Journaling: What are the Benefits? What to Journal About? and How We Can Make it a Habit?

What do you do when you feel as if you cannot hold your emotions within you? When you are a cup, ill equipped to hold the volume of your feelings, and at any moment, it can all come spilling out creating a mess that would be more than a little inconvenient to clean? For me, the answer is I write it down. Since I was a child, I have loved to write, and very early on I realized that when I put my ideas into words, even if I was unclear when I started, by the time I finished, I would have more clarity than when I began. As an adult, I can add personal color to the widely accepted and research backed consensus that journaling can be life changing. When I post on my instagram story about my journal, I’ve had several people ask me how I journal and what I journal about. I am here to offer research, ideas, and resources for those who wish to know more and begin to journal. 

The Research

Deborah Christensen, MSN, APRN, AOCN writes that studies have shown that journaling helped Registered Nurses experience less compassion fatigue, make better decisions, and be more self aware. Though this study is specifically for nurses, I know that compassion fatigue and decision making are HUGE for teachers, especially after COVID. We encounter a multitude of student stories, some of which are traumatic. I remember my first year teaching. I was not prepared for the emotional toll of listening to my beloved students’ struggles. Not to mention, I had trauma myself as a teacher. One year, we lost a student, and I had to hold my students as they cried from hearing the news. I say this to emphasize that this profession has an emotional toll and our mental health should be taken seriously. Teachers also experience decision making fatigue. The amount of decisions that teachers make a day is ludicrous. Should we let this student go to the bathroom?; Should I address this behavior in front of the group or in a one on one?; Did my students grasp the concept, or should I re-explain using a different method? The list goes on and on.

I say all this to say, that though the nature or our compassion and decision making fatigue may be different than nurses, it is still a relevant concern in our profession. Journaling is a technique that can help, and why wouldn’t we want help?

What to Journal About?

Reflection is Key

Identifying emotions is one journaling practice that can help you process your emotions, while fostering the emotional awareness you need to set an intention for your day. I know what you’re thinking: “But I don’t have time, I already have to be at the school at the crack of dawn.” Well, I got you. Christensen shows a resource in her article that is has to be the quickest journaling prompt in the world. You just write down one word that expresses how you feel in all of the following categories: Physically, Emotionally, Spiritually, and Relationally. The example she gives in her article looks like this

Physically-Energetic

Emotionally-Anxious

Spiritually-Satisfied

Relationally-seeking

If you are having trouble identifying how you are feeling, you can save this graphic of the emotional word wheel to your phone, so you can identify exactly how you are feeling in each area. 

Gratitude is Good for Your Health

Celebration can be good for your immune system! Yes, when you write, celebrate what you are grateful for! Yes, for those of us who are on the more cynical side, who delight in satire and sarcasm, may find this unnatural and odd, but trust me, pushing through the immediate eye roll and making it a habit is worth it. By the time it is a habit, you will be looking around and noticing that you have more to be grateful for than you hold in your conscious mind on a regular basis. No, I do not think that this is a cure all, and I don’t think you should use it to gaslight yourself from a negative situation. But acknowledging that both gratitude and sorrow can exist at the same time is powerful. How can you expect to have a positive life if you never take the time to reflect on what is positive.

I started my gratitude journal by just writing down 5 things that I am grateful for in the morning. It doesn’t have to be life altering events to be worthy of documentation. Anything you are grateful for qualifies. The sun outside, the cup of coffee you’re drinking, the fact that you were able to take that last breath, anything that is positive. Eventually it got easier and the things that I am grateful for just flowed out of my pen.

Meditate on something you read

Another way I like to journal is to write about a poem or a quote that resonated with me. One book of poetry that I highly recommend for this is All Along You Were Blooming: Thoughts for Boundless Living By Morgan Harper Nichols. Wow, I loved this book so much I bought two more copies to give away as gifts. Morgan also has an instagram page where she shares her art and inspirational thoughts. I also love the book Celebrations by Maya Angelou. The poems are short enough to fit into a quick morning routine, but have deep and beautiful ideas to start your day off with.

Dream

You can also use your journaling routine to dream. Some days I start off my day by free journaling about what I want out of life. I think about my goals, my desired emotional state, and the nature of my desired relationships. This helps to motivate me throughout the day. It is important to think about your goals in the positive. Think about your goals as if they have already happened, so you can focus on the good feeling, and not the feeling lack.

Look it Up

If you are still stumped on what to journal about, you can look up journal prompts. When I was researching for this post, I googled journaling prompts, and there are hundreds of resources to help prompt you to write if you are at a loss for words. 

How to Get Started and Keep Going

Journaling is a habit. It is something that you will need to put into your routine until it becomes automatic. You must be intentional especially if you are not naturally inclined to writing. If this is a new habit or you struggle to be consistent it might be helpful to stack this habit with something you do already. If you would like to learn more about habit stacking, I give an overview on my blog post “Personal Habits for A Successful School Year.” I go over techniques for creating and maintaining habits from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. 

Sources:

Wilson, D. R. (2014). Mindful Celebration: It is Good for You. International Journal of Childbirth Education, 29(1), 4–5.

Christensen, D. (2018). Writing for Wellness. One Voice, 25–25.

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