journals and pencils

Starting The Year With The Practice Of Journaling

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January is a time of fresh beginnings. It is often a time when we look to the months ahead, and begin to set some intentions or even goals like starting the year with the practice of journaling. At the start of the year, we often bring a new energy and momentum to ourselves, and what we hope to manifest.

This January, in particular, has also been acutely stressful. With the upcoming transition of power, the recent riots at the Capitol building, and a global pandemic bearing down on us, there has been no shortage of crises and life events to process. We find ourselves in this mix of a hopeful new beginning along with anxiety and turmoil. 

During times of high stress or crisis, we must find a way to ground down and steady ourselves. Our self care provides a solid foundation underneath us, when the world around us feels chaotic and uncertain. How each of us practices self care is different, but the fundamental principles remain the same. Self care is not selfish. In fact, self care is how we express kindness and compassion towards ourselves, which in turn supports both our resilience and our ability to give to others.  

The practice of journaling can be one 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. On a day to day basis, we often 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. Sometimes this provides relief.  Sometimes, the practice of journaling allows us to step back and simply take a look at what has been unfolding inside. Journaling 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, with a sense of curiosity, openness and friendliness.  

For me, journaling has been a lifeline throughout the ups and downs of what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “the full catastrophe.”  Life is full, between being a spouse, a mother, a psychiatrist, a family member, a friend, and just a member of the human race. While the stressors always bring me away from myself, returning to the page means returning to my mind, heart, and body.  It is where I pause and 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 also 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 in between sessions. Often they can use the practice of journaling as a way to make sense of what happened in a particular session, or to uncover new insights. My patients often bring their journals in to their appointments. In these deeply intimate moments, I gain access to their inner world in a new way, a way that is often unfiltered and honest.  The pages become both part of the process, as well as part of the result, of our time together.  

Here are a few tips for starting or deepening your journaling practice, tips that I often remind myself of, or offer to interested patients as well.   

  1. Allow it to be restorative. Sometimes when we begin a journaling practice, especially when it’s part of a new year’s resolution, we set a schedule for ourselves, or expect ourselves to fill a certain number of pages, or write daily for a certain number of minutes. 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, so that you look forward to journaling. Journaling is a self care practice, not a self improvement practice.  
  1. Create a ritual. Journaling often works best when we create a welcoming ritual around it.  For example, choose tools that you love like a beautiful journal that feels good in your hands, a variety of pens and pencils that give you freedom to express yourself, 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 it is time for you to finally spend some time with yourself. Create an experience that facilitates your desire to turn to the page.
  1. Find freedom in your writing. Often journaling is just about downloading our emotions in the messiest possible way, or keeping the pen moving.  Some individuals love to create works of art in their journal; 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 in what you write down. 

Finally, here are a few prompts to jump start your practice.  Of course you don’t need to begin with a prompt, only if it feels helpful for you.

  1. 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?  
  1. 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 to note down what is true, right here, right now.
  1. 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 bringing journaling into your self care routines. Ultimately, your journaling practice is just that–yours, and a practice. Journaling is deeply personal, and an opportunity to return to yourself and your own 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 when you feel journaling may serve you, not just in January. The blank page is always there for you, whenever you may need it.  

Dr. Monisha Vasa is a board certified General and Addiction Psychiatrist, based in Orange County, California. She is a wellness consultant for physicians at UC Irvine Medical Center, as well as City of Hope National Medical Center. Dr. Vasa is the author of two children’s books, as well as her first volume of poetry entitled, “Salve: Words for the Journey.”  She is also the co-founder of the “More Happiness, Less Suffering” podcast (@mhlspodcast), as well as the co-founder of “Sustainable Caring,” a digital course on burnout prevention and resilience. She is the mother of two tween-aged children, and a long distance runner. Learn more at www.monishavasa.com, or on Instagram @drmonishavasa.

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