Journaling for Beginners: A Guide to reduce your stress and solve your problems

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My passion for writing started at the age of eleven when I began journaling.

As a child, I treasured my time at the library and local bookstore. My father fueled this passion by encouraging me to devour books. I remember how excited I felt when he asked me what I wanted for my eleventh birthday. I proudly announced that I wanted to start writing, and he helped me select my first journal, a fabric woven book with red and white polka-dots.

You’d be surprised … it’s been over 20 years and I still have this journal.

A journal with two pens

I laugh when I read the entries that my eleven year old self wrote. The little things that I found to be so important or exciting, are now funny and intriguing.

Looking back, I now know that this red and white polka-dotted journal was a safe space for me to put words to my thoughts and feelings, knowing that it was only for me and nobody else.

My collection of journals

Now in my late 30’s, I have quite a large collection of journals. The journals I’ve kept from high school, college, living abroad in Spain and traveling around in Europe. I also have journals from the in-between times, when I felt tormented and confused about where my life was heading.

I even have a few journals that I have kept with friends. We would exchange them every so often. The journal was a way of keeping track of our life, our shared experiences and a place to store our secrets.

A cup of tea on top of 5 journals

It’s fun and inspiring to look through my old journals because it gives me a glimpse into my past self and my history. I have found that journaling has been an activity that has provided a non-judgmental space for me to vent, brainstorm and be creative.

Journaling for my self-care

Journaling is also a big part of my self-care. I know that no matter what is happening externally, my journal will help me get through the grief, pain, anxiety or the excitement and joy of what I am going through at the time.

A cup of tea and a pen on top of an open journal

The beauty of journaling is that it “gives voice to your feelings.” Having a space to write is a way to channel parts of your mind that you didn’t know existed, until you started accessing them.

How journaling helps you deal with your feelings

A lot of people sensor themselves when they write. I think the reason this happens is because they are afraid that once they write down their thoughts or feelings, those thoughts automatically become true.

Or perhaps they are afraid that someone will find out what they wrote, so they don’t put it down on paper.

A stamp that says Top Secret on a piece of paper

Try to think of your journal as a secret log that no one will look at. You can write things in it that you don’t necessarily want to share with others.

Journaling is conducive to helping you cope better with your emotions. Writer Sophie Gray talks about her experience on how journaling helped her deal with severe panic and anxiety attacks. Studies have also illustrated that journaling helps lower our stress and anxiety levels because we are able to start healing when we start writing.

How journaling helps with stress & anxiety

Writing is a great tool for you if you’re stressed, worried or anxious. Once you start writing down the thoughts and feelings you have, you can distance yourself from them. This distance is a pause that helps you re-assess and think about what is real, versus what stories you have made up in your head.

I love the way NY Times writer Hayley Phelan describes her experience of using journaling as a self-care tool in her article “What’s All This About Journaling?” and relate to how she feels like it helps your wounds heal faster.

A man with glasses sitting on a couch and writing in a journal

As a licensed clinical social worker, I oftentimes assist my clients using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is an effective way to help people challenge their thoughts and beliefs.

If you want to try this technique in your journal, you can use a CBT worksheet, which helps you think about your thinking.

Traditional CBT therapists use these worksheets (also called a thought record) by asking you a series of questions. Next, they facilitate you through the process of identifying your negative thoughts, challenging those thoughts and over time, changing them. Through this process, you begin feeling better because you are able to shift your way of thinking.

How does journaling help with your problems?

Journaling is a great problem-solving tool because you can break down a problem and come up with solutions, alternatives and different approaches to take.

“Writing is a way of communicating with yourself, it provides a container for your thoughts and feelings.”

Dr. Diana Raab “Writing for Bliss

When you can physically see your thoughts on paper, you can actually step away from them. The problems are written down on paper, they are tangible and you can start distancing yourself away from whatever is not true.

Writing helps create a gap between me and my thoughts. Once you put it down on paper, you will begin to realize the ruminating thoughts, step away and get some perspective.

A woman with a pen in her hand thinking

Remember, writing takes courage and it’s cathartic. It is a way of getting feelings and thoughts out of your system, rather than internalizing them and making them part of who you are.

Top 5 steps to start journaling

#1 Find your medium

Ask yourself where you want to store your writing. Do you prefer writing on paper or do you like to write on a computer?

A woman typing on a laptop

I prefer writing on paper because it’s easier for me to jot my thoughts down. So figure out your medium, and either buy a journal or use your computer.

I love my leather-bound journal because of the paper and the binding feels like it’s safely securing my thoughts and feelings. For everyday notes, ideas and my to-do lists, I like the Mead composition books because they are light, affordable, and easy to carry around.

#2 Find your perfect writing tool

Do you like using a pen or pencil to write with? My favorite gel pen is the PILOT G2 Rolling Ball Pen because the ink flows freely and you don’t have to press hard to get traction. You can also use different gel pens for inspiration. Since my favorite color is purple, I like to use the Uni-ball Vision pen as well.

#3 Establish a ritual

It’s important to establish a ritual before you sit down to write. Doing this helps you get into a routine, stay grounded, present and relaxed. My favorite ritual is to have a warm cup of tea.

Other rituals you can try are to light a candle, stretch, do some yoga or go on a walk. These rituals will help get you in the writing zone.

A candle being lit

#4 Find a quiet space

My favorite place is in our guest room where I’m undisturbed and there is ample lighting. Other places you can try are coffee shops, a library, bookstore or a nook in your house. The important factor to keep in mind is to have minimal distractions.

Windowsill with a pillow, candle and a journal

#5 Start writing

The last and most important step is to write. Try not to censor yourself and make your journal a judgement-free zone.

It’s critical for you to be honest with yourself when you are journaling, since the minute you judge yourself, you begin limiting the potential growth that can come from the practice.

Try these things if you feel stuck

If you have a hard time finding something to write about, try reflecting on the questions below:

How do you feel right now?
What happened today?
How do you feel about what happened?
How did your opinion differ from others involved?

If you’re still struggling, try writing a letter to someone.

This is not an actual letter that you’re going to send. Remember, your journal is your secret log. The purpose of the letter is to get something off your chest.

A ballpoint pen writing on a piece of paper

What would you say to this person? If they have wronged you, what would you like them to know? It’s okay if some nasty stuff comes up, they will never see this letter.

It’s important to write a date on your journal entries so you can look back on them. Sometimes I look at my travel journals and they bring back fond memories of my adventures.

Lastly, if you enjoy writing, it’s useful to know that journal entries can be used as a place to cultivate stories in the future.

Why should you journal?

According to Dr. Diana Raab, we’re essentially all storytellers and we connect with one another through sharing, writing and listening. Writing is also a way for communities to connect on a larger scale and for us us to connect with others on a smaller scale. In a study conducted at Stanford University, writing has been found to have a critical connection in speaking.

Two hands holding two pieces of a puzzle

We suffer immensely when we internalize our stress and pain. When we are able to express ourselves through writing, we start down a path of healing–emotionally, physically and psychologically. Journaling helps us as a tool to begin unlocking the grasp of trauma and sift through the pieces bit by bit.

“Stress often comes from emotional blockages, and overthinking hypotheticals. When we translate an experience into language we essentially make the experience graspable.

James Pennebaker “Opening Up by Writing it Down

Experiencing a painful loss like a death, heartbreak or job loss severely impacts your emotional, physical and mental health.

Since experiencing a loss changes you, the feelings you experience become a lot more prominent in your life. When you start labeling those emotions, it makes them easier to deal with.

Journaling helps quiet your mind, put words to your feelings and learn how to unpack them. It also helps you cope better with change.

“If it hurts, write harder.”

Unknown

Writing is a powerful tool to help you get in touch and access those painful feelings, give voice to them and overtime you may find meaning from that loss.

Wrap-up

Journaling is a healthy way to articulate your thoughts and feelings. Through the process of writing, you can engage different parts of your mind and have a safe space to process, identify solutions and distance yourself from problems.

To get started, figure out if you want to write on paper or a computer. Once you’ve identified your medium, establish a ritual, find a comfortable (distraction-free) space in your house and keep your journal a judgement-free zone.

Journaling has been found to have therapeutic benefits and helps us connect with ourselves and others. It helps you heal from your pain and trauma as well as aiding you in identifying solutions.

Have you ever kept a journal in your life? What did you like about journaling and did you use any tricks that helped you not censor yourself?Are there any prompts that help you get started? Please share your comments and stories below.

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