Journaling does not work for everyone. In fact, there are many people out there who find writing about their thoughts and feelings is MORE anxiety-inducing than keeping everything bottled up. On the other hand, reflection and reflective writing are scientifically supported self-care tactics.
So why do some people benefit from journaling, while others do not? What can we do differently? Just in time for the New Year, this article explores some tried and true reflection tactics, as well as some helpful prompts to start your wellness journey.
Reflection in Writing
Oh, you’re stressed? You should try journaling! Keep a diary. Write about your feelings.
How often is this solution provided in response to anxious, depressed, or just troubled thoughts? A quick Google search will yield thousands of results for journal prompts. Another one will give you hundreds of articles about why you should start journaling.
But, and this is a big but, journaling isn’t a cure-all. In some cases, it can create or worsen rumination. Rumination is the fancy word for unhealthy brooding or repetitive negative thinking. Brooding is an action that is associated with poor mental health, symptom magnification, and poor clinical outcomes. Journaling can contribute to replaying negative scenarios or experiences.
Why? How could something that is supposedly good for you make your health worse?
It comes down to how you are journaling.
What are you focusing on? Are you incorporating positive messaging into your reflection? Do you focus on the problem or mistake, or do you look at solutions?
Ullrich and Lutgendorf (2002) conducted a study that assessed the benefits of three types of journaling:
- Cognitions and emotions-focused
- Factual writing
In this study, participants who focused on cognition and emotions following a traumatic event reported more cognitive and emotional awareness. Those who wrote solely about their emotions reported worse symptoms.
Based on this single study, it is clear that not all journaling tactics are created equal. This article explores how to journal in a way that actually supports your mental health!
The Right Way To Journal
A huge problem with the wealth of information of daily journaling and reflection is that it does not tell you how to effectively harness the power of reflection. While writing about your feelings can be very beneficial, for some, it is just not enough.
In my personal experience, I have built my journaling habit on four cornerstones:
- Mindful emotion
- Gratitude & lessons learned
Unfortunately, I cannot promise that this method will help everyone. It probably won’t! As individuals, we all have unique and complex needs. However, this tried and proven process has been beneficial for my own mental health, and I hope you will find some benefit.
So, let’s get into it!
I am not a fan of news-based journalism. Personally, I find it can be quite dry and that it removes a lot of the fun of writing. HOWEVER, in the context of personal journaling, I write like a reporter. (At least at first.)
Well, writing as objectively as I can about a situation helps me put it into perspective. What happened? Who was involved? What other important details were factored into the event?
When I am describing an event, I try to stick to the facts, even if I am upset with a situation or a person. Events can become so blown up in our heads that it can be difficult to think about them rationally. If I am annoyed with my brother, and focus on that annoyance instead of the events that led to it, I am a lot more likely to hold a grudge.
Alternatively, when I describe WHY I am annoyed with him and what actually happened, I usually realize that there were other factors (like maybe being hungry) that contributed to my annoyance.
And, bear with me, this is not intended to gaslight yourself into thinking you have no right to be upset! For me, objectively detailing an event also helps me affirm my emotions. By writing about the event truthfully, I protect myself from downplaying my own reaction.
Lastly, it helps to remember that you will be giving your emotions the limelight shortly. The descriptive aspect of journaling is simply to understand the facts of the situation.
Humans are emotional beings. It doesn’t matter what anyone says about logic or rationality. We need to feel our emotions because they tell us VERY important things about our situation. ESPECIALLY when we are journaling, we need to heed how and why we feel the way we do about something.
On the other hand, spiraling into a pit of depression because you told your waiter “you too” when they said, “enjoy your meal” is, frankly, unhealthy.
This is why mindful emotion is such a critical part of effective journaling. Mindfulness is incredibly helpful for managing our reactions to the world we live in and regulating our stress response.
When we are journaling, we have to feel. One of the main reasons I do journal is so I can feel and process emotions that I may not be able to express at the moment. Was I angry, annoyed, saddened? Did that situation make me uncomfortable?
Another essential aspect of this step is not judging your emotions. Just state them.
Maybe you saw your ex on a date with another person, and you were jealous. At this stage of journaling, you don’t have to rationalize your jealousy or convince yourself it didn’t matter. You were jealous. That’s that.
Or, perhaps you received some very harsh criticism about a project you worked on. It hurt – a lot. Enough that you were holding back tears in the office. How did it make you feel? Write it down. Don’t analyze the criticism or your worth as a person. Just describe how it made you feel.
This step is about self-validation. Our emotions are not wrong. We need to recognize how we feel before we can process a situation healthily. If you need to cry in this step, just let it out.
Let’s quickly recap. By this point, you have written about the situation like a news reporter. You have also taken the time to detail how the situation made you feel.
That’s awesome! Both of those steps are SO important for effective journaling.
But, that’s not all there is to it.
Remember, Ullrich and Lutgendorf recommend incorporating emotion-based and cognition-based processing while journaling. That is where reflection comes in.
This is a tricky step, and it takes practice. In many ways, we are not taught how to constructively reflect on our situations. Sometimes, we just don’t reflect at all! Other times, we spiral into an existentialist pit of self-degradation.
Therefore, there are two critical aspects I would like to highlight for reflection.
Reflection: What We Know & What We Don’t
There is a lot of uncertainty in life. For example, we can never truly know what another person is thinking. Especially if it was some random person who yelled at us in the grocery store.
When starting this journal entry, you described the facts of the situation. Hopefully, you also described how that situation made you feel.
These descriptions are your anchor. There are gaps, things you will never know, and variables that will never even cross your mind. Your job is not to fill in those gaps with assumptions.
When we reflect, we reflect on ourselves. We cannot account for the actions of other people. And, it is okay to not know. It is actually very helpful to write that you don’t know why someone may have acted the way you did. The FACT of the matter is you probably don’t know!
So what am I saying here?
Focus on the facts. Reflect on how those facts made you feel. If the situation has repeated with the same person, you may be able to draw on patterns or past experiences, but it is best to reflect on each situation as a discrete, separate event.
NOTE: Sometimes people have a bad day, and they are unnecessarily rude. However, if someone is abusive (verbally, physically, emotionally, or sexually) their excuses/reasonings have no right to influence how that abuse made you feel. Abuse, especially from someone close to you, does not deserve an explanation. If you are safe, I encourage you to pursue counseling with the abusive party to mitigate the problem or remove yourself from the situation especially if you recognize that this abuse has become a pattern.
Personally, this step of journaling is the real reason I do it.
Once you have described what happened, how you feel, and recognized that you only have your own perspective, you can begin to analyze the situation.
- Why do you think the situation made you feel the way you did?
- How and why did you react the way you did?
- Could you have reacted to the situation better in the moment? Did you escalate the situation unnecessarily?
- Were there other factors that may have influenced your reaction?
- Was your reaction truly justified? How could you react more positively in the future?
For example, say you saw your ex on a date with another person. Naturally, you got jealous, and maybe you confronted them!
Afterward, you felt very ashamed of the scene you created, and your ex blocked you after you tried to apologize.
This step of the journaling process allows you to recognize that you had already been having a bad day (missed the bus, ran out of milk for coffee, your roommate snored all night, and kept you awake). Therefore, before you even saw your ex and their date, you were in a bad mood.
But, despite these other factors, you also realize you should have just kept walking. You and your ex had ended on relatively good terms. There were few lingering feelings. You had no right to feel as possessive as you did over someone who deserves to be happy.
You also come to recognize that maybe your ex was right to block you. They have the right to set boundaries. It would have been nice for them to accept your apology, but you were in the wrong, and they have the right to feel their own feelings.
Gratitude & Lessons Learned
After describing the situation, feeling our feelings, and working to understand why we reacted the way we did, it is critical to end our journaling session on a positive note.
You may be making a face and thinking, “How can I be grateful for a situation that made me look crazy? People were recording my tantrum on their phones! It’s already on TikTok!”
Be that as it may, we are all human and we all make mistakes. It’s cliche, I know, but it’s a cliche for a reason. Because it’s true. Maybe you could have reacted more positively, but after something happens, you can’t change it.
But, you can learn from it!
Let’s take a look at another situation. Maybe you received some harsh feedback from work, and you started crying in your office. Criticism can be hard to take. However, through the journaling process, you realize that the criticism was actually very valid and great advice! You also recognize that your work performance has been suffering due to stress from the pandemic, and your own deteriorating mental health.
Once you have realized that, you can schedule a meeting with your boss (who is very sweet and does her best to make the workplace a positive one) and discuss how to fix your project while keeping in mind your own mental health.
Through the journaling process, you can end on a grateful note and recognize that your experience has taught you a valuable lesson! That lesson might be to be more vocal about your mental health, or it may be as simple as confirming that you understand what the client is asking for!
Unfortunately, there are some situations where gratitude can be hard to find. If you are grieving a loss, for example, it can be hard or impossible to be thankful for that loss.
As complex beings, we can be devastated about an outcome, and still find positives to focus on. In the case of loss and grief, perhaps you are crying, angry, in doubt, bargaining, or coping in whatever ways possible! However, you may also be recognizing the good times before that loss, the memories, and the laughter.
In other scenarios (such as the scene with the ex), perhaps it is comforting to remember the wonderful job you have. Maybe you have a pet who can offer you comfort. Perhaps it is as simple as being grateful for the fact that exercise can help you process your feelings.
Gratitude plays an important role in re-wiring our brain to focus on the positives around us. It hits the breaks on the ruminative tendencies many of us lean towards! That is why I always make an effort to end every journal entry by focusing on the positives of a situation, even if they can be hard to see at first. You’d be surprised how many positives there actually are!
Harnessing the Power of Reflection
Journaling and reflection are not easy. They are skills that we have to practice and develop. Moreover, even incorporating each of these steps, journaling may not be a self-care habit that you find beneficial. And that is okay.
On the other hand, these four cornerstones (description, mindful emotion, reflection, and gratitude & lessons learned) are critical to an effective and positive journaling experience. Furthermore, these steps are especially integral to journaling through a traumatic or upsetting experience. While they are also beneficial for positive situations, they provide a step-by-step recipe to process complex emotions and events.
Moreover, these steps are reflected in many professional reflective practices:
This just goes to show that journaling is much more than a self-care tactic! It can also play an important role in improving our academic, professional, and community performance.
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