The term "journaling" encompasses a lot of different things: the list of birds you've seen in your neighborhood; the descriptions of sights you saw on your last vacation; the notes you jotted down about the dream you had last night. But the general, tried and true everything is a bit much in my life right now, and I have to write it down type of journaling can really help when, well, everything is a bit much.
James Pennebaker, a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent decades studying "expressive writing." Basically, Pennebaker says, if you find yourself ruminating on something, "set aside some time to write about it for anywhere from five to 20 minutes a day, for one day, two days, maybe as many as five days."
Expressive writing is associated with improvements in physical health, improvements in markers of mental health, and improvements in immune function. It's also been shown to improve working memory in college students, says Pennebaker.
Don't worry if you're not exactly sure where to start. Journaling is actually perfect for those times when you can't pin down what you're feeling.
"It's that great first step to opening up and learning who you are and what you believe in and how you feel and how you see and understand the world," says Rashawnda James, a licensed therapist, YouTuber and a big advocate of journaling.
These four tips will help you get started:
1. Journal whenever you want, for however long you want to.
You don't need to create a rigid routine around journaling. Try starting small. "I would say start with five minutes. Set the timer on your phone," recommends James.
Pennebaker only practices expressive writing when something specific is bothering him.
Don't feel the need to force it either — if you don't feel like journaling, don't! Once the practice becomes yet another thing on your to-do list, it becomes less helpful. "When it's for you, then you can really see the benefits," explains James.
2. Medium doesn't matter — the key is to articulate your thoughts.
Your journal doesn't need to be anything fancy. Don't be intimidated by beautifully illustrated bullet journals — a dirty napkin and a crayon work too!
Technically, you don't even have to write. Pennebaker has done informal studies where people write with their fingers in the air. The critical thing, he says, is "That you translate this experience into words."
If you don't like to write, James recommends keeping a voice memo journal. "Just talk out loud, because some people are verbal processors," she says.
3. Let yourself write about anything. Remember, what you write is for you and you alone.
Getting started can be overwhelming. The thoughts and ideas flowing out of you may feel uncomfortable. The key to unpacking an issue through expressive writing, Pennebaker says, is letting your feelings connect the dots for you.
"Sit down and explore your deepest thoughts and feelings about this issue ... You might tie it to other issues, for example: how does it relate to your childhood? Your relationship with other people in your life right now?"
Pennebaker says you can write about the same topic every day, or you can opt to write for something completely different each time you sit down. "The only rule I have is once you start writing, write continuously," he says. "Don't worry about spelling or grammar. It's not going to be read by your high school English teacher!"
Staring at a blank page? Freely exploring your emotions might be harder for folks who were raised in a culture that doesn't reward feeling your feelings. Rashawnda James notes, "If you weren't ... encouraged or given the verbiage as a child to say, 'I feel such and such,' then writing it down is going to be like ...'What?! I'm supposed to do this? I can't even say it out loud! How am I supposed to write it?!"
In these cases, James uses feeling charts. Feeling charts can help you identify what you're feeling by presenting you with a cluster of emotions.
From there, you can try prompts like, "I feel ______ about ..."
As you learn how to tie what you're feeling to a certain word, "it becomes easier to express it and write it down," James says.
4. Look for reflections and different perspectives, not solutions or fixes.
A journal isn't a friend or a therapist or counselor — it's not going to fix your problems. But it will help you find out more about yourself.
Pennebaker recommends not going into it with hard or high expectations.
"You know, it's kind of like when you're in a new town and you see a street that looks interesting. The best way to approach it is, 'Huh? I'll go down this street and see what I find.' But if you say, 'I'm just going to look for shoes size eight and nothing else,' you're going to miss everything that's on the street."
If you're looking for some writing prompts to get you started, you can try some of these from James:
The audio portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen, who also adapted the piece for digital.
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Have a journaling habit? From dream journals to gratitude journals to morning pages — we'd love to hear what's worked for you! Send us a note at email@example.com or leave us a voicemail at 202.216.9823.
This Life Kit page and podcast episode were originally published in June 2020. You can listen to the original audio here.