Therapeutic Writing: A Quick Guide to Journaling
Updated: Aug 23
By Maria Raza and Gowri Prasad
COVID-19 was like an earthquake that disrupted our lives. It uprooted us from our day-to-day routine, depriving us of what we had up to then called "normal": almost like how we uproot vegetables from a garden, leaving them whole yet completely isolated. Likewise, transitioning back to face-to-face felt like learning how to walk again. However, journaling has helped us navigate through this awkward transition in a healthy manner. Journaling is a form of therapeutic writing which, as identified by Sargunaraj et al. (2020), is a promising technique in addressing emotion regulation – the “ability to identify, understand and accept emotional experiences, control impulsive behaviors when distressed, and flexibly modulate emotional responses appropriate to the situation” (p. 73). Although many people perceive journaling to be a monotonous activity requiring a pen and paper, it is versatile in style and content and has several benefits. From the vast ocean of journaling possibilities, a few simple types include Bullet, Reflective, Stream of Consciousness, Visual, Nature, and Gratitude Journaling.
Abbreviated BuJo, bullet journaling is the most common form of journaling, and whether consciously or not, most of us have tried it to keep track of our lives: the things we have done, the things we need to do, the things we aspire to be. To simplify and organize logging, Ryder Carroll has introduced an efficient bullet journal system – an analogue system designed to track the past, organize the present and plan for the future. Accordingly, the following are the five sections or core modules of the journal:
1. An Index
2. A Future Log where you divide the page by months to list monthly goals and migrate open tasks (elaborated below)
3. A Monthly Log which provides a bird-eye view of the entries to-do in the month, and includes a monthly task list with the corresponding date and day
4. A Daily Log which is also referred to as rapid logging, and includes:
a. The day & date
b. Entries which can either be listed as:
i. Tasks (dot bullet). Important task are denoted using signifiers, i.e., ‘ * ’
ii. Events (circle bullet)
iii. Notes (dash bullet)
c. Under the daily log, completed tasks are denoted using a ‘X ’ mark. On the other hand, there is a process to assess open tasks. First, ask yourself: Are they still worth doing in the short-term? If yes, then mark them as ‘ < ’ and copy the entry to the corresponding month into the future log. This is a process called migration, and it helps to weed out distractions.
5. Related Items
This can function as a subsection of the daily log and can be used to elaborate tasks. This section is useful for creating designated to-do’s or plans for projects or classes.
Although Carroll’s system is a good method for structuring your bullet journal, it does not mean that every bullet journal should follow the same structure. That is, you can edit out the listed core modules to customize the journal to your liking.
In essence, all forms of journaling require some form of reflection; however, this form of journaling is like a critical dialogue that you are having with yourself. Reflections help us to develop a degree of self-awareness and identify important learning events. To reap the full benefits of reflective writing, use small book to write entries rather than typing them on your devices because digital work is editable, and editing your entries can be restrictive, leading you to censor yourself. Donald Schon identified two forms of reflective practices: reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (Slesser et al., n.d.). In reflective writing, reflection-in-action is writing during an activity or event, whereas reflection-on-action is writing after an activity or event has occurred, and most journals are reflection-on-action. Regardless of when you decide to write your reflection, the most effective way to start a reflective entry is to follow the ‘DIE’ method: Describe, Interpret and Evaluate.
The first step is to recall an event and write it down descriptively, which sometimes involves answering prompts such as what happened or who was involved. A tip for reflective writing is to engage deeply, which can usually be done by describing the situation in detail to warm up to the reflection. The second step is to interpret the event. After writing the description, ask yourself the following questions to reflect: What is the most important/interesting/useful aspect of the event, idea or situation? How can it be explained? How is it similar to/different from others? When evaluating the event, conclude by writing what you have learned from the experience and how you can apply it in the future. Below are some reflective prompts (probes/questions) proposed by Sargunaraj et al. (2020, p. 77) that you can use to achieve the corresponding objectives:
Reflective writing can be challenging, but never try to censor yourself. Trying to be perfect in writing can restrict and push you away from journaling; remember, you are writing for yourself, so the journal is your safe place. With that being said, never feel pressured to fill up your journals; writing up a five-minute journal page is equally important and will foster a habit of journaling. Similarly, it is important to appreciate small wins; it is not necessary to write about ‘milestones’ or ‘life-changing’ experiences.
Stream of Consciousness Journaling
Stream of Consciousness is a technique you can use when writing a reflection. Additionally, you can find this writing style in fiction and poetry and sometimes in plays and films to visually represent a character’s thoughts. Essentially, this form of journaling is like a brain dump. It is like an internal monologue that allows the writer to articulate their thoughts, understand their thought process and identify patterns. It is reflective of what is happening inside the mind; that is, the focus is on how you think. Because of the freestyle nature of this form, write on paper instead of typing digitally. You will find yourself writing more freely on paper. Likewise, avoid self-editing, and do not worry about what you are writing or general writing conventions (i.e., punctuation or grammar). If you do not know what to write or where to start writing, you can simply write, “I don’t know what to write” until your thoughts start flowing on paper. Stream-of-consciousness writing can leave you feeling calm, centered and more balanced. Overall, this form of journaling is a great personal development and self-discovery tool, but this takes practice; it is also a great brainstorming technique to encourage creativity and intuitive writing and helps with writer’s block.
With visuals and various media, journal enthusiasts have created a unique form of journaling known as visual journaling with the goal of using art and writing to understand who we are. By documenting ideas through visuals, visual journaling stimulates self-reflection, builds self-confidence, self-esteem, and diversifies one's journaling routine. This form of reflective learning is a great way to allow anyone to step back from traditional learning experiences and hone in on their critical thinking skills. Visual journaling forces one to analyze an experience and capture or depict it in the form of a visual. By making this a habit, people can track their progress and actively improve on their future performance by analyzing previously documented experiences. Your visual journal is not limited to a sketchbook and should be considered an “everything book” because it can include a mixture of different types of media. There are no rules when it comes to journaling: it should be centered on connecting with one’s creativity (Shields, 2013).
To get started, a few ideas can be creating video diaries using an application called 1 Second Everyday. The app allows you to document a small moment of your day and then compiles these moments into a video at the end. This application is a very simple way to get into visual journaling since users have a choice between writing everyday or simply taking a picture everyday. Staying in line with taking a picture everyday, individuals can opt for a more traditional form of visual journaling such as scrapbooks, vision boards, doodles or sketches. You can begin your journaling journey through these creative and simple ways.
Visual journaling can be further broken down into more specific types, one being nature journaling. Nature journaling is the process of observing and recording patterns in plants, birds, and other natural things. For enthusiasts, nature can seem very daunting since there are millions of patterns, interactions, shapes and colors that can be found everywhere. In order to help sort out all this information and to make meaningful connections, a nature journal can be a great tool. Firstly, dedicate one journal solely to nature. Mixing journals can be confusing and makes it difficult to see the progression over time in patterns, trends, and seasonal changes in plants and animals. Secondly, it is important to identify your goals but not set a time frame in which to achieve them. Nature is ever changing and every individual has a unique journaling experience. Therefore, the purpose here is to merely set goals to help one stay focused on observing how nature changes rather than obtaining results in a given time frame. Lastly, using two fundamental journaling strategies known as field journaling and memory journaling can help beginners to get a grasp of nature journaling. Field journaling involves writing or making an entry in the moment you are experiencing nature. This technique is very useful in enhancing observation skills and allows the brain to ease and focus on smaller aspects. On the other hand, memory journaling is when an entry is made after the experience. This technique can help one realize any blind spots and motivate them to analyze nature more carefully next time.
A gratitude journal is simply a journal that is used to express your appreciation for all the positives in your life. Gratitude is said to be an uplifting emotion that can promote wellbeing, and combined with the therapeutic nature of journaling, it can help one gain a positive perspective. In order to foster a more positive outlook on life, gratitude journaling helps to lower anxiety, provide clarity, promote self-reflection, and set realistic goals. By setting realistic goals and focusing more on the aspects of life one can control, gratitude journaling helps provide a sense of clarity of what truly matters in life.
To get into the habit of gratitude journaling, you can follow a simple routine of making three entries per week. Three entries is not too many and will not be overwhelming, but at the same time, it is just the right number to help someone get into the gratitude mindset. While journaling, try to show all the minute details and involve all your senses. This helps to accentuate the emotions and can help to form the healthy habit of expressing your feelings. A final tip is to journal on specific days. This helps build a routine and makes it easier to stick to gratitude journaling.
Therapeutic writing is an activity that stimulates creative and critical thinking along with developing a conscious awareness of one’s emotional state. It can be used to lower anxiety levels and help in developing long-term goals that can be beneficial to one’s mental health. Journaling is a very subjective activity, varies from one individual to another, and is not limited to the various examples mentioned above. By mixing and combining various journaling techniques, any one person can create a unique journaling experience.
Sargunaraj, M., Kashyap, H., & Chandra, P. S. (2020). Writing your way through feelings: Therapeutic writing for emotion regulation. Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Mental Health, 8, 73–79. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40737-020-00198-1
Shields, S. S. (2013, December 4). What is a visual journal. Youtube. https://youtu.be/FNE9N5lECb0
Slesser, S., Morago, P., Bruce, L., & Macmillan, M. (n.d.). Reflective practice. Iriss. https://content.iriss.org.uk/reflectivepractice/credits.html