The first five minutes of my debate speech at school went well. I thought I was going to win. Cut to 30 seconds later, and I found myself rejigging my memory.
“I’m sorry. I forgot my speech,” I said, and left the stage. The audience fell eerily quiet. My eyes met my debating mentor’s for a fraction of a second. They were embarrassed.
I rushed home and cried. Then I did what I always do in debacles such as this: I poured my heart out in my journal. For some reason, I didn’t feel that bad after an hour of writing. I was ready to move on.
Science is only now discovering what people who journal regularly have known all along: journaling heals the mind. A 2011 study published in the online magazine Science found that if students write about their anxieties right before an exam, the exercise helps them score better in the test. A 2014 study even showed improvement in cancer patients who put pen to paper to express their deepest feelings about the disease. In fact, journaling is so powerful that it can even help people heal their physical wounds, found a 2008 study in the British Journal of Health Psychology.
“When you write in a journal, you have the opportunity to examine challenging feelings and circumstances and to learn from them and rise above those situations,” says psychologist Paulette Kouffman Sherman. “When your life seems chaotic, it can help you to look at the larger picture and see patterns that help things make sense over time.”
Going through a rough patch? Give journaling a try. Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Find your time and style: Journaling will be more fruitful if you do it at a time when you feel most creative. “The best time is the time that makes it easiest for you to follow through,” says psychotherapist Samara Serotkin. “Some people love writing first thing in the morning. Others like to do it right before bed.” Try different times until you find one that feels natural.
2. Fall in love with your journal: Your journal is not just any notebook. It is a reservoir of your innermost thoughts. Make it special. “I encourage people to buy a journal they really like, something fancy, not just any pad of paper,” says psychotherapist Clare Johnson. “This encourages a reminder of the practice and spontaneous inspirations.”
3. Shoot the inner critic: Professional writers often get stuck and feel their writing is not lucid. They don’t feel inspired to put pen to paper. This can also happen to you once in a while. Serotkin suggests an exercise called stream of consciousness journaling to snap out of this state.
“The idea is that you set a timer and just start to write. No editing,” Serotkin says. “No stopping to read. No crossing anything out. You don’t let the pen or pencil stop until the timer runs out.” She says the exercise shoots down our inner critic and challenges us to not pay attention to it. It helps remove blocks to creativity.
4. Make it fun: Journaling doesn’t have to be just a tool to vent negative emotions. Why not make it a hobby? “Of course journals can be fun,” says Johnson. “They should be, in fact.” For example, try creating a dream journal. “Vision journals are creative projects—you can write what you are manifesting and then collect images and quotes that resonate for you to enhance it,” she says. On similar lines, you can create a gratitude journal, and write 10 things every day you feel grateful for.
5. Use your journal for growth: While many people naturally turn to a journal in times of distress, what if you’re not in a state of upheaval but still want to do journaling for your personal growth?
Licensed psychologist Samantha Rodman suggests the following prompts to get you started: what were some high and low points of your early childhood, and how did those experiences shape your adult perspectives? If you’re in a relationship, are you being the partner that you want to be? If not, what is stopping you? If you’re a parent, what parts of your own upbringing do you want to replicate with your kids? In what areas do you want to raise them differently? Why?
6. Treat your journal as your friend: You can also write about more mundane stuff in your journaling diary—the kind of things you’d discuss with a friend over drinks after a hard day at work. “It doesn’t need to list the events of the day,” says Serotkin. “It can be as simple as one thing that went well that day. The key is you want to make the journaling exercise meaningful for you, and you want to keep it realistic.”
It’s time to head out to the stationery store and buy yourself a beautiful notebook. And then watch yourself grow.