As someone who writes for a living, I know well the rewards of having written. But you don’t have to be a professional writer to gain from writing. Recent research shows that keeping a daily diary or journal not only is a great way to document your experiences and record your thoughts and feelings, but can also offer mental, emotional, and physical benefits.
For example, a study published in Psychology Commonsfound college students who examined their emotions through expressive writing experienced greater reductions in anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms. Similar results have been found in studies of women, older adults, and psychotherapy patients. In addition, journal writing, much as meditation and yoga, can aid in bringing on a state of mindfulness, which is now being viewed as a positive way to bring more personal happiness in our sped-up, increasing complex world.
Benefits of Journaling
Experts aren’t exactly sure how keeping a journal aids in anxiety and stress relief, but current thinking postulates that journaling:
- Allows you to sort out and clarify your thoughts and emotions.
- Permits you to truly examine your daily life and your life’s journey by getting your thoughts down on paper and then closely reading what you have written.
- Gives you time to reflect about your feelings and emotions so you can better understand them.
- Provides an outlet for expressing difficult emotions, such as frustration and anger, without acting out negatively
What pitfalls should you avoid?
Of course, you must avoid common mistakes that beginning journal and diary writers make if you want to use writing as a tool for a healthier lifestyle. In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Steven Strosny says your writing will actually be counterproductive if it:
- Makes you live too much in your head
- Makes you a passive observer of your life (thinking about how you’ll record it instead of experiencing what is happening)
- Makes you self-obsessed
- Becomes a vehicle of blame instead of solutions
- Wallows in negative things that have happened to you.
10 Tips for Journal-for-Better-Health Writing
Now you know what you shouldn’t do. So, what should you do? My 45 years as a writer and a teacher of writing leads me to offer these 10 suggestions for journal newbies:
- Use what you have seen, heard, and experienced as a writing prompt, but focus on your feelings, not facts. For example, it’s not important to record exactly what was said, but on how what you heard made you feel.
- While there is nothing wrong with writing strictly about you and your thoughts from time to time, try to focus more on your interactions with other people. You want to follow the Greek philosopher Socrates’ admonition to “know thyself,” but since you don’t live in isolation (unless you have chosen to be a hermit), you also want to come to understand how others affect you in different situations.
- If you are exploring a personal or social problem in your writing, make sure to examine solutions as well. The best solutions are those that align your emotions, motivations, and actions to your most strongly held core values.
- You want to make journaling a regular habit, preferably something you do daily. But like any new habit, it will take a while for you to internalize and feel comfortable with it. Pick a good writing time and stick to it. It might be the first thing you do when you wake up. It could be the last thing you do before you go to bed. It might even be different times on different days. The important thing is to write regularly.
- What you’re writing is merely a rough draft. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, and proper language use. The point is to get your thoughts on paper so you can reflect on them. You’re not creating a literary masterpiece, so don’t be hard on yourself.
- Set aside as much time as you can for writing. Writing is a slow process. I can teach you to speed read, but I can’t teach you to speed write. There is no such thing. As far as time is concerned, I would suggest 10 to 15 minutes daily as a starting point. You can always adjust your writing times later.
- Decide what tools you want to use to write. For example, I always make lists and take notes with pen and paper. But since I spent a decade as a journalist, I always write on a computer. That works for me. Find what works for you.
- Many experts suggest creating a writing space and place. I don’t follow that advice. I write in many places, both inside our apartment and outside of it. I get bored easily and I like to change my writing venues. Most times my writing place is dictated by what I’m writing. However, if you are first starting out, I think there is value to that one dedicated space/place idea.
- Journaling is always an experiment. If something isn’t working for you, try something else. Trust me – there is a way for you to write. All you have to do is find it.
- Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between creating a diary and creating a journal. A diary is personal writing to be read by you only. A journal is designed to eventually be read by others. While one is not necessarily better than the other, I would suggest you approach your work as journaling. That way, if you get really stuck, you can show your work to others to solicit their thinking and advice.
As you can see from this article, there is no one right way to keep a diary or a journal. Since that’s true, it’s good to hear from many different people if you are getting ready to begin composing daily diary or journal entries. Do you have any tips or don’t-do’s that might help people just starting out with their personal writing process?