In this article, I will go over the benefits of journaling for stress management and share with you some useful tips on how to get started.
Journaling to relieve stress
Do you often feel anxious or overwhelmed? We live under constant pressure and dealing with stressful situations has become part of our everyday life. The good news is that journaling is now being widely recognized as a simple and yet very effective way to process difficult emotions, manage stress levels, and relieve anxiety.
Chronic stress in America at its highest
A Gallup survey of more than 150,000 people around the world showed that in 2018, Americans reported feeling stress, anger and worry at the highest levels in a decade. The 2015 Stress in America report by the American Psychological Association showed a similar trend, and also highlighted that the younger generations, the millennials and generation Xers, were more likely to report feeling stressed than their elders.
A small amount of stress can actually be beneficial in the short term. Stress is a normal physiological or biological reaction to danger, change, and the unknown. It motivates you to take action and helps you meet the challenges of everyday life. However, the constant stimulus from social media, email, and 24/7 information overload, makes us live in a permanent fight or flight mode, and stress becomes a chronic condition.
The list of negative effects of stress on our health is long and includes irritability, anxiety, depression, headaches, and insomnia. Chronic stress also affects negatively the central nervous system, the endocrine system, the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, the digestive system, the muscular system, the immune system, as well as our sexuality and reproductive system.
Journaling and stress
Among the different ways to reduce stress and anxiety, there is ample scientific evidence to support the benefits of regular physical exercise and the practice of meditation. Less known are the results of studies conducted over the last twenty years, showing that regular journal writing can have positive, stress-reducing effects.
Karen Baikie and Kay Wilhelm found that writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events resulted in improvements in both physical and psychological health. They suggest that expressive writing can be used as a therapeutic tool.
Dr. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin also conducted research on the health benefits of expressive writing for victims of traumatic life events. It appears that writing helps people organize their thoughts and give meaning to a traumatic experience. The process of writing may enable them to learn to better regulate their emotions, and it is believed that when people open up privately about a traumatic event, they are more likely to reach out for social support that can aid healing as well.
Gift yourself with time for writing
The difficult part when starting to build the habit of journaling is to find sufficient time regularly. Ideally you would set aside 20 minutes each day to write in a quiet, comfortable environment where you won’t be interrupted. If you find it difficult to make enough time every day, it is fine to start with simply jotting down some ideas for 5 minutes, until the habit makes its roots into your daily life and you are able to dedicate more time to it. Many people prefer journaling in the morning as they start their day, or before bed to reflect and process the day’s events, but your lunch break or any either time that works for you is just fine.
Get some supplies and start writing
You don’t need much for journaling, only pen and paper, or alternatively you might find it more convenient to type on your computer.
Maybe you already have a notebook at home you could use? If not, you can buy the perfect one according to your taste, one that gives you some additional motivation to make journaling a part of your daily routine. There are many kinds of journals available, beautiful or more functional. Do you prefer to write on blank or lined pages, or dotted lines? If you’re not sure which one you’d like best or you don’t have a strong opinion on this, that’s find, you can pick any and start writing! You can go for a pencil, a simple pen, or even a top-notch pen. Let your choice reflect your creativity if it is important to you, or go for simplicity and functionality. Anything you feel comfortable with is just great.
Ready to start? Date your journal entry and just write down your thoughts as they come to your mind. There are no set rules for journaling, and you don’t need to worry too much about punctuation or grammar, no one else will read it but you. The length can vary and is totally up to you, whether it’s a short paragraph or a long monologue.
The process of expressive writing to relieve stress
To focus on relieving stress in particular, you could write about your concerns, detail what is happening right now and what could happen next that is causing you stress, what you fear will happen next, and how this would affect you.
Then re-read and re-think about what you just wrote. Reframe the situation and explore your options: is there something you could do? Is this a true concern or not? Could it be less negative? Could you create a better outcome for yourself? Challenging you fears will help you examine and shift your thoughts from anxious and ruminative to empowered and action-oriented. Write several ways in which you could reframe the whole situation and think about your fear differently.
This is what emotional release journaling is all about. First you write about your emotional responses to events, then you process what you are feeling, reframe it, and expand the positive, so that you can manage the negative. Doing so you increase your positivity ratio, which is the essence of stress management.
Now is the time to focus on action, the idea is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Remember difficult situations that you have already overcome in the past, and ask yourself how you can learn from your present difficulties? Can you find new strengths? If what you fear comes to happen, then what would you do? You don’t need to go into an insanely detailed plan of action, identifying some resources available to you already takes away the fear of the unknown. Think of at least one thing you could do right now to improve your life and prepare you for what you fear. Put your attention towards action and your energy will flow into doing something rather than worrying.
Express Your Gratitude
In addition, you could try the practice of gratitude: identify each day three or more things that you are grateful for. This will turn your focus to the resources you have in your life already, and also you will have a written record of many good things that happened to you, so you can come back to it later to cheer you up when you feel down.
Some people also find that keeping a personal planning journal, or bullet journal, to keep track of what they need to do, their goals, their memories, and other things they don’t want to forget helps them keep their mind uncluttered, and remember what’s important to them. A more organized and balanced life is a life with less stress.
Involve your thoughts and end with positivity
When journaling it is preferable that you don’t just vent negative emotions or catalog events, but instead that you write about your feelings, and your thoughts surrounding these emotional events.
Research shows much greater benefits from journaling when participants write about emotional issues from a mental and emotional framework. It could even be the case that writing only about the negative emotions without including your thoughts in the process, or plans to solve the problem may actually increase your stress level. Indeed, a study by the Department of Psychology of the University of Iowa highlighted that writers focusing on both cognitions and emotions developed a greater awareness of the positive benefits of a stressful event than subjects who were asked to only focus on emotions, who reported more severe illness symptoms during the study, or those asked to write factually about media events.
To fully benefit from the practice of journaling, after reliving events emotionally, try to construct solutions and find the lessons learned. Using both emotions and cognitive thinking helps you process the event, be more constructive, and find solutions to lingering problems. It is also wise to end your session with a few words about things you appreciate in life, or things that give you hope.
A few tips
Don’t worry about the neatness of your handwriting or even about grammar, getting your thoughts on paper is more important than perfection.
Also, try not to censor yourself, and don’t judge what you’ve written or your feelings. Don’t blame or criticize yourself. Look at your feelings for what they are, neither good nor bad.
It’s a good idea to keep your journal private, if you are worried someone else might read it, you are more likely to self-censor and unfortunately you won’t achieve the same benefits.
If you stay a day or more without journaling, be kind to yourself about it and just keep writing, don’t let the difficulty of building this habit discourage you, the long-term benefits are worth it. Even occasional journaling can be stress relieving when the practice is focused on gratitude or emotional processing.