Open nearly any self-help book and you are likely to find a section on journaling alongside a list of claims about how regularly putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) can cure what ails you. We all know it isn’t really that simple; that gaining best benefits of any practice follow best intentions toward that practice.
The good news is journaling rarely has a negative effect on behavior and well-being. Those include practices that amplify self-obsession or that separate the writer from the present – for instance, when you are thinking about how you will journal what’s happening at a time when you should be experiencing what is happening. So, even if you try several methods and formats, odds are you will reap some benefit.
Journaling works best when done with intention or directed toward a desired outcome. Personal preference and intention can also help determine a journaling format or mix of formats.
Gratitude Journaling – This is typically a list-based system of journaling in which the writer identifies everyday joys and comforts. Some who adopt this practice require a certain number of items on the list each day. The intention of this form of journaling is to focus your thoughts on the positive that surrounds you.
Visual Journaling – Artistic people tend to prefer this method of journaling since it emphasizes visual design over words and writing. Some choose a single word each day and create a visual representation, using whatever supplies are readily available (i.e., pencils, pens, crayons, markers, findings, magazine clippings, printed pages).
Music Journaling – Similar to visual journaling, this format allows those who are musically inclined to express themselves through rhythm and lyrics. The “journal entries” are recorded and kept in an electronic folder, typically by date and theme.
Stream-of Consciousness Journaling – In this format, the writer often sets a timer and keeps writing until the set amount of time is complete. What lands on the page is whatever is in your head – without judgment, self-editing or spell checking. The method works well for perfectionists, or those who need to avoid negative thoughts.
Unsent Letter Journaling – These journals allow the writer to say what they otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t. An entry could be a letter of appreciation to a deceased loved one, or one of fury to a neighbor. It could be about forgiveness or about the writer’s lack of desire to forgive. This type of journaling is empowering and cathartic, especially when it is shared with a mental health professional.
Goal Journaling – This type of journaling is especially intentional, but also the type that takes the most planning. The writer will first need to establish one or more specific goals and a timeframe for results. Once that is complete, all journal entries connect to the established goals. These can include additional planning, self-status updates, scrapbook-like pages to chart progress, clippings of related material, etc.
Regardless of the type of journaling you choose – or the type of journaling your therapist may suggest – the most benefits come with consistency and authenticity. Be honest with your thoughts and do so at regular intervals. Make it a habit and check your mood periodically along the way.
Effective journaling can positively shape and affect your mood and emotions by allowing you a safe space to explore experiences that made you sad or anxious, clear your mind of intrusive thoughts, release negative feelings, set aside everyday stress, showcase successes and identify emotional triggers.
If you find, however, that journaling (or any self-help technique) is not contributing to your emotional well-being, do seek help from a professional. We’re here to help.