Thoughts on Journaling
And 5 tips to get started with a journaling practice.
The benefits of a regular journaling practice for navigating depression, anxiety, and stress are abundant and well-documented. They include enhanced creativity, stress management, an increased sense of gratitude, and an overall improvement in quality of life.
Journaling, however, is not the same thing as keeping a diary. It is not solely for burgeoning teenagers dealing with hormones and middle-school drama (although it can be helpful for said individuals, too!). And it’s not merely a hippy-dippy practice that’s deemed necessary by literally every influencer in the health and wellness community. It’s actually an ancient tradition that is backed by neuroscience and yogis alike. It’s a safehouse to record memories, quotes, ideas, dreams, and anything else you wish to write. It’s a place for reflection and self-discovery.
Much of journaling’s power comes in the way of transformation, because when feeling states are transferred into writing, the intensity of the feeling is mitigated. But aren’t we supposed to get more in touch with our feelings and not dissipate them? Yes, kind of. But distance between ourselves and our thoughts is necessary if our intention is to understand feelings for what they are, and what we truly are.
We’re all familiar with the philosophical proverb I think, therefore I am, but the awareness that hears the voice say I am is not thought, nor is it feeling. Instead, it’s the essence of self that is separate from thoughts and feelings, and merely observing them. Thought without awareness has power over you, the observer, because, in the absence of awareness, you become merged with the thought. In other words, the thought is I am, but the awareness of that thought is not the thought itself — it’s you.
So what we’re really looking to do is become more aware of our thoughts and feelings while maintaining a distance from them, so that we can be more in touch with them without becoming powerless to them. We want to differentiate ourselves from our thoughts and feelings, and lean into that space that exists between them in order to better inform the choice we make.
You are not angry. You are the one that is observing angry thoughts and feelings that exist apart from you. The anger exists, but it has no power in light of your awareness. It literally depends upon the observer identifying with it in order to wield power. But how do you separate yourself from feelings when they are so. very. strong?
Ladies and gentlemen: journaling. From a neuroscientific perspective, the act of writing requires the brain to shift activity from its emotionally reactive centers to the prefrontal cortex, where logical and rational functions take place. This transfer of activity allows us to gain perspective and differentiate ourselves from the feelings we’re observing.
Moreover, the physical act of writing stimulates the left side of the brain: order, logic, reasoning. This allows the right side of the brain to execute its functions (creativity, intuition, emotional response) without the intellectual pursuit of the left brain, which tends to cramp its style. Without the demands of the intellect on our stream of consciousness, we can arrive at a deeper level of reflective thought and understanding.
Simply put, resistance to what’s happening blocks our own energy and creates a pattern or behavior. Journaling allows us to quite literally free up our energy and observe the patterns that have developed. It puts distance between our_selves_ and the thought, and between this moment and the moment that gave rise to those thoughts. And we know that differentiating between thought and the one who hears or observes the thought is exactly what allows us to notice our thoughts and change our behavior.
When we change our thoughts and behaviors, we effectively change our lives.
Thinking about starting a journaling practice? Here are some ideas to get you started:
1. Write now.
Don’t wait to begin journaling. Write whatever comes to mind, and avoid judging or censoring, no matter how tempting that may be. Remember that judgment is a pattern, too! Write from here (taps heart), and not from here (taps forehead). Trust in the process, and go with the flow. If you find your head getting in the way, keep going. Don’t fight it; it will inevitably move over and allow the right brain its freedoms. Neurochemistry dictates the shift. Write, and allow it to happen.
2. Develop a routine.
Remember that behavior is a pattern, and that these patterns shape our lives. Make your journaling practice a habit from the start. Schedule your writing time. Many people journal first thing in the morning because they like the way it sets up their day, while others prefer to journal at night in order to clear their heads and make sense of their day. No matter what time you choose, set an alarm if you must, and make it happen.
3. Create a writing space.
Establish a place to write. Get yourself a good journal, one that you want to write in, and comfortable slippers and tea. Use a pen that you love. Create a nook with pillows, or sit at a desk, or write in bed. Whatever makes you feel like writing, and wherever (and however) you want to be.
4. Read what you wrote.
Maybe not every day, but every so often. Reading your entries is how you’ll likely gain perspective. It doesn’t necessarily happen as you write because the process of awareness takes time to develop and is, well, a process. Awareness becomes more organic as we practice it by journaling and reading what we wrote with a new perspective that sometimes only time affords. Eventually, awareness of thought will allow you to intercept patterns before they take hold. That said, sometimes we have an a-ha moment in the middle of writing, and those are valuable too.
5. Make it your own.
Journaling is truly a unique endeavor that is highly particular to the person doing the writing. What comes of a consistent journaling practice is likewise unique to the individual. Like a fingerprint, no two journaling practices are alike. This is a beautiful thing! Your journal is a place exempted from comparison, rules, or evaluation. It’s a glorious wingspan, wind blowing through your hair. Embrace it as yours, and yours alone.
Most importantly, know that you don’t need to be an accomplished writer in order to journal. You don’t even need to enjoy writing, not necessarily. Because you’re not writing the way you did in your school days, curled up on your bed with your hair twirled between your thumb and forefinger (or maybe you are, which works, too!), you’re not writing for a grade or because you have to. You’re becoming an observer of the voice that says I am. You’re figuring out who you are, the observer of the feeling, the one who notices the thought. You’re simply using a pen and paper to do it.
Interested in more? Take a look at this article about resolutions!
Stacy Nelson, AWP, CYT, RM is a Holistic Nutritionist and the creator of WELL by Stacy Nelson, a mindfulness-based approach to food, health, and happiness. Please visit wellbystacynelson.com to learn more.