3 Ways to Start Journaling to Ease Stress and Anxiety

Given that 2020 has left most of us feeling mentally overwhelmed, stressed and uncertain, it’s an ideal time to adopt a new habit to find clarity: daily journaling. 

D.C.-based life coach Catherine Andrews says the challenge with a daily journaling practice is that it feels overwhelming. “People get stuck staring at a blank page,” she says. 

Enter micro-journaling: a way to express your thoughts and feelings in a defined template and time limit, as short as 7 minutes a day. 

But why journal at all?

Studies on the health benefits of expressive writing about stressful events have shown that the practice resulted in improvements in both physical and psychological health, including reduced blood pressure, immune system functioning and working memory. We know from research that journaling can be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy for young adults with depression. 

Positive psychology has long upheld the specific benefits of a gratitude journaling practice, which range from better exercise patterns to fewer physical ailments. As Alex Korb, Ph.D. writes: “Your brain loves to fall for the confirmation bias, that is it looks for things that prove what it already believes to be true. And the dopamine reinforces that as well. So once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for.”

Journaling is one of the modalities that Andrews recommends often with clients. Here are three techniques that she recommends to help you get started.

Prompt-Based Journaling

With this approach, you decide on a set of prompts — perhaps three or four questions — that you will answer each day. The questions can be completely by your design, and can even invite simple, one word or one sentence responses. Here are a few prompts to get your gears turning:

  • One way I’ll check in with myself today is...
  • One thing I’m grateful for is...
  • One way I’ll move my body today is…
  • Something that I have been avoiding is…
  • One strength of mine that I can share with the world today is…
  • How I hope to feel at the end of the day...

Brain Dump Journaling

This technique uses stream-of-consciousness writing with a time limit, and is great to use once you’ve gotten some practice with prompt-based. Set a timer for 7 minutes and begin with one problem or nagging, intrusive thought you have been having. Perhaps it is something scary like, “I’m afraid that a family member will contract COVID,” or “What if I lose my job?” Write that thought down at the top of the page, and then free-write anything that stems from that until the timer goes off. Try not to lift your pen from the page.

“My Day Ahead” Morning Journaling

For this technique, you script with as much detail as possible exactly how your day ahead will go. “You can go into the day with a proactive mindset, rather than letting your phone and inbox tell you what’s important,” said Andrews. “You get the combination of setting intention but also letting yourself dream a bit about what an ideal day would look like.” Use the time to get a bit lost in your fantasies — as long as you capture it all.

Which brings us to the last point: you have to routinely put in the effort in order for these techniques to work. Choose a time of the day (morning may be best) and stick with it. Andrews also recommends dedicating a space to your journaling, even if it's just a cleared spot at your dining room table. “Put a candle there, flowers, clear it off and use the same spot for journaling every day. The side benefit of having a dedicated spot is that you'll also learn from muscle memory to associate this spot with journaling, which will encourage your habit.”

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