Journaling is a lost art. At least, it appears to be that way in today’s time-starved, ever-bustling society.
Nonetheless, since leaving my home — the tiny Southeast Asian island of Singapore — and moving halfway around the world to Vancouver, Canada last August, I’ve filled out the blank, smooth pages of my journal more often than I did in the previous eight years of my life.
On its pages, there is no judgment on how pretty my handwriting is or how banal my thoughts are. It is a safe space for me to express my innermost thoughts, fears, anxieties and joys. It also serves as a way for me to reflect on the grace and goodness of God.
Journaling isn’t something only introverts or people with too much time on their hands do. It’s also been widely recognized as an instrumental tool for improving overall psychological well-being.
From a Psychologist’s Viewpoint
Celeste Cai, a registered clinical counsellor with the British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors, has previously recommended journaling as a form of therapy for her clients.
“Some of my clients are confused about what they’re feeling inside and are not sure of what they want. Their thoughts are quite jumbled up,” she explains. “But by taking a few minutes to write these thoughts down or listing out the pros and cons of a certain decision, it helps them to become more organized in their thoughts and their decision-making process.”
Besides providing greater clarity, journaling also removes mental blocks. “We are very task-focused and goal-oriented, so we tend to think logically,” says Cai. “What this means is that we engage the left brain, which is more analytical and rational, more often. We seldom engage our right brain, which is supposedly more intuitive and feeling. But the right brain helps us to process and evaluate the things that happen in our day-to-day lives.
How, then, can we utilize our right brains more? By journaling in a mindful and reflective manner, Cai shares. “Journaling about what you felt during a particular experience or writing words of encouragement to yourself, as opposed to simply stating what you did throughout the day, allows you to understand yourself and the world around you better.”
“Writing by hand has a tempo and cadence that do not hear the beat of the rat race. Perhaps it is here where I learn to truly live in gratitude and in expectancy.”
Five Ways Journaling Improves Your Mental Health
1. It helps you to respond, not react
Oftentimes, my actions tend to be guided by my emotions. Journaling has enabled me to stop allowing my feelings to control me and given me time to respond to a person or situation more calmly, instead of reacting in the heat of the moment. “When you write, you release anger, sadness and other painful emotions,” says Cai. “You feel calmer and better able to stay in the present.”
2. It allows you to confront yourself
Before I started journaling, my days were filled with activity after activity and I barely had time for deep, thoughtful reflection. Once I started journaling more regularly, however, I discovered that there were many deep-seated insecurities and issues I was still struggling with.
One such issue that came to light was my mental perception of myself. Journaling gave me greater awareness of how I viewed myself in such a negative light. In response, I began to engage in more positive self-talk and declared biblical truths over my life, such as Psalm 139:14 (NIV): “I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
Cai agrees that journaling helps to boost self-awareness: “You get to know yourself better and you feel more confident. You will also become clearer about situations and relationships that are unhealthy for you.”
My friend, theological student Sandi Smoker, provides an additional spiritual perspective. “I hear people say that to know God, we must first know ourselves,” she says. “Although I don’t think either is possible in full, journaling helps me know God better by being known.”
3. It relieves stress
Scientific research shows that journaling is a useful practice for someone undergoing trauma or stress. For example, a study published in 2002 revealed that people who relived upsetting events without focusing on what it taught them experienced poorer health than those who derived meaning through their writing.
Smoker adds that journaling is a necessary and healing exercise for her. “It helps me grieve on paper and gives me space to rant without hurting others,” she explains. “It is a place for the light of God’s love and Word to penetrate my deepest self.”
4. It encourages stillness
Sitting at my desk, opening my journal and picking up my pen is in itself an act that grounds me and defies a constantly moving world. The act of writing, too, quietens my spirit. Another friend, worship leader Lydia Collin, articulates this more eloquently.
“Living in a world that is dominated by flashing advertisements, the never-ending thrust of new technology and a general sense of rushed chaos, journaling is a place where I learn to be timeful,” she says. “Writing by hand has a tempo and cadence that do not hear the beat of the rat race. Perhaps it is here where I learn to truly live in gratitude and in expectancy.”
5. It draws you closer to God
Journaling has helped me to sharpen my mental focus. Instead of fixating on my problems, I have come to value what my experiences —both good and bad—have taught me. In doing so, I see the hand of God moving in my life: sometimes quietly, sometimes dramatically and always powerfully.
Smoker shares how she’s elevated her journaling practice to incorporate hearing from God more. “This past year, I have begun journaling letters from God addressed to me in response to my Scripture reading and prayer time. I return to the letters weeks or months later. When I look back, I stand amazed at the way God speaks into my life! I am careful not to put words in God’s mouth, as Jeremiah reminds us (Jer. 23:35-38, MSG).
“God speaks mostly to me as his child, encouraging me, loving me and reassuring me of his love. Often He exhorts me to consider an aspect of behaviour I had not considered before. He reminds me to receive the liberating and transforming work of the Spirit. He also advocates for others in the letters. I find that wonderfully helpful in appreciating other people’s perspectives and the difficulties of their own journeys. The letters help me respond to relational encounters with grace.”
If you are keen to start journaling, here are some handy tips from Cai to get you going:
• Don’t overthink it. Don’t ponder whether you are grammatically correct or if there’s a certain format to follow or standard to uphold.
• Do it for five minutes as a start. Write down some food for thought or an experience that you had during the day.
• Don’t pressure yourself – if there’s nothing to write, don’t feel compelled to.
• Try using prompts if you don’t know how to start writing. For example, if you would like to discover more about your personality, topics or prompts, you could write on what would be your strengths, weaknesses and interests. Or, if you are keen to be more creative, the prompts could be on what you enjoy and what gives you inspiration, meaning and hope.
• Get a journal that’s portable and easy to bring along with you.
Download the accompanying printable as a neat reminder!
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