Documenting your thoughts with a pen and paper is a way to acknowledge past experiences that may be causing you pain and reintegrating them into your life so they become a part of you. It helps bring order to your deepest thoughts and fears and enables you to learn from the person who knows you best: you.
Journaling provides a safe environment that enables you to face your traumas. When that happens, remarkable healing follows. Indeed, studies find that journaling can reduce pain, improve depression, and even lower markers of inflammation.
Journaling is not only for people in pain, but it is also a self-care technique for those who are caring for others. Writing down your thoughts and experiences can help you make sense of your concerns and it can help create order out of any chaos.
By documenting your thoughts, you can go back and track your progress. When you make journaling part of your regular routine, you can read what you’ve written and see how much progress you’ve made on your journey.
There are proven physical and mental benefits to journaling. Maintaining a gratitude journal relieves stress and exploring what you are happy for is a powerful reminder of the good in your life.
Here are some exercises to help you start your journaling practice. Take a pen and paper and answer the following questions in each exercise:
1. Make a list of three qualities you have that you consider weaknesses, then explore how these so-called weaknesses might be recast as strengths. For instance, if you believe micromanagement is a weakness of yours, it could also mean that you’re organized and responsible. Once you determine the strength on the flipside of that quality, write about a time when you used that quality in a positive way. If you can’t think of a recent example, write something aspirational (how you might use this quality positively in the future).
2. Write about a moment when you felt a particular emotion and how you physically experienced it. Were your palms sweating? Was your heart racing or head throbbing? How did you experience/ interact with your environment through all your senses? Was it dark, sunny, stuffy or breezy? What did you hear and smell? By expressing your emotional state through your physical experience of it, you’re able to delve into the heart of it. You can also write about your current state: What emotions are you experiencing right now, and what’s the physical response?
3. There’s a relationship among our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Chart your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors over the past month, listing two examples for each. What effect did your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors have on one another? And how did your changes in each category affect the other two?
4. List five qualities of your personality or your outlook that you think defines you. Write just one word/ phrase/sentence for each—not a summary of your whole life. Don’t overthink. What rises to the surface as important now? You can even do this prompt periodically to see how the list changes. Then expand on the qualities, writing about each of those aspects of you.
5. Think of a real or an imaginary place where you feel safe and at peace. Create that place in your mind and write a detailed description of it using all your senses—what you see in this place, but also what you hear, smell, taste and feel through tactile contact. You can then use this as a visualized meditation, closing your eyes, breathing and imagining this place thoroughly, one sense at a time.
6. What role does food play in your life? Are you filling an emotional void with food or drink, using it as a friend?7. Describe a recent food craving. Were you really hungry? Scan your body for its food needs. What does hunger or fullness feel like right now?
8. What are some positive family traditions that you would like to return to or begin? Are there any unhealthy traditions that you can change or let go of altogether?
9. List five things that you’re grateful for— people, positive experiences past or current, places, material items—then expand on each one, describing it/him/her in detail, perhaps at a particular moment in time.
10. List three activities that bring you joy. Expand on each activity, describing a recent time when you fully engaged in it. If you’re finding it challenging to engage in these activities as often as you’d like or need, explore strategies for working them into your schedule more often.
11. List two things you tend to say yes to or have said yes to recently and two things you tend to say no to or have said no to recently. What was good self-care and what wasn’t? For example, saying yes can be a way of embracing an opportunity and engaging with the world (good self-care), but it can also be a way of spreading yourself too thin. Saying no can help you maintain healthy boundaries and manage your time (good self-care), but it can also isolate you and cause you to miss opportunities. This awareness can help you prioritize, and determine the value of things and what’s truly important to you
12. List three positive qualities/strengths that you value in yourself. Then list three qualities that you aspire to achieve. Expand on each quality. For the qualities, you already have, what are recent examples when you showcased them? For the qualities you aspire to, how might you achieve them?13. List five roles or labels that you think define you. Write just one word/ phrase/ sentence for each, not prioritized, not a summary of your whole life. Don’t overthink. What rises to surface as important now? You can even do this prompt periodically to see how the list changes. Then expand on the roles/labels, writing about each of those aspects of you.
14. Write a letter to your loved ones. What is on your mind and in your heart that you find hard to express in real life? You may find that expressing it on the page is useful preparation for actually expressing it. You also may find it useful as a private exercise to work out your thoughts and feelings on your own in order to interact with him or her more productively in general.
15. Think of one thing that you need right now. Write out how you might most effectively communicate that need to a particular person. Then write out what you imagine that person’s response will be.
When you are going through these journaling exercises, it is important to set goals and be honest with yourself. Keep in mind your goals for today, for this week, for this month and for this year; then expand on each. Explore the support you may need to achieve those goals, strategies, potential barriers, and how to overcome them.
After you complete these exercises, considering sharing your thoughts. Some find joy in knowing their words help others, so they share their healing. But whether or not you share your work is up to you. Happy journaling!
For more information, read The Caregiver’s Companion: A Caregiver’s Guide to Self Care.