCOMES: Is there a way you could use your circumstances to create a better outcome? Could you use what you have available to make the best of the potential changes? Is there a change that could occur (or that you could create) that would be even better?

3. Think Differently.

For each concern, try to write at least one way you could think about the situation differently. Generate a new story for yourself, and even a new set of possibilities. Ask yourself: How can I shift my perspective?  What else is possible? 

  1. Recall Your Strengths.

Think about the biggest challenges you’ve faced and overcome. Ask yourself: What do you think you could learn from it? In what ways do you think you would gain strength as you face these new obstacles?

  1. Consider a Plan.

You don’t need a full plan! Write the resources you would utilize and the next steps you’d take. Ask yourself: Assuming what you fear did happen, what would you do? 

  1. Cope Ahead to Prepare.

Cope Ahead and create a basic plan with a better (neutral or more-positive) outcome.

Style 3: Thought Diary

Keeping a thought diary offers you a way to notice your thought patterns and track how they change over time. This journaling exercise asks you to write down your thoughts and then think critically about them. To get started, create a document or journal page with five columns or sections.

  1. Situation

Note the current situation you’re in. Example: “Starting a new job,” or “Had a disagreement with a friend.”

  1. Feelings 

Write down the feelings you’re experiencing with this situation.

  1. Thoughts

Note what you’re thinking (ss you record more thought diaries, this is where you’ll notice your thinking patterns and see how they change in time).  Be honest!  

  1. Illusions

Think critically about your beliefs and any illogical ideas. Take an evidence-based approach – though you may feel anxious about a situation, ask yourself if your anxiety is factually warranted.

  1. Reality 

Write down a more realistic outcome of your situation. If you’re basing your thoughts on what you assume another person is thinking, for instance, what’s a more realistic approach you could take?

Style 4: Open-Ended Journaling Prompts

WHO

  1. Who brings me upliftment?
  2. Who drains my energy?
  3. Who do I want to be in life?
  4. Who can I turn to for ____?
  5. Who am I at my core/essence?

WHAT

  1. What brings me joy and peace?
  2. What am I grateful for and why?
  3. What do I envision for the next 5 years? 10 years? The duration of my life?
  4. What matters to me and what do I value?
  5. What am I learning from this experience?

WHERE

  1. Where do I feel the safest?
  2. Where in my body do I feel sensations from ____ emotion?
  3. Where can I go if I need support?
  4. Where are my expectations in comparison to reality?
  5. Where do I go within myself when ____ happens?

WHEN

  1. When I say something, do I mean it?
  2. When I die, what is my legacy/impact on the world?
  3. When the going gets tough, I _____.
  4. When I find myself in my usual patterns, I ____?
  5. When will I make ____ change in my life?

WHY

  1. Why am I how I am?
  2. Why do I feel ____ about ____?
  3. Why am I writing right now?
  4. Why is _____ happening for me?
  5. Why is now the time for ____?

HOW

  1. How do I care for myself?
  2. How do I care for others?
  3. How can I rest more?
  4. How can I do enjoyable activities?
  5. How can I lean into the discomfort?

Five More Personal Tips for Journaling

  1. Try to write every day, but don’t be hard on yourself if it’s not a daily practice. Set aside a few minutes to write, but allow yourself more time, if you’re on a roll.  Sometimes I write for two minutes, sometimes 20.  
  2. Be prepared by keeping a pen and paper handy at all times. Then when you want to write down your thoughts, you can. You can also keep a journal on your smartphone or computer.  Whatever makes the most sense works for me!
  3. Use your journal as you see fit. Write or draw whatever feels right. Your journal doesn’t need to follow any certain structure. It’s your own, private place to discuss and create whatever you want to express your feelings. Let the words and ideas flow freely. Don’t worry about spelling mistakes or what other people might think. You never even have to go back to reread it.  So just let the words or images flow. 
  4. You don’t have to share your journal with anyone. If you do want to share some of your thoughts with trusted friends and loved ones, you could show them parts of your journal.  
  5. My therapy clients are always welcome to share their process and insights from their journal entries with me, but there’s never any pressure to.

 

I’d love to hear about your experience with journaling!  Contact me to share! 

January 15, 2024

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Yoga & Therapy
Joanna Barrett