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Writing Therapy: Journaling as a Form of Self Care

Writing Therapy: Journaling as a Form of Self Care

When suggesting coping strategies and self care tips, many counselors and therapists will recommend journaling. Indeed, it can be very liberating to get all your thoughts and feelings down on paper. However, the word “journaling” is vague and many people find it intimidating to stare at a blank sheet of paper. Furthermore, there is often pressure to turn your pain or sadness into something beautiful or profound. But expressing your emotions doesn’t have to mean poetry or a deeply insightful piece of writing. In fact, journaling can be messy, mundane, or written in very plain language. There’s no right way to do it and the content can be whatever you want.

In this article, we will focus on 3 areas in which journaling can help: dealing with anxiety, promoting positivity, and problem solving.

Anxiety is a problem that many people deal with, whether it’s related to school, work, relationships, family, health issues, or any number of other causes. Often we sit with anxiety in our day-to-day activities without even realizing it’s there or questioning its existence. While stress is a normal part of life, feelings of anxiety can worsen if we ignore them. Often when we truly dive into the root causes of our anxiety, we realize our problems are simpler than we thought and we end up feeling lighter.

One quick, easy exercise to start with is a 5 minute stream of consciousness. The premise is simple: for 5 minutes, put your pen to paper and write anything that’s on your mind. Often the negative thoughts and anxieties will come first (I have to finish this paper by tomorrow, traffic getting home is going to be awful, etc.) Let these thoughts come and release them onto your paper. Doing so can help us realize that these things had been subconsciously stressing us out. Of course, bigger problems might be at the forefront of your mind and may take longer to write out, but writing them down can feel like a breath of fresh air.

To make this exercise more helpful, you can follow it with a mindfulness exercise, which is, in a way, the opposite. Rather than looking inside at your thoughts and feelings, you turn your focus outwards toward your environment and physical sensations. Describe your surroundings, noting anything you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. Much like meditation, doing this can help you transcend your inner chaos and be in the present. Take note of how you feel after doing this exercise compared to the stream of consciousness exercise.

The next area we will focus on is positivity. When discussing this topic, I think it’s important to point out that being optimistic doesn’t mean ignoring or invalidating feelings. It’s become a bit of a trend to throw around phrases like “good vibes only” or “look on the bright side,” which are usually well-intentioned, but can come off as dismissive to those facing serious problems or mental illness. The reality is no one can be positive and happy 100% of the time; rather, I think of positivity as a skill to be practiced and improved upon, much like meditation. Thus, the following positivity exercises are intended to help you train your mind to focus on the good things as much as possible. Being sad is ok, being angry is ok; more than anything, optimism is a tool you can use to get through difficult times.

An easy positivity exercise to start with is writing down a list of accomplishments from the past week. These don’t have to be anything huge; they can be small victories like finally figuring out how to work the new printer or getting on a good sleep schedule. Take a moment to appreciate each of these small victories and feel proud of yourself for what you’ve been able to do.

Another simple positivity exercise is writing down anything that made you smile in the past week. An extension of this is keeping an ongoing list of “reasons I’m happy to be alive” or something along those lines. Again, these can be small things, any moment that brought you joy. By taking the time to acknowledge good things in your life, you develop a greater awareness of what truly makes you happy, whether big or small.

Finally we will look at problem-solving through writing. Often times when we have an ongoing issue we’re dealing with, our brain is constantly coming back to it and toying with it throughout our day. We get anxiety envisioning the worst possible outcome, then reassure ourselves that things could actually turn out well, then get anxiety again because we fear we’re getting our hopes up…the vicious cycle continues. People have a tendency to see their own problems as the end of the world, but can see others’ issues from a much more objective and rational perspective. Similarly, we often blame ourselves and feel guilty about our own mistakes, but we’re generally more forgiving if a friend is telling us about their mistakes.

We’ll use this contrast in our first problem-solving exercise: first, write down the problem you’re having from your perspective. Then, read it again and imagine a friend is telling you this problem. You can even make up a character and give them a name then envision them confiding in you about a similar issue. How would you reply? What are things you could say to reassure them? Write down your response and reflect on how you feel afterwards. Ideally, this new perspective-taking should help you see the situation a little more objectively and be more forgiving and empathetic with yourself.

Another problem-solving exercise you can try is turning your situation into a story. Write what you’re dealing with, but in a third-person perspective, perhaps even giving a new name and identity to the protagonist (who’s based off of you). Again, notice how this perspective shifting changes your own view of the issue. Finally, end the story by writing about the final outcome of the problem. You can even write multiple endings: a best-case scenario, worst-case scenario, and most realistic scenario, but each scenario should include at least one positive thing that came from the situation, even in the worst-case scenario. As discussed earlier, we have a habit of jumping to the worst-case scenario, which is rarely what actually ends up happening. However, even negative outcomes can have positive streaks in them that you may not have even anticipated. After this exercise, reflect on how realistic the worst and best case scenarios are, then on how this situation could benefit you in the long run, perhaps from having a positive outcome or simply by being a learning experience.

Whether it’s managing anxiety, reinforcing positive thinking, or working out solutions to problems, journaling can be beneficial to anyone. That said, when problems are more severe and persistent, this may not be enough and professional help may be needed.

If so, book a session with one of our trained therapists.

By Claire Suisman

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