When you start a program like PHP or IOP, one of the first things you learn about in group therapy is coping skills. While I thought I knew what was meant by “coping” with stress or anxiety, I quickly realized that what I had been doing to cope was not a skill at all, and that there is a big difference between healthy and successful ways to cope and unhealthy/unsuccessful ways to cope.
The ways I had been coping were whatever I defaulted to automatically out of desperation – mostly avoidance, reassurance seeking, distraction. They weren't things I had practiced with purpose, but rather habits that had formed unintentionally out of necessity. I learned in program that the reason healthy coping strategies are called skills is because they have to be practiced in order to be effective.
One of the suggested coping skills in program is journaling. Out of all the coping skills recommended, this was the one I thought I’d be least likely to use and saw the least promise in being effective. Yet, a year and some change later, journaling has become one of my favorite and most utilized skills to help me deal with stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and more.
Benefits of Journaling: Mood Regulation
There are numerous benefits of journaling as a practice, including overall improvement of mental health. Specifically, journaling can help regulate mood by helping you express emotions, increase self-awareness, gain perspective, and promote mindfulness.
Better Emotional Expression
Journaling allows you to express and process your emotions in a safe and private space. This can be especially helpful when dealing with difficult or overwhelming emotions, as it allows you to release these feelings without fear of judgment or consequences from anyone else.
It can also help you become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. By reflecting on past entries, you can identify patterns and triggers that affect your mood. This increased self-awareness can help you anticipate and manage mood changes.
Journaling can help you gain perspective on your situation. By putting your thoughts and feelings into words, you may be able to see them more clearly and objectively. This can help you challenge negative or distorted thinking patterns and reframe your perspective.
Additionally, journaling promotes mindfulness, which is the practice of being present and fully engaged in the moment. By focusing your attention on your thoughts and feelings as you write them down, you can become more aware of the present moment and reduce stress and anxiety.
Different Types of Journaling
It’s important to note that journaling can come in many forms. Some people still appreciate good ol’ pen and paper while others prefer digital. It’s important for you to find what works best for you so that you will be more likely to do it, and do it in a way that is most beneficial to you.
Traditional journaling: Writing down thoughts, experiences, and reflections in a notebook or diary.
Digital journaling: Using apps or online platforms to record thoughts and reflections. There are many journaling apps that create convenient space for you to “thought-dump”, and there are also some that provide prompts, which can be helpful if you don’t know where to start.
Art journaling: Combining written entries with artwork, such as drawings, paintings, and collages.
Bullet journaling: A structured method of journaling that uses bullet points, lists, and symbols to track tasks, goals, and habits.This helps organize the chaos in your mind and can even turn your thoughts into actions.
Sleep/Dream journaling: This type of journaling can be extremely helpful when you awake distressed and disoriented. If you wake up from dreaming, writing down what you remember about the dream can be insightful and could help you identify patterns. And regardless of whether you were dreaming or not, writing down what you’re feeling right when you wake up will ground you in the present and calm your nervous system down, allowing you to fall back asleep faster.
Gratitude journaling: Focusing on positive experiences and expressing gratitude for them in writing. This might also include a simple list of several things you’re grateful for.
If journaling is new to you, you may be reluctant to try it. Or maybe you want to try it, but you keep forgetting to do it. Just like any new practice, you must acquire the necessary tools, create space in your routine, and find ways to motivate yourself to do it.
Choosing the Right Journal and Writing Materials
From a pink sparkly cover, to an old school composition notebook, a #2 pencil or a scented gel pen – if you’re going the pen and paper route, choose a notebook and writing utensil that suits you. Get lines that fit your hand writing, or no lines at all, and make sure your hand can glide easily and comfortably across the page. This is an experience that should be enjoyable.
Setting Aside Time and Place
Set aside at least one time and place to journal each day. You may like to journal on your porch as the sun rises while drinking a cup of coffee or you might prefer to journal at the end of your day and bring your day to a close. The important thing is creating space and making it a habit by scheduling it into your daily routine. In the beginning, you may need to set a reminder on your phone or implement other ways to keep yourself accountable.
Overcoming Barriers to Journaling
There are a number of reasons why people don’t journal. Some people struggle to journal because they are quick to judge their writing. The goal is to write freely and honestly, without worrying about grammar, spelling, or even whether or not it makes sense.
Another barrier is not knowing what to write, or having writer’s block. For this, journal prompts and exercises can be helpful to get your wheels turning and start the stream of consciousness. Usually, the more you journal from being prompted, the easier it will become to do so without being prompted.
Lastly, reluctance to journal may come from the disbelief in its efficacy. In response to that doubt, I say, why not just try? Maybe journaling won’t be your go-to coping skill, but you won’t know until you try. The experience may surprise you!