Journaling for Health and Insight

Whether it’s a spiritual journal, a personal diary, or prompted writing exercises, journaling has been found to have benefits ranging from improved communication skills, to getting a better night’s sleep, to even boosting our immune systems. Psychologists and spiritual directors have long advocated journaling as a way to process our thoughts and feelings, and have advanced the practice as an important part of self-care.

Research conducted by James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, has found that even a one-time 15-to-30-minute session of focused journaling can be beneficial. Journaling helps us organize our thoughts and make sense of our emotions in a very non-threatening manner, without having to expose ourselves to others. Putting down events on paper, says Pennebaker, often considered the pioneer of writing therapy, can improve our working memory as it frees us from having to process an experience over and over in our minds. This kind of journaling right before bed can often improve our sleep as our “monkey minds” are freed from ruminating and reliving events.

Often people say to me, “I gave up journaling because I couldn’t do it everyday.” But every day journaling isn’t necessary to receiving the benefits of it. Give yourself a break and try journaling whenever you have the time and inclination. Or, set aside 30 minutes a week on a schedule to explore the events of the past week, and analyze your feelings about them. There is no prescriptive amount of journaling that works or doesn’t work, it’s whatever works for you.

What do I write about? Julia Cameron, the author of “The Artist’s Way”, advocates a stream-of-consciousness technique to really discover what is going on in your inner life. Some people prefer prompted writing to help them explore areas that they would normally shy away from. There are a number of prompted journals on the market, including a companion to Michele Obama’s book, Becoming, which helps you create a legacy journal.

For me, journaling is, maybe counter-intuitively, a way for me to get outside of my own head. Instead of letting thoughts swirl around, half-formed, and returning over and over to capture part of my attention, I try to make a habit of setting down my thoughts on paper (or actually in Word). This is not writing that anyone will see but me. But once I write it down, I can step back and see patterns and themes. I start to see what is really going on – whether it’s why I have writer’s block, or my anxiety about my family.

I also keep a spiritual journal, just for me. A couple times a week, I read a passage of scripture, or a chapter from a book, and then just record my musings and wanderings. Sometimes, it’s obvious stuff, or as I wrote recently about a particular Psalm – “This is terrible theology.” But often, in my rambling, I gain insights into my relationship and connection with God. I can be honest about my thoughts, instead of “preacherly.” I express my doubts, my grievances, and my heresies. In a spiritual journal, I can explore what I keep hidden in my heart, my truest beliefs about life and God, without feeling judged or scrutinized my others. I truly believe that it has been my journaling which has led me to grow in faith in the last ten years.  And it is often during journaling when I hear God speaking to me most clearly. For this introvert, journaling is my tent revival.