Write to Release Your Stress Part 1: How to Find and Shift Your Journaling Comfort Sweet Spot
by Brenna Liebold
I find the art of stringing together written words to lend our internal experiences a permanent, physical form fascinating! As if by magic, a single set of words projects an entirely new meaning if a writer places them in a different order. Consider how words hide messages as easily as reveal them, too, as in the cases of literary symbolism and WWII code-breaking.
At a very young age, probably less than ten years old, I started writing songs and never stopped. My favorite songwriting activity as a kid entailed combining pairs of commercial jingles with my sister. We still get a hearty laugh out of the Frankensteined jingle about facial tissues that come, "With or without meatballs, yeah!" The hobby evolved into love ballads in my teens, repetitive little ditties to motivate and teach clients in my music therapy practice, and musical stories to entertain the children in my family.
I mention this activity to point out the potential for limitless content in song lyrics. I also want to assure you that songwriting, in the context of personal expression, doesn't require any musical training. I guarantee my sister never did and never will claim to be a songwriter. Even so, she wrote songs with nothing more than a little confidence and a goofy sister to put her at ease.
It seems my enjoyment of writing in other formats needed to ripen with time. As a teenager, I succumbed to the allure of a pretty notebook and kept a diary for a while. At that age, of course, I couldn't appreciate how writing helped me to explore my budding identity, peer pressure, bullying, romance, and a love of music. When the excitement of the fad faded, I lost interest in journaling for decades.
About seven years ago, amidst a series of major life changes, journaling piqued my interest again. I credit an unexpected introduction to a variety of new ways to journal, none of which began with, "Dear Diary…"
Write for Good Health
Journaling, creative writing, and songwriting boast a heap of positive effects including:
I chose to discuss journaling, creative writing, and songwriting separately to recognize the merits of each one as a standalone activity. This particular order also reflects a progressive threshold of discomfort that I've noticed in new writers. In other words, I hear fewer initial objections to journaling when compared with creative writing or songwriting.
Before you dismiss the idea of writing songs, know that journaling builds the confidence needed to attempt poetry. Poetry, in turn, sets the stage beautifully (wordplay kind of intended) for the structures used in songwriting. If that sparked even the tiniest bit of excitement, follow the path laid out in this series of articles on writing to reduce stress. You might surprise yourself by finishing your first song within the month.
If you don't already feel a strong pull toward one of the three writing styles, read up on them all to see which one stirs up the most inspiration. Otherwise, skip ahead to the one already calling your name, and dig in!
Stepping into the Wide World of Journaling
To take advantage of this quick, cheap way to set your mood in the morning or decompress after a long day, you don't need fancy notebooks or pens. Establish your journaling preferences and motivations first instead of hoping they'll manifest themselves in these material goods. A few sheets of paper or a repurposed notebook along with any old pen or pencil will work fine. Save the store-bought goodies for later, perhaps as a reward for sticking with this new journaling hobby.
Allow me to make an argument in favor of traditional pen and paper over a computer or another electronic device as well. Expressing your feelings in longhand helps you to process them better. Furthermore, you tend to rush your movements, breathing, thoughts speech, eating, etc when stressed. The delicate, repetitive gestures of handwriting induce a relaxed state similar to that of meditation, thereby encouraging a slower pace and mental clarity. Finally, in an age when both work and leisure revolve around computers and mobile devices, excessive screen time coincides with brain damage, depression, obesity, repetitive strain injuries, and more. Use journaling as a reason to forgo technology, a healthy activity that also enables a screen break.
With proper "equipment" in hand, what do you write? Well, before you pen(cil) a single word, set yourself up for enjoyment and squelch any critical self-judgments before they appear. Embrace these three straightforward tips to maintain a constructive journaling attitude:
Journaling Tip #1
Don't write as if someone else will read what you wrote.
Journaling Tip #2
Write for YOU with the goal of self-expression, not publication.
Journaling Tip #3
Don't force the habit.
Take advantage of journal prompts if freewriting feels awkward or uninspiring.
Something to Write About
To spark some writing ideas for your journal, I'll give you a sneak peek into mine. Currently, I write in three different journals. No, I don't write every day. I used to; but now I journal two to three times a week on average. This frequency ensures that I make time for other self-care activities I value such as exercise, meditation, gardening, and bonfires. Each journal contains my thoughts, feelings, self-observations, and personal stories. Apart from that, though, they don't fall into the usual journaling stereotypes.
Two of my three journals offer prompts in case I don't feel like freewriting, meaning I don't need to come up with ideas about what to write. These journals pose questions, offer themes for making lists, provide phrases to complete, and display drawings for me to add to or finish.
The third journal allows for freewriting, and I set this one up much later than the others. In this journal, I track the imagery or feelings I experience during meditations that I want to revisit.
Think of journaling like a day at the beach, where you can engage in a spectrum of (self-)exploration activities ranging from superficial to deep. Let's continue from here for your first twenty writing prompts.
Beachcombing = Looking at the Surface = Making Lists
Making lists eases first-timers into journaling. You don't spend much time reflecting on any one item on the list. It lays out an uncomplicated, big-picture view of life. Take one of the following themes:
Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes. Then, create a list with a line or two between each numbered or bulleted item until time runs out. If you reach a point where new ideas no longer flow steadily, go back and add a short description to each of your items. After a few journaling sessions, you'll easily write for 15 minutes or more without needing a timer.
Challenge the notion of traditional list-making with the visual gratitude prompt below.
Digging Your Toes in the Sand = Digging In = Documenting Your Life
Over time, feel free to broaden your focus, and write journal entries on whatever comes to your mind. If you like the idea of freewriting but still need some direction, try journaling on everyday experiences related to:
You may benefit from writing out a daily narrative if replaying the day over and again in your mind keeps you up at night. Recount your day as objectively or unemotionally as possible in your journal during the hour before bedtime. Then, put "the day" away.
Document a special time in your life as it unfolds such as:
Finding Buried Treasure = Going Deep = Exploring Your Psyche
Journals supply the perfect space to delve into rooted aspects of your personality and how they influence your interactions with the world around you. Peeling back the layers that grow over the years exposes the strengths available to you. It also sheds light on your established approaches to success, failure, change, stress, etc. These common self-development strategies make great journaling ideas:
A Few Points of Caution
Journaling might veer into the destructive realm if you get too absorbed in the activity. In other words, if you live your life dictated by how it will sound in your journal, you should try another style of journaling or expressive writing for a while. Also, if you problem-solve in your journal but don't apply the solutions in your life, you'll feel stuck and frustrated.
You won't encounter many "rules" for journaling. However, do avoid using your journal to perpetuate self-blame or self-pity. These habits serve no purpose if you truly wish to resolve issues. Write about the bad days, but only if doing so helps you let them go.
Go for It, and Make Today a Great Day!
Keep in mind that you don't need to write about yourself in your journal, either. Many of the journaling ideas above allow you to focus on things outside of yourself to increase awareness and appreciation of the world around you, hone creativity, or reflect on a higher power.
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