The Magic of Journaling by Monisha Vasa, MD
During times of high stress or crisis, we must find a way to slow down and steady ourselves. Our self-care provides a solid foundation beneath us when the world around us feels chaotic and uncertain. How each of us practices self-care varies, but the fundamental principles remain the same. Self-care is not selfish; it’s how we express kindness and compassion toward ourselves, which in turn supports both our resilience and our ability to give to others.
Journaling can be a powerful tool for self-care, as well as for overall emotional and spiritual growth. We can use journaling as a way to “touch base” and check in with ourselves, something we often neglect to do. It’s easy to find ourselves lost in an overwhelming storm of thoughts, emotions and body sensations. Journaling allows us to release all of those experiences onto the page—and sometimes, this provides relief. Journaling allows us to step back and take a look at what has been unfolding inside. It can also help us gain a sense of control and agency over the confusing mix of feelings inside. Like mindfulness, journaling allows us to observe our moment-by-moment experiences through a lens of curiosity, openness and friendliness.
For me, journaling has been a lifeline through the ups and downs of what Zorba the Greek coined “the full catastrophe” of life. Life is full: I am a spouse, a mother, a psychiatrist, a family member, a friend and a member of the human race. When the stressors pull me away from myself, returning to the page returns me to my mind, heart and body. It is where I pause, where I ask myself the questions that the busyness of the day often obscures. It is where I remind myself to slow down and be kind to myself.
I recommend journaling to my patients who are interested in developing new tools for self-care and managing emotions. Journaling gives patients a way to express themselves between our sessions. Many of my patients use journaling to make sense of what happened in a particular session or to uncover new insights. They often bring their journals with them to their appointments. In these profoundly intimate moments, I gain access to their inner world in a new way—one that is unfiltered and honest. The pages become part of the process and part of the result of our time together.
Here are a few tips for starting or deepening your journaling practice:
Allow it to be restorative: Sometimes, when we begin a journaling practice, we set a schedule for ourselves or expect ourselves to fill a certain number of pages or write daily for a proscribed amount of time. We don’t want journaling to be a place for high expectations or self-improvement. Allow journaling to be a safe space for you to unwind, unload and let go. Allow your practice to be flexible—you want to look forward to journaling, not dread it. Journaling is a self-care practice, not a self-improvement practice.
Create a ritual: Journaling often works best when you create a welcoming ritual around it. Choose tools that you love: a beautiful journal that feels good in your hands, a variety of pens and pencils that give you the freedom to express yourself and, maybe, a cup of coffee or tea. Perhaps you turn to your journal in the quiet of the early morning or late at night when everyone has gone to bed and you can finally spend some time with yourself. Create an experience that facilitates your desire to turn to the page.
Find freedom in your writing: Often, journaling is just about downloading our emotions in the messiest possible way or keeping the pen moving. Some love to create works of art in their journals; for others, it is about emotional expression and release. Let yourself forget all rules of punctuation, grammar and capitalization. Simply allow yourself to write, doodle or draw what needs to be expressed. Don’t worry about perfect sentences and neat handwriting. This is your time to let it all go, including the need for perfection and beauty. Remember that you can throw your journal away or burn it later, in case that helps you to feel safer about what you commit to paper.
Finally, here are a few prompts to jump-start your practice. Of course, you don’t need to begin with a prompt; use one only if it feels helpful for you.
Today, plan to write once in the morning and once at night. In the morning, without inhibition, self-judgment or limits, brainstorm your intentions for the day. In the evening, return to the page and reflect upon the day in the form of a gratitude list. What went right?
Right now, write down five things you see, four things you hear, three things you touch, two things you smell, one thing you taste. It’s okay to be creative or use your imagination! Write whatever comes to mind as a way of noting what is true, right here, right now.
Create your dream self-care plan. Use the pages of a journal to draw, brainstorm, list or envision how you can best care for yourself right now. What is it that you truly need, and how can you best meet those needs with kindness and care?
These suggestions and prompts are simply invitations or starting points to bring journaling into your self-care routine. Ultimately, your journaling practice is just that: it’s yours ,and it’s a practice. Journaling is deeply personal. It’s an opportunity to return to yourself and your thoughts, emotions and experiences with curiosity and kindness. There are no rules, only what works for you. Remember that you can begin again, at any time and in any place where you feel journaling may serve you. The blank page is always there for you whenever you may need it.
Monisha Vasa, MD
Dr. Monisha Vasa is a board-certified general and addiction psychiatrist in Orange County. She is a wellness consultant and mindfulness facilitator for resident physicians at UC Irvine Medical Center and the faculty and trainees at City of Hope National Medical Center. She is also the co-host of the "More Happiness, Less Suffering" podcast, which integrates mindfulness and mental health to address life's challenges.
Dr. Vasa is an avid daily journaler and poet, and she recently published her first volume of poetry entitled Salve: Words for the Journey. She recently completed her certification in Narrative Medicine through Columbia University. Dr. Vasa is also a long-distance runner, beginning student of yoga and mother to two tweenaged children.
Phone/fax: (949) 612-3955
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