Many of us have grown up keeping a diary – a secret place where we jotted down our secrets, stories and experiences. Those who still have their childhood diaries probably treasure them like a jewel, since diaries are a reminder of who we were and how we felt; in some ways, diaries make us feel like we have changed very little in our core, despite the many experiences and people who have shaped us.
Journaling, once considered an adolescent pastime, is now a buzzword in a variety of settings – everywhere from rehabilitation centers for substance abuse, to clinics where young men and women overcome eating disorders.
The journaling boom is the result of various studies which indicate that the practice has many previously unknown benefits that are particularly useful when we are going through challenging times – as addiction, eating disorders, depression or anxiety can be.
- It helps human beings reduce depression and grief reactions and improves outcomes (including reduced stress, better immune function and lesser digestive issue symptoms).
- It enables us understand people, experiences and situations better, enabling us to find meaning from difficulties and suffering.
- It enables us to give shape to repressed feelings, thus reducing the burden of keeping them inside.
- It increases our capacity for working memory: one study published in 2001 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that expressive diary writing enhanced participants’ ability to re-visit and update ideas, and enhance their ability to remember facts.
- It helps us prioritize issues and goals in our lives.
- It helps us identify triggers that can lead to a relapse (in the case of addiction) or to episodes of anxiety and/or depression. By consulting our journal, we may find that certain people or situations increase our stress burden. We can then create a strategy to avoid these triggers and make better progress during our recovery.
- It can help us discover our symptoms, setbacks and successes. Self-awareness is key towards leading a happier life.
- It can help us identify our passions in life, possibly prompting a change in our careers.
- It reveals the negative or self-defeating thoughts and self-talk that can stand in the way of progress.
- It can help us understand ambiguous feelings towards quitting self-destructive habits like drug taking. Quitting isn’t always cut-and-dried and it is important to grieve for the part of drug taking an addict may have enjoyed – this can include social aspects, the feeling of a ‘high’, the party lifestyle…
There are many types of journal to choose from:
Including keeping a diary
(in which you list down your experiences of the day); a reflection journal (in which you write down a significant event that occurred and reflect on how you reacted to it); a gratitude journal (in which you list down the things and people you are grateful for); and a goal-focused journal (in which you set goals and list down the ways you plan on achieving them.
The goals may be as simple as speaking kindly to others, or more complex, such as refraining from indulging in illicit substances, despite feeling strong urges or temptations).
How to keep a journal
A journal is no good if you plan on filling it in once then neglecting it for days. To truly discover more
about yourself and use the journal as an aid in achieving an important goal such as rehabilitation, you need to write regularly. Aim to write once a day, preferably at night time when the house is quiet and you can reflect on the day’s most important events. Give yourself a minimum of 20 minutes for journaling and review your entries every few days. If you worry about forgetting important events that take place throughout the day, jot them down in piece of paper and expand on your notes later, during journaling time.
If you have writer’s block or you feel like your thoughts or emotions are stuck, take part in a reflective activity such as a nature walk, which has been found to reduce levels of stress hormone, cortisol.
and breathing exercises can also be very helpful to encourage a creative state. There are numerous free apps and online activities which will guide you through a meditation or breathing session.
Unstructured writing can also work – just jot down anything you are feeling, even if the words do not seem coherent; often, free writing can reveal repressed thoughts and feelings.