I recently started using journaling for self-care, as a way to manage negative emotions. When I feel sad, lonely, upset, or confused, I pick up my notebook and write it all down. Research has shown that journaling can have positive benefits on emotional wellness. While I don’t always reach a new state of understanding, I always notice an improved mood and a greater sense of calm after I journal and write down my thoughts and feelings.
When I think of journaling, I sometimes picture a six-year-old girl with a pink unicorn diary. I think a lot of us shrink from the practice because it seems somehow childish or silly. If we can get past that prejudice, we’re often still faced with the idea that we can’t keep a journal because we aren’t writers (or, if we are writers, because the writing won’t be good enough). We think that our words won’t make any sense, and we won’t be able to express ourselves eloquently. Of course, the inherent advantage of journaling is its privacy—no one will ever read your words. You don’t even have to read them if you don’t want to.
writing down my emotions has become the single most effective way I handle negative feelings and achieve clarity
Writing down my thoughts creates a place for them outside of my brain so that I no longer need to hold onto them. It’s like when you’re carrying bags of heavy groceries and finally set them down on the kitchen counter. You put them away in the places they belong, and then you are free of their physical weight and the cognitive load of remembering that you’re out of milk. In the same way, I can put distressing thoughts away in my journal where they belong, and afterward, I feel free of their emotional weight.
Writing down my thoughts and emotions has become the most effective way to handle negative feelings and achieve clarity. While different tactics work for everyone, I have found a few key ways to maximize the mental health benefits of journaling.
Only Write in Your Journal When You Feel Like it
Before I started journaling, I had a vague idea that a journal was some sort of commitment to keep, a new item to add to my to-do list. I imagined feeling guilty if I let a day or two go by without writing.
To avoid this, I only write in my journal when I start feeling unsettled. Sometimes, if something positive has happened that I want to remember, I’ll write that down too. But mostly, I only write when I am in need of comfort. That can be every day or once a month. I don’t date my entries, so there’s no invitation for self-judgment.
Write Without Editing
When I’m writing for a reader, I tend to stop to re-read and edit after every few sentences. When I’m journaling, I am careful to eschew this habit. I write as I think, without worrying about punctuation, diction, or run-on sentences. The goal of a journal, for me, is not the writing itself, but the organized thinking behind it. It doesn’t have to be correct, it doesn’t have to make sense, and it can be riddled with clichés.
Furthermore, I try not to censor my feelings. If I am feeling something selfish, unkind, or judgmental, I allow myself to write down those unacceptable thoughts. Feelings I would hesitate to share with even my closest friends can be admitted to a journal.
Write With a Pen and Paper
Because this is a self-care tactic, it’s important to keep all of the rules and requirements flexible. Sometimes I don’t have my physical journal or a notebook with me, and I need to write in a Word or Google document instead. But, when possible, I find that there is something particularly therapeutic about writing with a favorite, smooth pen in a small, canvas-bound book of lined paper.
For me, writing with a pen and paper tends to feel more personal and private than typing does. I also write much more slowly than I type, so I am forced to slow down my thoughts, which has a calming effect.
The next time you notice an unsettled emotional landscape, I invite you to pick up a pen and notebook or a piece of paper and write uninhibited for a few minutes. You’ll either waste a few minutes and a few sheets of paper, or you’ll discover a handy tool for self-care, as I have.