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Journal writing is arguably the most effective coping skill available to provide profound internal clarity and enhance the self-awareness process in stressful times.
Journaling is a vehicle for meditation. As a technique to clear the mind of thoughts by either focusing on a particular theme or writing down random thoughts as they emerge and circulate through the conscious mind, a calming effect takes place as ideas and feelings move from the mind to the written page.
Journaling has been shown to have the following benefits:
Expressive writing has been shown to decrease elevated blood pressure (Beckwith, Greenberg, and Gevirtz, 2005).
Affectionate writing has been shown to decrease cholesterol levels (Floyd, Mikkelson, Hesse, and Pauley, 2007).
Expressive writing has been shown to decrease stress levels in college students (Opre, Coman, Kallay, Rotaru, and Manier, 2005).
Expressive writing has shown beneficial health aspects for people who have fibromyalgia (Broderick, Junghaenel, and Schwartz, 2005).
Expressive writing helps people grieving romantic breakups (Lepore and Greenberg, 2002).
Emotional expression aids coping with stressful life events (Ullrich and Lutgendorf, 2002; Baikie and Wilhelm, 2005).
Expressive writing has proven to be a significant cathartic release for wives of American soldiers serving in the Iraq war (Hightower and Sherer, 2007).
How to Begin Journal Writing
Three essential elements are vital for effective journaling: First, a notebook dedicated solely to the journal, second, a pen or pencil, and, perhaps most important, third, a quiet, uninterrupted environment to collect your thoughts and then put them down on paper.
There is no best time of day to journal: It varies from person to person. Some prefer to journal in the morning and others in the evening—Journal when it works for you. To realize substantive results, a desirable goal to start with is a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes for each entry, and three entries per week, to achieve the benefits.
Usually, people start out writing a couple of paragraphs, mainly emphasizing events of the day rather than perceptions of these event. Over time people find that these entries usually get longer and are more detailed.
Also, journal writing is not limited to thoughts and feelings expressed solely in words. Drawings serve as a beautiful expression of feelings, ideas, and memories that words often cannot adequately describe. Sketches also help support the recollections of images to complement the text.
You need to remember that you journal for yourself and not for the pleasure of others. The best journal entries are those that are entirely confidential. Journal writing strengthens the bond of honesty from your mind to your soul. Stress-reduction journal entries aren't for publication and should remain confidential.
There is no specific way to journal successfully. However, some methods might help you use journalling more effectively with stress. Some of which are the following:
1. Try to identify those concerns and issues that cause the most frustration, grief, and tension. Identification and prioritization of stressors are vital in the self-awareness process. For the first two to three weeks, this may be all you choose to include in each journal entry. Entries often can best be started by answering one or two questions, such as How was my day today? Or What thoughts are on my mind right now?.
2. It is crucial to ask yourself what emotions arise when you encounter stressors. The two primary stress emotions are anger and fear; however, there are many shades of these emotions, including impatience, jealousy, frustration, sadness, grief, guilt, and worry. After identifying your current emotional state, the question, Why? should be pondered to identify the origins of your emotions (e.g., Why do I feel frustrated? Why do I feel victimized?)
3. Allow the writing process to add on to your creative process to come closer to resolution. When you have begun to feel comfortable with identifying stressors and the emotions they produce, the next phase is to create a method of resolution for the concerns and problems. In other words, search for viable options and employ them to bring a satisfying closure to the circumstances that brought on the stress.
Some best practices that have the consensus of our healthcare professionals are:
1. Centering. Before you begin to write, take a moment to relax. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and try to unwind. Centering means to be well-grounded or well connected to the here and now. Sometimes playing soft music or sipping hot tea-preferably with little to no caffeine- can help foster the centering process.
2. Label your entries. Identify each entry with the time, day, date, and year. You might want to review your past entries, and it is much easier to recall the events surrounding the journal entry when this information is at the top of the page.
3. Uncensorship. Write whatever comes to mind without editing your ideas before you put them on paper. Don't censor your thoughts as they go from your mind to your pencil. Let them move naturally. Journaling is transcribing your conscious dialogue. Don't be inhibited about expressing how you feel. Also, don't worry about how your writing style appears. Neat or sloppy, it does not matter as long as you can read it; that is all that matters.
4. Spontaneity. Let your thoughts free-flow. There is no need to write in sentences and paragraphs all the time. Often, in trying to phrase an idea just the right way, the essence of the thought becomes diluted or lost. Get whatever ideas you have down on paper and then sort them out however you choose. If you get a mental block when in front of a blank piece of paper, draw lines and store your ideas in separate boxes, or make lists of your thoughts. It is good to have variety in your journal entries, or the routine of writing becomes a tedious chore. If words fail you, make a sketch, or perhaps try writing a poem.
5. A private place. You can write journal entries almost anywhere, but having a designated area of solitude lends depth to self-disclosure. Find a place you can call your own. Open spaces also provide the opportunity for mind expansion. If the weather is conducive to sitting outdoors for a while, find a tree, beach, hillside, or grass, and make this spot your own as well. Sometimes combining this technique with music allows the mind to wander more freely and emotions to surface to a higher level of consciousness.
6. A private journal. Unlike a blog, your journal is for your eyes only. If you make it a habit to share entries frequently, then the vow of honesty with yourself is compromised. If you live with other people (i.e., roommates, girlfriend/boyfriend, spouse, parents), then it would be a good idea to keep your journal away from stray eyes. A journal is like Pandora's box to anyone but the author.
7. Overcoming writer's block. Some people find writing in a journal challenging because there is a risk of pain from confronting one's innermost thoughts. Some people become afraid of learning what is below the surface of immediate ideas. Pain arises when the premise of our thoughts and perceptions doesn't match the ideals or expectations we set for ourselves. Fears surface with the realization of unmet expectations or a change in our current reality of ourselves. These conflicts can be painful to the ego. But with pain comes the opportunity for learning, and learning sows the seeds of personal growth and development. Remember that some scholars believed suffering to be an essential part of the growth process.
Some recommendations when using journalling as a coping mechanism are:
1. Journal writing should not replace a more viable coping technique. Journals can be great sounding boards. Your words should be a robust personal invitation to find solutions to the problem at hand. Remember, for a coping technique to be effective, it must work toward a peaceful resolution. When journal writing takes the place of more appropriate coping techniques, such as effective communication with other people, a resolution is compromised, if not entirely prevented, and full closure on stressors never comes.
2. Journal writing should encourage, not discourage, honest feelings. As a coping technique, journal writing brings you to soul-search and turn thoughts inward. Although many writing themes, concepts, and philosophies can be used as vehicles to explore and add to the soul-searching process, these should not be the specific focus of writing. The primary theme is the writer. Ideally, journals should be confidential, though often, people choose to share parts of journal entries, sometimes entire passages. However, if you write journal entries for an audience other than yourself, then the likelihood of honesty is significantly compromised.
3. Paralysis by analysis. People can sometimes become too absorbed in the expression of their thoughts and feelings, awareness gets hindered, and the effectiveness of self-expression and self-reflections becomes stifled—cognitive paralysis sets in, which hinders rather than supports the coping process. It is important not to get caught up in the trap. Journalling purpose is to give you a broader perspective on yourself in your environment.
Journalling is arguably one of the best coping strategies available. Please return for part two of our journalling series where we review Journalling ideas, themes, and styles.
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