The power of journaling for healing, therapy and creativity
It’s 7am and I get up feeling tired and all over the place. But, in a typical fashion of the “carry on regardless” and a busy schedule, I do my best to pull myself together. I can’t quite pin down what I’m feeling or what I need. It’s all a jumble until I land on the page of my journal.
Within minutes my disorganized thoughts, worries and a bag of mixed emotions empty out. I gain a sense of order and feelings begin to clarify. My needs line up, helping me see a path to how I can meet them.
Ideas bubble up and concrete plans emerge. It’s as if having a space to park all that’s gotten too crammed within me creates much-needed breathing room and a process that reconnects me with my agency. I put everything back into my head but with a Marie Kondo effect.
My mind is back to feeling more organized. The resulting sense of clarity and control power me through the day and the day turns out well.
I’ve been using a journal to support my health and wellbeing for over 20 years. Just a few of the wellbeing benefits I experience from journaling are:
- boosting creativity
- supporting mental, emotional and physical health
- keeping track of ideas
- developing clarity and motivation
- boosting agency
- record keeping and tracking progress
- free and effective therapy
1. Journaling provides a space to distill my true feelings and needs
At times feelings can be tricky to pinpoint. Most of us walk around with a jumble of feelings in connection with what’s happening in the world, our own key systems such as family, friends, work, neighborhoods, and countries not to mention how we are feeling about ourselves.
Before we know it, being anxious about world affairs crosses over to being grumpy with a loved one or not even knowing why we feel tense or uneasy.
Feelings need space to breathe but when life moves fast and there is little time to pause, we may lack effective methods to process them. So, they keep accumulating.
Having effective ways to process emotions is incredibly beneficial. A bit like emptying out a closet full of clothes you wish to organize. My method for doing this is to journal.
How I journal
I give journaling – which for me includes writing and drawing – whatever time I can manage. If it’s 2min, I may just write, ‘Crazy day ahead and I will see you later!’ or a helpful mantra such as “Go slow and do what you can!”
Most often, I give myself 5min. This is enough time to draw my heart, mind, body and spirit framework and use it to help me connect with myself and what I need.
I draw a heart, a big circle with a small circle underneath it to represent my mind, a stick figure for a body, and the letter S for spirit. Then I ask each one – “What do you need most today?” I find this way of clarifying their respective needs very useful for helping me construct a well-balanced day. It may be a nice lunch treat or walk in the park that my body suggests.
Sometimes my heart hints that I will do good by calling a friend or sending a text to someone else. If I ask my mind, it often literally tells me to show up to a project I’ve been putting off. As I listen and follow through, I am more productive, calmer, and feel better about myself.
When I have more time, I give myself unstructured time to just write until I run out of things to say. I often start this exercise with the line, “Right now…” and see where this takes me.
2. Ordering my thoughts and creating visual plans
One of the things I like to use my journal for is to simply record ideas. I may make a list of them or doodle them out in simple drawings. I often find that the while page and being able to draw helps me work through them, see how they relate to one another, and think better.
From this, clarity emerges, conviction strengthens and it’s easier to see the missing links. Being a scientist I enjoy drawing axes, grids, timelines, and process diagrams.
What I find is that I could never do this level of thinking inside my head. It would simply be too tiring. And, I would quickly forget most of it. Writing it down gives me an anchor and a place to return to with updates. Many of these drawings also help me mark and visualize progress. And, as this is my personal journal, there’s an element of privacy to this method which feels artful in a way that my computer simply doesn’t.
My process and how I help others
I use a combination of different techniques for myself and in my 1:1 client work. These cover a very wide territory including:
- free form writing,
- writing poems and lyrics,
- riffing on a phrase or quote I like,
- creating collages,
- making word association maps,
- simple doodle drawings,
- writing headlines,
- comedy broadcasts,
- miniature movie scripts and short 3-act plays
I also use artworks as a means of connecting with personally meaningful material and, narrative writing.
All these forms of expression invite connection with what matters, what touches, what aches, and what longs to be written and said. As all this takes place in my journal, the work remains private. In fact, I strongly believe that this is best.
When we write or create just for us, the process is naturally designed to be self-serving. There’s less self-censoring or a need to please anyone or get it right!
With some clients and also to support my burnout recovery and integration work in 1:1 clinics, I also make use of my Grid method as a creative framework, the 4 Energy cylinders exercise from my first book Get Productive, and the heart, mind, body, and spirit framework I mentioned earlier.
This last method I describe in some detail in my recent book Body Talk, which itself is a method I developed for cultivating dialogue with oneself in order to heal and support the physical body. You will find more articles and resources to all these methods throughout this site and in our open workshops and retreats.
3. Free therapy
Journaling is also where I process many deeper matters outside coaching and therapy. It’s where I can write about trauma, personal conflicts, explore complex emotions and come face to face with truths that might be hard to language until I can make sense of them.
This process not only helps me reconnect with my whole self, it also helps me build a more authentic connection with others.
What I especially love about this is the fact that journals provide a practical means of sense-checking where our minds and wishful thinking can sometimes deceive us. As someone who has survived trauma, I often notice that part of trauma recovery requires time to come to terms with difficult situations and their impact. I am only now able to process the trauma of being forced to move countries as a child for example.
Having recently read Carol Spring’s book Unshame, where she shares her journey into therapy. Her experience of the process really resonated with my own, and what I observe facilitating workshops for clients and professional coaches and therapists.
Writing down our truths in the form of letters, diary entries, poems or creative writing helps us discover ourselves. In this way, it is a form of therapy. It allows us to face what is and often naturally pulls us in the direction of writing about how we feel about things.
The power of writing in therapy is well supported by science.
Writing about stressful or emotional events results in physical and psychological improvements in clinical and non-clinical populations. For example, the work of James Pennebaker on expressive writing as a form of healing is very well established and shows that writing is an effective form of therapy for depression and healing trauma as well as chronic pain.
Over the last twenty years, a rich body of research are in agreement; taking just a few minutes to write about your personal experiences as well as the problems you face provides a simple mechanism for processing them.
This works well for positive and negative experiences suggesting that the key benefit journaling is helping us integrate our experiences. This in turn can help with:
- The healing of emotional wounds and managing our resourcesfulnes against adversity.
- Provide greater sense of well-being and calm.
- Decrease stress and improve sleep.
- Improve how we connect with other people and also how we perceive them.
- Boosts the function of the immune system creating greater resilence and strength.
How to get started
Here are 3 simple steps to get you started on your journal.
1. Choose your medium
Pick your medium. You could be doing simple notes on your phone, investing in a paper journal or writing on your computer or electronic notebook.
2. Start small
Give yourself no more than 5min to connect with yourself and note down what’s happening. Here are some quick ways to get started.
- Pick a color to describe how you’re feeling.
- Write one sentence that best captures how you want to feel or what you need most.
- Make a list of all the feelings you can detect and notice you’re often a complex cocktail of emotions.
- I personally really like this simple framework I came across long ago where you write out a bubble diagram that covers your (a) key feelings, (b) current responsibilities, (c) any concerns, (d) present worries, and (e) things you’re gratful for.
- Writing whatever comes to your mind.
3. Work journaling into your existing reutine
Your journaling practice can support you over time but there’s no need to aim for daily practice.
Journal when you feel called to show up to a page or when how you’re feeling may benefit from doing just that. Experiment with it and you will no doubt soon discover the short-term relief and long-term benefits of this practice.
Finally, treat journaling as a creative or artistic practice. Whether it’s a place of record, inspiration, ideas, structuring your thoughts, space for reflection, or musings, make it truly yours. Write and create for yourself.
My journals are not a diary of actual events. They are a space to unpack the past, present, and future in relation to me, my feelings, and my needs. The practice helps me slow down and give structure to what’s going on for me, the relationships I have with others, and most of all the relationship I am in with myself. It helps me understand myself and life better and create meaning from it all.
What will yours do for you?
Start forging beautiful emotional connections
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At Make Time Count we help people connect more deeply with themselves and others to create more fulfilling and meaningful lives. Find out more:
- Watch our Mind and Heart TEDx talk which explains why we believe connecting heart and mind matters.
- Explore our books to help you create a richer and more connected life.
- Build a life that supports you from the inside out with our very powerful personal development course to create a more balanced, aligned and rewarding life using our Grid method.
I like how you mentioned that it is a good idea to invest in a paper journal when you are wanting to start journaling. With that in mind, I would think that it would be a good idea to find a journal that has a hardcover and plenty of pages. You would want a hardcover so that the things you write can last for a long time.
I’m a fan of paper for many reasons. Its vulnerability for example. It is there and yet it can get wet, burn or be lost. There is something absolutely gorgeous about an empty page of a journal and our encounter with it. We show up not quite knowing what will come out. And then we see it take form. Us reflected back. I also love its spontaneity and non-judgmental nature. Journals are steam-of-consciousness magic. We can be stuck or take any turn. Ideas and feelings can become drawings or whatever they need to be to capture what we experience within. I can’t think of many things that have the same therapeutic and wonderful quality. Thank you for leaving your comment. As to hardcovers – yes, there is a greater sense of a container here for me.