How to Journal in Tough Times

Brenda Rock
27th Dec 2021

As we approach the end of 2021, I would love to share something that has helped me lots not just with this year but other times in my life that were a challenge.

I started writing regularly in a journal about 6 years ago. I had tried on and off for many years. But I found the less pressure I put on myself to do it, the easier it became! I might not do it everyday and go through phases. So, I was happy to see I am not the only one and that in fact, I may be an 'expressive writer' - maybe you are too?  

Feeling stuck or a bit down? Keeping a journal might be beneficial. 

Apparently, there are two types of journals: those who crisis journal when the sh1t hits the fan and they hit the pages (I may fall into this category!) and those who don't crisis journal when the sh1t hits the fan and they don't hit the pages. Those who can't even stare at a blank page when faced with difficulties. 

It turns out that if you "crisis journal," you're accidentally practicing Expressive Writing, which has been the focus of hundreds of studies over the last thirty years. Writing about your innermost challenges, according to that collection of research, can have a good impact on your health and well-being. 

That's fantastic news!

Pennebaker and Smyth examine the scientific history of Expressive Writing, its benefits, and how to make it work for you in their book Opening Up by Writing It Down. When you're stuck, this powerful writing technique can help you clear your mind of all those terrible thoughts and feelings, allowing you to begin the healing process. 

How to Write Expressively.

The basic guidelines for Expressive Writing are as follows: Write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about an emotional challenge in your life for 20 minutes. Allow yourself to let go and explore the situation and how it has affected you in your writing. It could be linked to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you've loved, or even your professional life. 

Carving out quiet time and space to delve deep can help you get the most out of this exercise. Not to merely vent with a pen, but to gain insights and uncover new connections among your sentiments is the goal. Although research participants sometimes write about major traumas and shameful secrets—ranging from abuse to military service—you can write about whatever is aggravating or preoccupying you at the time.

Pennebaker and Smyth offer the following variations on Expressive Writing: 

Writing to Solve Problems:

Write for 10 minutes about a personal issue, then go through your writing and figure out the major roadblocks you're up against.

Write for another 10 minutes about those challenges, then reread your work.

Finally, spend 10 minutes writing a summary of everything you've learnt. 

Before going to bed, write down your worries and anxieties in a journal—you could find that you fall asleep faster this way! 

Make a word association with the word "stress": what term or topic does it conjure up? What word or topic comes to mind when you hear that new one? Repeat this process until you have a better understanding of what stress means to you. 

Although it is recommended that you write for 20 minutes four days in a row, research suggests that even a few minutes of writing might be beneficial. 

What are the benefits of practicing Expressive Writing?

As you might expect, sitting down and writing about fear, despair, or rage isn't the most pleasurable experience—which is possibly why some frequent diary writers find it difficult to accomplish. Expressive Writing has been shown in studies to make you feel unhappy and nervous just thereafter, but the long-term repercussions are a different story. 

Researchers in the early studies of Expressive Writing asked participants to write for four days about a traumatic event in their lives or about trivial matters. The expressive writers reported a larger sense of purpose afterward than the superficial writers, had better immunological function six weeks later, and had fewer health visits in the half-year after the experiment. The exact mechanism by which Expressive Writing benefits health is still being researched decades later, but it appears to fundamentally buffer against the negative impacts of stress and sad/dark thoughts.

People with mental health concerns or chronic diseases may find the most thrilling benefits of Expressive Writing. According to one study, people suffering from depression may show improvements in their symptoms after adopting this practice for up to one month, and there's some evidence that it may also assist with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

What makes Expressive Writing so effective? 

Pennebaker and Smyth confess, "We still don't have a strong explanation for why [Expressive Writing] works and why it doesn't." However, preliminary research and comments from a large number of study participants are beginning to tell a story: there's something powerful about putting our feelings into words—rather than keeping them buried inside.

If we let painful thoughts whirl about in our heads, they seem to constantly emerge and demand our attention, wanting to be addressed and processed, according to Pennebaker and Smyth. "Trying to comprehend a frightening experience is one reason we sometimes obsess about it," they add. 

When we eventually sit down and try to put it all down in writing, our thoughts may calm down. Our experience takes on more of a narrative quality, and we are able to observe it with greater objectivity. This allows the mind to focus on other beneficial activities, such as getting a good night's sleep and truly interacting with others.

According to Pennebaker and Smyth, if we allow painful thoughts whirl around in our heads, they seem to constantly surface and demand our attention, begging to be addressed and processed. "One reason we may obsess on a traumatic encounter is trying to comprehend it," they explain. 

Our thoughts may quiet down once we sit down and try to put everything down in writing. Our experience takes on a more narrative tone, and we are better equipped to observe it objectively. This frees up the mind to concentrate on other important tasks, such as getting a good night's sleep and actually communicating with others.

I have a great workshop in it’s 5th (!) year this Wednesday Jan 29th 7pm-9.30pm OR the morning one, Thursday 30th 10am - 12.30pm.
In the workshop, we practice some Yoga, Rest, Meditation and Journal writing on the year gone and what we want for the year ahead.

Price - €35 and a special price for members of the Being Well with Brenda group

After this year I feel it will be a powerful practice for a lot of us. Why not join in?
All details are here - REST WITH INTENTION 2021

Brenda Rock