The Question: Should I journal?
The Answer: Yes.
We'll explain with the help of Jennell Charles, a registered nurse and professor at Clayton State University’s School of Nursing. Charles is a longtime fan of journaling, which she’s been doing for 25 years. In 2010, she wrote an essay in the journal Creative Nursing about how journaling can be an essential tool for nurses to practice self-care, which can mitigate the pressures of a stressful clinical environment and prevent professional burn out. But everyone can benefit from a little journaling, she maintains. Here are a few basic facts about the practice and tips on how to get started.
What is journaling?
Journaling is a personal writing practice that is traditionally private -- the pages are a safe space for the writer to vent without fear of judgment. There is no “right” way to journal; depending on your goals and what you want to achieve, journaling can take all sorts of forms, from personal observation to lists to brainstorms to meditations to writing exercises. Charles’ journaling inspiration comes from Julia Cameron, an author who recommends in her book The Artist’s Way that people start every day with the “morning pages” — at least three pages of "longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning.”
Alternately, for example, people who struggle with mindful eating might benefit from a journal in which they record not necessarily what they eat, but how they feel when they’re craving a certain food and how they feel after they’re done eating. Whatever your concern or purpose is, journaling is a practice that helps you take a break from the busyness and stress of everyday life to form a stronger connection with your inner self. As time goes on, that regular, reflective space can help you identify harmful patterns in your life and strategize ways to solve your problems.
Who should journal?
Journaling can help everyone, Charles says, but she recommends it especially for people who feel like they’re stuck or “spinning” in place.
“If you’re constantly on the edge, feeling hassled or bumping into problems all the time, and you just feel like you’re spinning and not moving forward and achieving much, I think that’s a good time to use this tool of journaling to help you stop for a brief period of time and put down on a piece of paper what is consuming your life,” Charles told HuffPost.
The practice could help you identify problems in your life and give you goals to accomplish. Alternately, journaling could help by giving you more perspective. Maybe you're already doing a lot, but you aren’t giving yourself any credit for it. Maybe things are moving forward the way you had hoped, but you haven’t stopped to realize it yet.
“Often, what happens is that as you are journaling, you are figuring out the answers to your problems, or figuring out who you need to talk to about your problems,” Charles said. “Other times we have the answers to our problems, but we don’t stop long enough to listen to those answers."
What does research say about journaling?
Lots. In addition to helping people solve problems, become more creative and simply provide an outlet for venting, journaling has been shown to...
- help people gain positive awareness about a traumatic or stressful event in their lives.
- help people lose more weight than those who don’t journal.
- help patients in pain find meaning or spirituality in their illness.
- help increase white blood cell count in people with HIV.
- help medical students -- future doctors -- come to terms with their own stereotypes and stigmas about their patients.
- reduce symptoms in people with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis.
- help lower recidivism rates. Inmates who journaled were significantly less likely to be arrested again compared to inmates in a control group.
- help people heal faster. People who journaled in the weeks before a medically necessary biopsy had a faster recovery time than patients in a control group who didn’t write before their operations.
How should I start journaling?
While most of us may find tapping away at a screen or laptop the most natural way to write, Charles is an advocate of plain ol’ pen and paper. Most people work hunched over the computer, she reasons, and actually using your hand to write in a notebook is a nice change of pace that can signal to your mind that journaling time is different from work or school. She also thinks the notebook should be a special notebook, set aside only for journaling. And location can make a big impact on journaling, too.
“Find a place that you enjoy being,” she advises. "If there’s a corner of a room in your house -- a place that makes you feel good -- or some place that you want to be that feels separate from the busyness of the world, it helps you focus on being present in that moment while journaling."
And just like exercise, or any habit that you know is good for you but may initially be hard to adopt, don’t beat yourself up if your journaling schedule lapses. That would defeat the entire purpose of the practice, Charles said.
"I used to feel guilty that I wasn’t doing it every day, but I think it’s kind of like exercise; the more you do it, the better you get at it and the more benefits you reap,” she said. “I’ve been able to let [guilt] go and just realize that I’m missing something that could really be beneficial to me, and I need to get back to it."
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