Are You Forgetting This Key Part of Your Journaling Practice?

Journaling

Therapists have been touting the benefits of journaling for years, whether you do it on your own or in conjunction with talk therapy. If you’re not going back and re-reading your journal entries, though, you’re missing out on a key part of the practice.

It can feel cringey to go back and read what you wrote during tough times. Since our journals are a way to process our most difficult emotions, the content can be over-the-top angsty. Once you get past the embarrassment that comes with having actual feelings, you can probe your old entries for further healing opportunities.

Journaling for better overall health

If you don’t already have a journaling practice, it’s time to start. This New York Times article describes how journaling can affect your physical, mental and emotional health: “There are the obvious benefits, like a boost in mindfulness, memory and communication skills. But studies have also found that writing in a journal can lead to better sleep, a stronger immune system, more self-confidence and a higher I.Q. Research out of New Zealand suggests that the practice may even help wounds heal faster.”

Your journal doesn’t have to be a work of art. In fact, it doesn’t even have to make sense. One popular technique is Julia Cameron’s “morning pages,” from The Artist’s Way. You wake up and write three pages of stream-of-consciousness thoughts. This serves as an opportunity to get all the whiny, petty and painful feelings out of the way first thing. While the book suggests this as a way to nurture creativity, it has a valuable effect on your overall well-being.

Whether you’re trying to nurture your creativity or just need a place to dump your unpleasant emotions, “[k]eeping a journal…helps to organize an event in our mind, and make sense of trauma. When we do that, our working memory improves, since our brains are freed from the enormously taxing job of processing that experience, and we sleep better.”

Review your old entries for further healing

You’ll get something out of journaling, even if you don’t go back and read your old entries. If you take the opportunity to read and analyze them, however, you’ll reap even more benefits. Reviewing your journal entries can be done at whatever interval is most comfortable for you. Some people do it weekly, while others wait until they’re farther removed from traumatic situations. If you’re working with a therapist, they might have suggestions on timing, tailored to your individual needs.

Here’s what to watch for in your old entries:

  • Exaggerations: Breakups, work disasters, poor grades, family blowouts—it’s easy to feel like these unpleasant circumstances signal the end of the world. When you re-read your journal entries, watch for your exaggerations. When do you tend to exaggerate, and why? Were the situations ever as bad as they initially appeared?
  • Negative thought loops: When do you get stuck in a vicious cycle of negative thoughts? What triggers them? Can you spot any pattern to them? How do they end?
  • Rumination: Similar to negative thought loops, look for any time you ruminated about a situation. Sometimes we carry around trauma and grief from situations that happened ages ago. Other times, we may find ourselves obsessing over things we can’t control. What is it about these situations that leads you to ruminate?
  • Poor self-talk: Beating yourself up isn’t conducive to good mental health, yet many of us do it anyway. Sometimes that’s a defense mechanism, as if being overly critical with yourself will prevent future mistakes, gaffes or other issues. While it’s good to be self-aware, it’s not good to be cruel. If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, you probably shouldn’t say it to yourself.

Once you’ve identified these occurrences, start asking questions. Why do certain situations bother you so much? When and how did they end? What did you learn from them? What helped you get through the pain, and what hurt worse? Sit with these questions and see if they bring up anything insightful, helpful or even triggering.

In a sense, you’re acting as your own therapist. It’s not a substitute for talk therapy with a licensed counselor, but it can dramatically improve your life regardless. Whether you’re waiting to see a therapist, you can’t afford the cost or you just want to deepen your healing, journaling and reviewing periodically can make a massive difference.

Best of all, since your journal is private, no one ever has to know that your deepest emotions rival those of a goth teenager.

Evan DeMarco

Evan DeMarco is a leading sports medicine and nutrition expert, published author, public speaker and frequent guest on television, radio, and digital platforms.

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