One of the best ways to relieve stress and process emotional issues is essentially free, easy,—and it’s something you learned how to do in grade school. We’re talking about journaling.
The simple act of describing ones feelings helps people to clear their minds, makes them less anxious, and makes them happier. “Various studies indicate that writing can improve sleep, immune function, and general physical health. Others indicate that writing helps people to clear their minds, makes them less anxious, and makes them happier,” says James W. Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin. So to make 2019 the year you pick up a journal again, here’s what you need to start.
Find Your Journaling Routine
When it comes to creating a self-care ritual you’ll actually stick with, establishing a routine is key. “Have a specific set time and place where you write,” advises Laura Rubin, the founder of Allswell Creative, a line of journals and a series of workshops that encourage self-expression and self-examination. “It’s about creating the rituals that work for you—there really is no wrong way to do this. There’s no bad, there’s just do.” Pennebaker doesn’t demand daily journaling or any specific cadence, saying ultimately, there is no absolutely true answer as to the right way to journal. “You have to be your own scientist and try to analyze what works for you,” he says.
Focus on Feelings
When researchers talk about the benefits of writing for stress relief, they’re actually talking about something called “expressive writing,” jotting down positive or negative life experiences, rather than creative stories. “Expressive writing is aimed at trying to understand and come to terms with difficult events. Creative writing, in my mind, is playing with new ideas,” says Pennebaker, who is the world’s leading researcher on the benefits of expressive writing. While beginning to write may very well get your creative juices flowing, for maximum health benefits, focus your journal on events in your own life and explore your feelings around those events.
Carve Out 15-20 minutes
“My personal solution is to focus on the stressful event and try to understand why it is so stressful for me. Why am I feeling the way I am? What is going on?” says Pennebaker. His suggestion is to simply write for 15-20 minutes to get a handle on the event, and your reactions to it. “If trying to understand the stressful event isn't helpful, you can work to look for some positive features of the event, or something positive that may come from it.” Rubin also recommends a timer to provide some structure to free-writing.
Try a Prompt
Some people find it easier to begin writing when they are given a prompt that directs them to a topic, like writing assignments in high school when the teacher asked the class to describe their happiest or saddest childhood memories. “Sometimes I take a week or a month and I give myself a theme or an idea to explore,” says Rubin. But this approach definitely isn’t for everyone. “If you liked writing in school you may love having a prompt, if you didn’t you might find it restrictive or exhausting." Bottom line: If it doesn’t work for you, don’t force it.
Using a Journal or Computer May Not Matter
While Rubin believes wholeheartedly in the neurological benefits of writing by hand (and there’s some scientific evidence to support that theory), Dr. Michael Smith, an Associate Professor in Psychobiology and Health Psychology at the University of Northumbria in England, says it might not matter. “The most important thing is to take some time, free of distraction, to re-experience the emotions associated with whatever event you’re writing about,” he says. “It is likely that there are some groups of people, such as teenagers, who may prefer and feel more comfortable with typing on a computer or smartphone than using a physical diary.”
Mix Up Your Routine
“There is emerging evidence suggesting that a range of creative outlets can be beneficial for health and wellbeing,” says Smith. Rubin adds blank pages to her journal for exactly this reason—even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, giving yourself the freedom to draw and experiment gives you more options for expressing yourself. Pennebaker says that while other outlets for creative expression such as art, music, or dance can be helpful, their effects can be more trustworthy if they are done in conjunction with writing or talking.
To Keep or Not to Keep?
Rubin says that one of the most common concerns she hears about journaling, especially from moms, is that they’re afraid someone is going to read it. “Some people have had the experience of having someone read their diary and it’s traumatic. If you’re afraid of an external audience, write it, read it, and then throw it out,” she says. While plenty of journalers like to look back, to see where they were, either way is okay. Even writing with your finger on a blank surface could have benefits, Pennebaker says, because the important thing is putting your feelings into words.