When I was in school, I had several teachers that required us to journal on a regular basis. Of course there were certain parameters and topics we had to cover. We were graded according to how well we followed instructions, and whether our writing was free of spelling and grammatical errors. Many clients I work with have had the same experience with journaling. So when I bring up the fact that journaling has been shown to improve mental health, they are hesitant, approaching it like a school assignment. But this is not what I'm suggesting.
James Pennebaker, a social psychologist and researcher, pioneered what is known as the expressive writing method—an intervention that has shown to improve the mental and emotional health of participants. The research done by Pennebaker showed that writing about one's own story can help with coping and processing memories. Here is the step-by-step process for journaling using this method:
1. Find a notebook or journal.
It doesn't have to be a fancy leather-bound diary—a simple notebook with lines will do.
2. Time yourself for 15 minutes.
Set a watch or the timer on your phone.
3. Write about a specific memory or an issue you are currently dealing with.
Don't worry about spelling or grammar. You are not being graded. This is all about getting your emotions out on paper.
4. Do this four days in a row.
Try writing before bed when you are winding down, or during some quiet time when you won't be interrupted.
Unlike the tedious journaling that many of us did in school, this activity is meant to be freeing. You may find that your entries turn into prayers and one-sided conversations with God on paper. One reason I believe this method works is that you are allowing yourself to process things through free association—the same thing one does during therapy.
When traumatic things happen in our lives, we often try to find meaning. Words are meanings, and when you put your experience into words, you might be surprised at the insight and meaning you discover.
So there you go. Give it a shot and let me know what happens.
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