Journaling 101: A Beginners Guide to Writing Away Your Worries
by Catherine Morris | February 5, 2021, updated 10 months ago
I've kept a diary since I was 9 years old and even though some of my earliest entries still make me cringe ('Cottage pie for dinner AGAIN. Ugh'), it's a habit I've grown to depend on—not just as a way to chronicle my embarrassing juvenile ramblings but as a means to unburden and unwind.
It also might just be the only thing I have in common with geniuses like Einstein, Da Vinci and Ernest Hemingway, all of whom were reportedly big journalers. It's not just a good practice for creatives either, psychologists recommend daily journaling as an important therapeutic tool for maintaining mental health.
Hypnotherapist, counsellor, and life coach Magdalena Eid not only keeps a journal herself, she recommends it to all her clients—
"Journaling helps us express our deepest emotions by writing about what we are going through, what we are thinking and how we are feeling, and even more importantly, it helps us identify negative thought patterns and behaviours. By journaling daily, we can also track any emerging symptoms and spot the triggers so we can learn how to cope with them.”
Sometimes Eid even asks clients to start their journal before beginning treatment—giving them a chance to hone in on their issues, and her an opportunity to better tailor her therapy for their individual needs. “It helps us cut to the chase so we can start the transformation work immediately,” she explains.
Writing as Therapy
We all know by now the strong link between stress and disease. Know what causes stress?
Writing about these negative feelings (also known as 'expressive writing') has been a part of the established mental health toolkit since it first caught the attention of psychology researchers in the 1980s.
The first expressive writing experiment took place in 1983. The study found that students who spent 15 minutes a day writing about negative experiences from their past had fewer visits to the student health centre. Subsequent studies confirmed what the researchers theorized—that regular journaling leads to better mental health, in particular alleviating anxiety and overcoming past traumas.
Having a private outlet to communicate difficult emotions can be very powerful, and it's not just advisable for those dealing with trauma, pain, or anxiety. Almost anyone can benefit from putting their feelings down on paper, as Eid explains—
“Journaling can lay its magic on all aspects of our lives. Not only does it help us keep tabs on our progress and the changes in the way we feel about or perceive things. It can also be a way for us to connect to deeper parts of our being and to get in touch with stories, memories, thoughts, or feelings that would not have emerged otherwise. Journaling can increase our awareness of our internal and external environments so we can become more mindful, and boosts our emotional intelligence to great degrees.”
Types of Journaling
There's a lot of ways to journal, and finding what works for you may take some trial and error. Here's a handy guide to the different types you might want to try.
If you're new to journaling it's often helpful to let go of any expectations and take a free-form approach. You don't have to follow grammar rules, there's no need for any structure, the words don't even have to make sense. Just turn on the tap and watch what happens. Eid suggests,
“Just sit there and start writing, or typing, or drawing, or recording. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It doesn’t even have to be structured or in chronological order. Just start expressing, keeping in mind that all that is coming out is what really needs to be coming out.”
Also known as free writing, this journaling is all about letting go. Let go of preconceptions about what you want to write, let go of the fear that someone might see it, let go of the need to keep it neat. Embrace the messy mental clutter and see what happens. Chaotic emotions may surface, but, as Eid explains, it’s all part of the process—
“One way to use journaling as a way to bring about healing is to use it as a virtual punching bag to pour out all existing anger into it and then let go of it once and for all, as a way of forgiving what is past and gone. Journaling can help us explore our emotions wholly, let go of tension, and completely integrate and put together our experiences into our minds.”
Creative types — if you love words, you'll love where they can take you once you let them loose. Free-writing is a great way to fire up the imagination and play with language and even design. There's no rule that your free-writing even has to be writing! If you're more comfortable expressing yourself with doodles and drawings then have at it.
Beginners — free-writing is such an easy, natural process that it can be a good first step for anyone who's not familiar with journaling. Give it a whirl and if it's not for you, there are always other options to explore.
This is journaling done in short-form. It's concise, it's structured, and it's effective if you just need to get things done and move on. These journal entries are usually in bullet points or other list format. They can be to-do lists, pros and cons for a big decision, or a summarized recording of some life event. The idea is to keep it light and simple.
Busy professionals – bulleted lists are the easiest and fastest way to clear your head. If you're short on time and not prone to daydreaming or letting your thoughts wander, you'll probably be most comfortable with this type of journaling.
Type As – If the sight of colour-coded lists takes you to your happy place, you'll love keeping tidy notes. This journal doubles as both an emotional outlet and a diary-style reference to the daily minutiae of life. Detail-oriented and efficient personality types are great list makers.
Tech-heads – rather than writing longhand, bullet journaling is very keyboard-friendly and there's a ton of apps that you can use for your bulleted lists, as well as online calendars to make sure you're journaling regularly. Making use of all the technological tools at your disposal can help keep track of the lists and your progress.
Manifesting and Visualizing
Eid says—“Journaling can help us realize what we really want in life; it helps organize our thoughts and desires. One of my recommended ways to journal is to not only write about things that have happened or that we are feeling in the now, but also about dreams and aspirations so we can make it easier to achieve them.
“When you project yourself into the future and you write a detailed description of how you see the best version of yourself and how you feel after you have attained your goals and achieved your dreams, you make it easier for your subconscious mind to visualize and imagine all those things as if they have already happened so that it starts working on getting you there.”
Spiritual seekers — if you're prepared to take a long, hard look at where your inner self is tripping you up, a more mindful and meditative journaling practice can be helpful.
Forward planners — this type of journal looks to the future, while learning from past actions. Anyone wanting a change in 2021, planning a big move, or uncertain about their next steps could benefit from a visualization practice.
“If we want to live fantastic lives, then gratitude journaling should be a steady part of our daily lives,” says Eid. “Gratitude journaling helps boost our optimism and, ultimately, our happiness and health, and helps us make progress toward our goals.”
Eid encourages her clients to pick three things, big or small, to be grateful for every day, saying—
“This practice is especially important because the more grateful you are, the more your subconscious mind and the universe (or God, whatever you want to call it) gives you things to be grateful for. Gratitude invites abundance into our lives.”
Negative thinkers — studies show that people who regularly practice gratitude are less prone to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug or alcohol addiction, and PTSD.
Bad communicators — gratitude not only has a positive impact on your own thoughts, it also affects those around you. Thankful people tend to have more positive relationships as they're more inclined to forgive, communicate, and display more empathy.
Tips to Get Your Journal Started
The best way to start a journal is the most obvious—sit down and put pen to paper. If you're anything like me, it helps to have nice tools (I'm a sucker for stationary). So treat yourself to a crisp new notepad and enjoy that first flush of excitement that comes with a blank page before you (or is that just me?!).
Once you've got your tools, you might need a little help getting focused. Prompts can be a good way to get your brain going in the right direction. Since it's the start of a new year, you might want to ask yourself:
- What were your most transformative moments in 2020?
- What big changes happened in 2020, and how did you respond to those changes?
- What do you want to take into 2021 and what do you want to let go of?
- Did your idea of wellness shift over the past year?
- How will you recommit to yourself in 2021?
- Which relationships will you prioritize this year?
- What would a conversation between your past self and your future self look like?
- Which past traumas or memories continue to hold you back?
- What do you need more of this year?
Pick between one and three of the above, and write down the first things that come to mind. You might want to tackle one a day, several at a time or just brainstorm all of them.
The ‘WRITE’ Approach
For further guidance as you start your journal practice, Eid says it can be helpful to think of ‘write’ as an abbreviation:
- “Watch yourself from outside yourself and decide what it is you want to write about.”
- “Reveal your thoughts and emotions about it.”
- “Inspect and examine patterns and changes in your thoughts, emotions, and habits.”
- “Time yourself so that you spend enough time writing, but not all day.”
- “Embrace your emotions and accept yourself so you can let go of what no longer serves you.”
If you've got your journal going, congrats! Now you just have to keep it up… which is sometimes easier said than done.
Don't think of your new hobby as a New Year's resolution, but a lifelong practice. Eid says try all the different ways to see what suits you and then, as much as possible, integrate it into your routine. She says having that daily practice will quickly make a noticeable difference.
“I do it as a daily practice and I never miss a day. Sometimes, even if I am at the counter at the supermarket waiting for my turn or if I am in line waiting somewhere, I take the opportunity to journal using my phone.
“Clients say it has completely transformed their lives to the better and they cannot imagine themselves doing without it. The first thing everyone notices instantly is the sense of relief right after journaling or jotting down thoughts and feelings. Besides its countless benefits, it has the power to organize our minds and thoughts and by doing that, bit by bit, it helps us organize our entire lives.”
Journaling is a thought exercise, but it's also supposed to be fun so don't take on too much at once. If you feel anxiety or other negative thoughts intruding, take a breath, take a break and (if it's still too overwhelming) talk to a supportive friend, family member, or therapist.
Interested in creating your own journal? Need to talk to someone about developing your own mental health toolkit? Which Doctor has a range of counsellors, therapists and life coaches available for one on one consultation, group sessions, or virtual appointments available through our easy to use platform.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.