I have a best friend, therapist and personal organizer I take with me everywhere. It is compact, requires as little or as much time as I desire and is always ready to offer support, guidance, comfort, or laughter. It costs very little and never asks for anything in return, though I feel a yearning to be with it daily. I know it will never let me down.
A journal can be far more than a place to record daily events or idle thoughts. Used purposefully, it can be a catalyst for personal growth, problem solving, and a path to creativity. When used for writing about upsetting events, journaling can actually improve immune system functioning, resolve stress, and provide psychological healing.
Most people keep a journal at some point in their lives, be it a teenage diary or an executive daily-planner. Others resist journal-keeping because they think they aren't good enough writers, that someone will read their private thoughts, or that they have much more important things to do. But once people put their reservations aside and make the journal a friend, they look forward to exploring with pen and paper.
From a practical standpoint, spending a few minutes on a daily or weekly basis putting your thoughts on paper enables you to evaluate your feelings and abilities and recognize areas of improvement. You may discover that you want to shift priorities, spend more time on things you value, or make major life changes. A journal can also be a place to be silly, out of character, and creative, without judgment from others.
Rather than thinking of a journal as a diary where you merely relate the day's events, think of it as a space for self-reflection, self-expression, and self-exploration. There are no rules. Write as little or as much as you want, as frequently or infrequently as you desire, though I recommend taking a few minutes each day to put your thoughts on the page. Creating a regular writing practice develops stronger organizational skills, such as list-making and time management. For me, regular writing in my journal eventually tapped a rich vein of creativity I had long-ago buried with an all-too-busy lifestyle. The important thing is just to express your thoughts without censorship.
Choose a notebook and writing instrument that feel good. Some people are inspired by an elegant bound notebook with fine paper. Others prefer a spiral-bound pad or loose-leaf sheets in a binder. Use your favorite pen, or make your entries on a computer. The benefits to journal-keeping are endless. A journal allows you self-expression without external judgment. It is the perfect tool for clarifying goals and organizing your workday. Expressing your emotions such as anger or sadness through writing releases the emotional pressure that builds up when you hold feelings inside. Many people feel calmer and spiritually at ease after a journal-writing session, and scientific studies show this can improve your health.
James. W. Pennebaker, Ph. D. , associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, found that students who wrote about unresolved painful events or problems showed improved immune system functioning lasting several weeks and visited the health clinic fewer times over the next six months than control groups who wrote about neutral topics.
In another study, which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, confessional writing was shown to help alleviate symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Dr. Joshua Smyth, an assistant professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, found that patients who wrote about experiences such as car accidents, physical abuse, divorce, or sexuality improved their lung function by 19 percent on average. Rheumatoid arthritic patients in the same study showed a 28 percent improvement in symptoms. The control group who wrote about inconsequential subjects did not show improvements.
As a business tool, writing down reflections about events experienced each day is an invaluable way to evaluate your performance, set higher standards of excellence, and find new ways to solve difficult problems. Needs and goals also become easier to clarify and prioritize once they are written down on paper, both for your personal and professional life.
Writing about people you know will help you gain a better understanding of them and your related feelings. When you're furious with someone close to you, discharging raw emotion in the privacy of your journal enables you to work out solutions in advance rather than face to face in an irrational outburst. This often results in stronger relationships.
When beginning a journaling session it helps to put yourself in the mood by closing your eyes, taking five deep breaths, and focusing your attention inward. Ask yourself “What am I feeling at this moment?" Jot down a few lines about what's on your mind. Then, you may want to use specific techniques to zone in on a subject or feeling. A few of my favorite techniques include:
Using a springboard to focus your attention. Choose a topic, statement, question, or quotation and start writing about it. Examples: Why am I so upset? The most important thing to do today is. . . The thing that keeps haunting me is . . .
Writing an unsent letter. Pretend you¹re writing a letter to someone telling them what you like, or dislike, about him or her. Because a journal is private and safe, you can write things that you could never say in person. By releasing pent-up hostile feelings, you can clear issues and strengthen your relationship without saying things out loud that could ruin a relationship. The undelivered letter can also clarify your feelings and offers a safe place to tell the truth without expressing it in person.
Creating dialogues. Another way to express deep feelings is to write about them, then write in the imagined voice of the other person, much like a movie script. Dialoguing cultivates both empathy and creativity. Most people gain valuable insights when they let their imaginations roam this way. You can also dialogue with different aspects of yourself to resolve inner conflict or confusion. For example, writing a dialogue between the voice of confusion and the voice of your intuitive self can clarify your thoughts.
Capturing moments. Write a description of an experience that was truly intense and memorable. Immerse yourself in the past moment and fill the page with physical and emotional detail. Doing this recreates your body's physiological response to an enjoyable event and promotes the healing effects of being happy. Most people report they feel refreshed and energized after writing about their favorite moments.
Designing your future. Imagine yourself one month from now then one year from now. Where are you now? Where do you want to be? Define your dreams and goals. Write every detail of what you want your life to be like. How will you feel when these dreams and goals are realized? What are some of the things you can do to get there? The words will awaken your intuitive and creative wisdom, which, in turn, will help you make better decisions.
Using a journal for self-discovery, personal growth, clarifying life goals, and accessing creative flow makes a notebook more than just a record of life-it becomes a treasured confidant and friend.
Lori Batcheller, MA, MPT, is a freelance writer and editor, certified journal instructor, and certified Kripalu Yoga teacher. Fomerly a practicing physical therapist, she offers journaling workshops for healing and self-discovery throughout the United States. Author of Journey to Health: Writing Your Way to Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Health, she can be reached through her Web site at http://www.lbcreative.com