How to Tap Into the Healing Power of Journaling + 7 Prompts to Get You Started

Writing down one's thoughts and feelings can be therapeutic because words are powerful tools to self-discovery, healing and empowerment

Woman writing in her diary / journaling

Journaling is like having a conversation with the self. Delving into your personal history, insights and dreams gives you the opportunity to come to terms with significant events in your past. You also have the chance to move to a better understanding of the person you were, and have become.

When you write about a past event that has blocked you, you release the blockage and let life flow more freely. Honesty, however, is paramount in journal writing. You cannot hide yourself behind your own words.

You Can Be Yourself in Your Journal

A journal is the only place where you’re totally, absolutely and completely free to be yourself. It is the perfect refuge for the many irritations, conflicts, disappointments and stresses life throws at you. It allows you to ramble with no sense of direction, to indulge in cliches, to be irrational, and to lament.

“The most important thing,” says Eldonna Edwards Bouton, author of Loose Ends: A Journaling Tool for Tying Up the Incomplete Details of Your Life and Heart, “is not to judge yourself or let any other critics, real or imagined, into the room when you write. If you’re intimidated by a blank page, begin by asking yourself: ‘What do I need?’ or ‘How do I feel about ______?’ Use ‘I feel’ instead of ‘I think,’ when you write, so the inner knowledge comes from your heart instead of your head.”

Bouton adds, “When you release your stories on page [or, a screen], you make room for new truths. The page listens without judgement. At times, your journal may be the best friend you have. Write as if no one will ever read your words, but you. Within the safety of your pages, you face your demons and, suddenly, they lose their power over you. Don’t hold on to them, either. Turn the page. Forgive. Move on.”

The Healing Benefits of Journaling

The benefits of journaling are many:

1. It helps release and review your emotions

Journaling provides a safe space to express and process emotions. It allows you to explore and understand your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, helping to promote emotional well-being and self-awareness.

2. Lowers stress

As science as shown, journaling helps lower stress levels. Writing down your thoughts and feelings allows you to offload your worries, anxieties, and frustrations onto the page, helping to alleviate emotional tension and promote a sense of calm.

3. Brings clarity

Writing down your thoughts can help “unjumble” them, bringing clarity and perspective on situations. When your journal about the problems you are facing, it can lead to new insights and solutions that you probably never occurred to you.

4. Self-reflection and personal growth

Journaling is, by its very nature, an activity of self-reflection and self-discovery. Writing down your thoughts regularly enables you to track your progress, set goals, and identify patterns or areas for personal growth and improvement. It also assists in creating an action plan to improve the quality of your life, and [re]discover your dreams, goals and strengths.

Science Shows the Journaling Promotes Healing and Wellbeing

Researchers have found that people who write about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding upsetting events tend to have stronger immunity and visit their doctors half as often as those who only write about trivial events. Holding on to feelings of anger and grief stops you from experiencing life to the fullest. Sometimes, writing a letter to someone who has hurt you is the closest you can get to closure. It is a way of letting go of the past, so you can begin to live in the present.

A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology examined the effects of expressive writing on individuals with PTSD. The researhers, J M Smyth and J W Pennebaker found that participants who spent time expressing themselves in words experienced reduced PTSD symptoms and improved psychological wellbeing compared to those in the control group.

Another study titled Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, studied the impact of journaling on stress reduction and emotional wellbeing. It found that people who engaged in expressive writing experienced greater emotional release, reduced distress, and improved physical health outcomes.

How to Tap Into the Healing Power of Journaling

Journaling allows you to reassess life events, be it trauma or triumph. Your words cannot change the past, but they can provide a context in which you understand it better and master the lessons that lie within or without. The idea is to write about the good and the bad, so you don’t end up sounding like a miserable person with a lousy life. The secret is to find a healthy balance between the positive and the negative.

There is no right or wrong way to begin a journal. Just take a deep breath and start writing. As an initiation exercise you’d like to begin with a dedication to someone who impacted your life. Or, work with a theme: dreams, nature or people.

Write a letter to a person you have unresolved issues with. Record a slice of family history. Preserve the priceless tales of your past. Maybe, you’d like to write only for yourself. The purpose is to open up that valve of honesty and channel your innermost thoughts, feelings, desires, frustrations and dreams into your journal. Saving a journal entry, or trashing it, is entirely up to you, but the process is an invaluable release of emotion.

How and where do you start your journaling practice?

  1. First, have a journal and pen in place
  2. Next, get started: your first day of school, your first memory, your first crush, or your first period
  3. Write with a pen that feels good in your hand and leaves you wanting to write more
  4. Allow your thoughts to unfurl on paper. Think of times that work best for you. Is it the calm freshness of early morning? Or, would it be the stillness of the night and its chores put to bed? Whatever time you choose, shut the outside world and its chaos out
  5. Listen to the quiet within. Meditate on paper
  6. Dating each entry provides a context and helps you see how far you’ve traveled on your writing journey.

Here are a few tips to help you with your journaling experiment

  • Set a regular time for journaling everyday. Promise yourself you’ll write for at least 15 minutes 3-4 times a week
  • Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, right and wrong. Just write anything that comes to your mind freely
  • It is okay to write about the same thing on the 3–4 days you’ve set for yourself. Or, write something new each day. The choice is yours
  • If you feel uninspired, look for writing prompts online to nudge your thoughts
  • Find a quiet spot, a place where you’re not likely to be interrupted, and retire there daily. Use colored ink to write on different pages. Or, color-code your entries depending on your mood
  • Add patterns, or borders, to highlight, or create page divisions.

7 Journaling Prompts to Get You Started

  1. Write a letter to your former self. Write with compassion. What suggestions would you make to yourself? What makes you proud of yourself and how have you changed since then?
  2. Write about forgiveness. Do you have anything or anybody that you need to forgive? How has harboring anger or resentment impacted your wellbeing? What actions can you take to forgive and let go?
  3. Examine the limiting ideas or self-talk that you frequently use. Put each one to the test by writing them down. Replace them with optimistic statements or realistic viewpoints.
  4. Describe three positive aspects of your personality; also mention why you chose them. Celebrate your accomplishments, good traits, and talents.
  5. Write about a circumstance or a relationship that you have been having trouble with. How do you feel and what are your opinions about it? How can you tackle this situation with kindness and respect for both yourself and others?
  6. Describe a place or activity that brings you joy and peace. How does that activity or surrounding make you feel? How can you increase its presence in your life?
  7. Write about a time in your life when you felt hurt or deceived. How has it affected you? What actions can you do to get over this hurt and earn back your trust?

This is an updated version of the article that first appeared in the February 2007 issue of Complete Wellbeing magazine.

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