Coping skills & self-soothing · Writing

Journal like your life depends on it

The pen is mightier than the sword, and considerably easier to write with.
–Marty Feltman.

man with large pencilMental health providers encourage their patients to keep journals.  Sometimes it’s almost obsessive.  We journal!  Everyone should journal!  Write like you’re fighting for your life!

But why do we write?  I guess it’s because the empty page is a place to vent.  It’s a spot to rest our heads during tough moments.  It’s a trusted friend who understands aspirations, who’s always available and curious to hear what happens next.

Pardon the poetics, but the list goes on.  Studies have shown that journaling’s ability to get us through dark times rivals the skills of a paid talk therapist.  Journaling is superb for problem-solving.  It gives us insight into our thoughts, behaviors, and moods.  It helps us reflect on and organize our past into something manageable. But, more than anything, it offers us hope: there’s always another blank page waiting for us to fill, and that page might just be what we need to get through the day.

Are you convinced yet that journaling is essential to living?  Maybe?

As a mental health professional, I obsessively encourage you to write every day.  Good for the psyche.  So buy yourself that notebook, ready your computer, find a spot where no one will bother you, choose one of the following methods… and write like your life depends on it.

(1) Stream-of-thought journaling.

Stream-of-thought journaling is a favorite among therapists, and it’s simple to do.  Set your timer for fifteen (or 100) minutes, then randomly jot down whatever comes to mind.  Write without rules, grammar, judgment, or concerns about penmanship.

So you want to describe your trip to the supermarket, your relationship with your neighbor, a philosophical query, or a pair of shoes you saw yesterday? By all means, go ahead!  You find you’re jumping from subject to subject without connecting the dots?  Absolutely okay!  Are there more squiggles than letters?  Great, keep squiggling!  Anything is game, as long as you write write write.

If you don’t know what to write, then write about not knowing what to write: “I have no idea what to put on paper, I really don’t, so I’m just going to write random words…shoes, supermarket, rhinoceros…” The trick is to keep your pen moving until you’ve officially finished your fifteen (100) minutes.

Why do this?  According to some psychologists, stream-of-though journaling helps bring the hidden parts of your mind to the surface.  In formal terms, the unconscious becomes conscious, allowing for a healing catharsis as realization falls into place.  For the rest of us, this means you heal by making sense out of the deep, hidden parts of yourself .

For example, an unhappy woman believes she “loves work” but finds herself stream-of-thought writing that her boss is keeping her from advancing. She has no future in this company.  The woman hadn’t allowed herself to think about it until now.  Recognizing the cause of her discontent, she’s given the chance to do something about it.  She decides to look for a different job.

(2) Positive psychology

Positive psychology is the rainbow after a storm.  If your day is filled with misery or angst, if your future seems bleak, get it out on paper, complain like you mean it — then  write the exact opposite.  This is particularly helpful for people with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder.  Here’s an example:

woman with large pencilThe Complaint: “I had a horrible day.  I messed up my project at work, and I feel like a failure.  I’m no good at this.  I’m never going to get better.  I feel more depressed.”

The Positive Rewrite:  “I had a fantastic day. I did an amazing job at work on this project, and I’m starting to realize my dreams are within reach.  I’m good at what I do.  Everything is going to turn out great.  I feel on top of the world.”

Is it too much? Does a sugar-coated perspective scare you?  Rewriting negativity into positivity may seem over-the-top, but if you suspend your disbelief a while, give this well-meaning mumbo-jumbo a chance and keep at it day after day, you just might find it rubs off on you. And that tiny ounce of optimism can, well… sometimes transform your world.

(3) Meaning

Sometimes writing is a search for meaning.  There are dozens of ways to seek deeper understanding, to pause and breathe and reflect, and here’s one that some people find helpful.

Make each writing session into a ritual.  Take 15 (or 100) minutes every day, and devote it to reflection.  Each time you sit to write, choose something inspiring or important, or something that makes you feel good.  What catches your interest?  What feels right in the moment?  Examples might include:

  • Photograph, memorabilia, or symbolic drawing of an important memory
  • An object (living or not), like a pet, favorite person, book, or gift you received
  • Quotation of the day
  • Tarot card of the day
  • Picture of the day (Pinterest, Google search, etc)
  • Bible verse
  • Lyric of a song
  • Excerpt from something you’re reading or writing
  • Personal artwork
  • Something cerebral, like a diagram of homosapien development

Chase what seems right for the day.  It doesn’t have to be earth-shatteringly important.  Sometimes a joke or doodle is all you need.

Once you’ve chosen your inspiration, make a copy and stick it in your notebook.  Print out and paste, tape, reproduce by hand, use carbon copies or smoke rings, do whatever it takes to record it in physical form.  If it’s a 3-D object like a person or pet, find a photo or draw a representation and stick that in your journal.  If your journal is electronic, scan and paste.

Next, stop and really look at today’s pick.  What do you see?  What colors, angles, contrast, objects, characters, emotion, and thoughts do you see?  One day, years down the road, you’re going to find this notebook and ask yourself, “Why did I stick this here?  What was I thinking?”  While you’re here in the now, record what’s on your mind: what are you thinking?

Your reflection doesn’t have to be mind-boggling or filled with Zen.  For example: “I chose this picture because I liked the girl’s shoes.  They reminded me of a happy moment in my life when I was a little kid and had just received these colorful, flowery flip-flops,” or “I liked this poem because it’s weird, and I like weird things.  Reminds me of the kind of music I wanna write.”  Scribble a few comments here, or write out three pages there.  Just make sure to answer the questions, “Why did I stick this here?  What was I thinking?”

Why seek meaning this way?  A daily ritual is an incredible way to be with the moment.  Sometimes meaning is found in a pair of shoes.  Other days, it connects you with the universe.  Be there for both!

(4) The daily poem

The task: write a poem every day.

boy with enormous pencilWhat is a poem?  Some say it’s the speech of the soul, but it can be something simpler.  Maybe a poem is just a set of meaningful words pulled together without rules.  Find a few “good-sounding phrases,” add a couple syllables, swirl it all together,  make it meaningful — and you have poetry.

It can be simple and bizarre, like twenty random, disconnected words that seem to fit together:

Forthright by me,
Why do I fail to be sea?
Oh shopping spree,
What of tea, and what about we?”

Not convinced?  Consider instead something more reality-based, even humored.  Here’s a simple example by Sally Forth, a poem from her book, “I could pee on this, and other poems by cats.”  It’s written from a feline point of view.

I lick your nose
I lick your nose again
I drag my claws down your eyelids
Oh, you’re up?  Feed me.

Still not your thing?  Want to try something more… poetic?  A haiku is a poem with three lines usually containing five, seven, and five syllables, but not always.  Here are two examples.

Everything I touch
with tenderness, alas,
pricks like a bramble.
–Kobayashi Issa

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense
–Rolf Nelson

If you prefer, your poetry can wax on iambic pentameter.  It can refer to nature and death and symbolism and Zeus.  It can climb to great heights, compete for spots in Oxford Poetry textbooks and rival the likes of Keats or Shelley…

But once again, it doesn’t have to.  Poetry can lack rhythm and rhyme. You can poetize about construction, socks, work, or culinary issues and, yes, be poetic.  Just catch those colorful phrases on the page, add a few extra syllables and some meaning, swirl it around, and you still have a poem.

(5) Writing to problem-solve

man with large penSometimes stress bumps about in our heads with no end, distracting and prickly, making it difficult to get through the hour, never mind decipher our thoughts.

If that sounds familiar to you, consider problem-solving on paper.  Seeing your issues clarified and organized on paper can be immensely therapeutic, and writing tends to force a person forward, naturally pushing for purpose and solution.

There are many ways to problem-solve.  Here’s a quick two-step process.

Step One

Each day as you sit to write, figure out what’s bothering you.  Make a list.  Usually it’s a flood of issues: “I’m unhappy growing old,” “My professor doesn’t like me,” “I need to stop this anxiety,” “I don’t know how to deal with my diabetes,” “I’m overwhelmed with this new class I’m taking.”  Jot down your list.  What are the problems you’re dealing with?  What keeps you up at night?  What would you like to improve?

Step Two

Choose one issue at a time and problem-solve.  The words “problem-solve” answer the question, “what can you do to make things better?”  Do your best to resolve or come to peace with each stressor.

Sometimes you’ll have an “ah-ha!” moment, when the perfect solution suddenly shifts into place.  Usually life is more tricky than that.  If needed, come up with as many solutions as you can and choose one that works best for you.

problem solution solution solutionIf you’re at a loss, no worries.  Consider one of the following stress-busting approaches to get you started:

  • Change your actions.  What actions can you take to improve your current situation?  If the solution is complicated, break it down into steps.  If you’re doing something harmful to yourself or others, promise yourself to stop.
  • Alter your point of view (POV).  If you’re not happy with your life, change your point of view.  That is, look for a different, healthier perspective.
  • Adjust your reaction.  Change the way you react to the situation — emotionally, physically, or thought-wise.  Often, by responding to something differently, you break the cycle and shift things in a different direction.
  • Change your environment.  If something in the environment is causing you problems, remove that “something” in a healthy way or go somewhere else.
  • Keep working on it.  If the problem is so immense or complicated that you can’t wrap your head around it (never mind come up with solutions), give yourself 24 hours and come back to your notebook tomorrow to try again.
  • Accept what’s outside your control.  When there’s nothing you can do about a problem, accept it and come up with a plan to live with it.  This is called “radical acceptance.”

There are hundreds of other stress-busting maneuvers.  Again, no matter what your approach, focus on resolving or coming to peace with the issue.

Make sure to problem-solve all dilemmas on your list, plus check-in with your journal every day and adjust your plans as needed.

Other types of journaling

There are probably more methods to journaling than there are people in this world.  It’s impossible to cover them all, but don’t forget the following:

  • Art diaries
  • Gratitude diaries
  • Travel diaries
  • Multimedia journals
  • Rewriting life as fiction
  • Dream journals
  • Project journals
  • Prayer diaries

Up to trying any of the methods listed above?  If I’ve missed any super-cool or effective journaling techniques or you have something to add, please let me know.


5 thoughts on “Journal like your life depends on it

  1. Have just come across your blog – it’s an incredible resource and deserves to be widely followed. Thank you! This post is really timely for me – I have recently started blogging, and it has reminded me that I used to have a practise of journalling / poetry writing, that I’ve lost over the past few years. It was so fulfilling, calming and enriching. Thanks for the encouragement – I’ll think about buying a new notebook! All the best (Elle)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear Mind Palaver (Dr. Elle),
      Thanks for the compliment! I appreciate your feedback and am glad the post was helpful for you. I hope you do buy that notebook, ideally to write poetry again You have a poignant voice in your blogs, poignant with a smidge of humor (humor despite moments that clearly hurt), and I can’t help but imagine there’s an incredible poet underneath all that. Good luck to you with whatever you do. Keep writing, keep blogging, and write some poetry!

      Liked by 2 people

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