Journal Keeping for Health and Productivity
Journals are one of the most valuable and accessible self-help tools available.
In times of stress and duress, journaling can help work through some of the most difficult life challenges, such as the death of a spouse with the difficulty that follows.
An award-winning author, grief support advocate, and marketing consultant, Linda Donovan,¹ shares a personal piece about the healing power of journaling in her life as an opening to our exploration of a valuable tool anybody can use. Dr. Parks then continues the narrative about the history and purpose of journaling, benefits, eight tips for doing a journal, and resources.
The Healing Power of Journaling
Even though my husband Paul was terminally ill, and I was prepared for his death in 2006, it was still very difficult to adjust to this loss at that time. Journaling helped me to communicate, sort through, and explore what was going on in my mind.
Journaling was an easy practice for me to follow and maintain. I journaled periodically after my father died more than thirty years ago but didn’t stick with it long enough to fully address my feelings of loss and helplessness. When Paul died, however, I would write down my thoughts each night for the first few months.
Paul had cancer that spread to his liver and passed away almost six months after he was diagnosed. Initially, I set aside a certain time each night that was exclusively devoted to journaling. I continued to write in my journal on an occasional basis more than a year after his passing.
Although I didn’t realize it, that initial routine helped me to handle daily responsibilities more effectively because it gave me the opportunity to focus on grief outside my working hours. I was working full time and taking care of my teenage daughter when Paul died. Journaling was my private time to communicate with Paul and reflect on how I was going to manage my life without him.
Each night at 10:30, before I went to sleep, I would write a letter to Paul and describe my day and emotions. I’d go through the usual conversations that I might have had with him if he had been alive. At times, my letters were very sad. I’d ask him questions like, “Why did you have to die so soon?”
I’d describe the day’s events, whether it involved telling him about how I tackled a project at work or how the Boston Red Sox had done that day. He was a big Red Sox fan, and one of the last things he said to me while he was still able to speak was, “Did the Red Sox win the big game?” Even when they lost, I would tell him the Red Sox were doing fine. After all, why upset a dying man who has worshipped his favorite team his entire life?
One benefit of journaling for me was gaining the opportunity to ask Paul, the special person in my life, any questions that I didn’t get to ask during his lifetime. It was an immense help in my coping with the unfinished business left painfully behind after the death of a loved one.
The journaling allowed me to process regrets, “such as I wish I could’ve done more to prevent his death,” even though these thoughts commonly burden survivors. My journal allowed me to get these painful worries, ideas, and emotions out of my head. These feelings and thoughts had a place to go outside my head — to my journal. It allowed me to be mentally present for the challenge as a survivor after the death of a loved one,
My recordings allowed me to be more present instead of being preoccupied and somewhere else. I essentially was able to free up space in my brain, like offloading memory to a flash drive, so that I could focus on the things in front of me and move forward. What might seem like a one way of writing and recording thoughts and feeling, actually, for me, was a two-way dialogue with my lost loved one. I got clarity and answers as if I were directly talking to my deceased husband. I would imagine myself in Paul’s shoes and think about how he would respond, and then I would have my answer or the direction I could consider taking.
History and Purpose of Journaling
Drawing, Writing, and Journal Keeping have a history dating back to prehistoric times when people put events on the cave walls with primitive graphics. As the written word and art developed, people recorded their thoughts, reflections, intentions, and plans. The purpose of journaling can be for multiple reasons and purposes as creative expression, exploration of ideas, dreams, fears, or worries. The value could be the searching for deeper understanding, insight, or meaning. But most commonly are the need for personal organization, goal setting, and planning.
The journal can be an essential tool for discovery, healing, and getting back into balance and the flow of life. In therapy work, journaling becomes a valuable tool to prioritize life choices and concerns, support positive self-talk and affirmations, and increase awareness of negative thoughts and related behaviors. Journaling today can be in many forms and recorded methods: some like the simplicity of writing or drawing on a piece of paper; others use modern technology, such as computers, smartphone apps, dictation methods, design programs, or interactive programs with guides and prompts.²
My Fascination with Journaling
When I was a small boy, two of my older brothers had different aspirations and talents. Robert, the oldest, used to study intensely with a friend frequently to help each other pass their high school biology and science courses, with their dream of getting into medical school. Robert was very precise and detailed in his notes and recording of assignments in notebooks. He would often make clear schematics or drawings when needed. All of this fascinated me, and perhaps it influenced my pursuing a career in medicine.
When I was in college and trying to pass Organic Chemistry, Robert advised me to write out all the material I needed to remember and repeatedly fill out as many notebooks as required. It worked, and I got the highest grade in my course. It was one course that helped me get into medical school. Later, I realized I had a form of dyslexia, and that note keeping and journaling had been a great aid.
Jerry, several years younger than my oldest brother, was a genuine artist with dreams of being an architect, was a genuine artist with dreams of being an architect. He was always doing artistic creations, either as drawings or woodworking. He would keep some sketch pad-like journals that I was so fascinated to look through and admire. I recaptured some of my artistic, creative spirits in my later years by taking up writing. Jerry always encouraged me to write. He brought his creativity into the world of commercial construction and development. Like Jerry, I struggled in my early school years with the challenges of my unique ways of learning and processing information. Still, following my oldest brother’s way of detailed journaling and note-taking, I could succeed in my academic work.
In later years, during my psychiatry residency, one of my favorite mentors was in psychoanalytic training and kept prodigious dream journals. His journaling again fascinated me, and I started doing so myself. Soon after, several classmates recommended I seek a talented staff and faculty member of the hospital and psychiatric department who had a particular interest in dreams. He was of a Jungian orientation but called himself a nature mystic. As strange as it sounds, the morning after, I had the most bizarre dream imaginable, my first in technicolor, of a multi-color horse exploding with color going everywhere. I stumbled into his office in one of the back corridors of the hospital. I had trouble finding his well-hidden office.
Norm Bradford, an excellent teacher, and psychologist, became one of my favorite mentors, a great doer, and a dream journaling and awareness advocate. His office had interesting books and pictures of unicorns, fairies, and mythical beings like a wizard’s cave. I immediately, of course, told him of my multi-color dream of the explosion of vivid colors. He looked deep into my eyes, and as I interpreted what he said, the very conservative path I was following, including the medical training, had become stifling. An artist and creator were coming to the surface and exploding all over the place. I think he said it much more succinctly as something like I was ready to let go or become crazy.
Later in my early career and work in psychiatry, Tom Moore, a friend and colleague, wrote a book called Caring for the Soul.³ His book was a long-time best seller on the New York bestseller list and is still an inspiring book. (endnote). Tom would probably agree with me that writing and journaling are a way of caring for the soul and for surviving tough times. He always encouraged me to do dreamwork and significantly influenced my love of journaling.
I also thought about Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning.⁴ The book is one of the most influential books in the United States and has sold over ten million copies. He later established his therapeutic work called Existential Analysis or Logotherapy. His thoughts and writing helped him survive incredible suffering for three years at the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp. He found out on the release that almost his entire family had died in the concentration camps.
He had a draft manuscript of his ideas before going into the camps that were lost or taken from him. During his savage imprisonment and what he witnessed, he could find scraps of paper to write his thoughts as often as possible. He hid these scraps, later lost, but he could recapture many of his profound observations and reflections in his landmark book. He was able to come back from a place of deep despair, loss, and grieving. In the book he eventually published, I imagine his day-to-day writing or journaling-like process was part of finding his purpose and meaning to survive after his traumatic ordeal, degradation, and loss of his family.
Please read further to look into journal types, benefits, eight tips for doing a journal, and resources.
Types of Journals
Blank Page Journal provides an open page-like notebook to record such things as feelings, thoughts, challenges, and occurrences. A Diary Type Journal is a similar form of journaling, with a recording of one’s free flow of writing and ideas about your day, activities, or impressions. Spontaneous expression, free association, or stream-of-consciousness writings can unlock your inhibitions and subconscious as you write what comes to mind. For writers, it is a way of unlocking creative expression and feelings that can be a starting point or inspiration for writing material or a new project.
Dream Journal is one of my favorites that has wide use for personal discovery, creative work, and awareness. Dream journaling is an excellent tool for personal use or aid in different therapy work, such as psychodynamic, Jungian, and trauma-focused therapies. Remembering dreams improves as you do the journaling. Dream journaling helps in therapy work and can be a gateway to understanding more hidden or repressed emotions, memories, or subconscious material vital to full and awake functioning.⁵
Mental Health Help/Improvement/Therapy Journal aids work on stress, depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties; rehearsal for upcoming challenges; as a tool or companion when involved in therapy or recovery work. This type of journal is a valuable format to record symptoms, triggers, feeling states, thoughts with the times and locations, and gauges treatment response and improvement. In Cognitive Behavioral type therapy and self-help work, it is essential to record and recognize negative thoughts, self-talk, and behaviors to enhance change to positive, helpful alternatives.
Trauma Journal is a tool in mental health work for recording memories and processing trauma-related material, often under the guidance of a teacher or mental health caregiver.
Gratitude Journal focuses on the positives by recording events, things, or people for which you feel grateful. Anything is includable that feels like a blessing or benefit, towards happiness, nurturance, or success. The entries and processes enhance positive thinking, moods, and well-being. It helps counters scarcity thinking and feelings of lack. Such recordings bring the full appreciation of any experiences of generosity and support from others, often overlooked, that have been present and positive in your life. The gratitude journal also helps get unstuck if dwelling in anger, victimhood, resentment, envy, or feeling abandoned, neglected, or unsupported by others.
A Manifestation journal is a valued place to record all the things you would wish for or like to be a positive outcome for anything desired or hoped for that could be a love relationship, a job, or career fulfillment. It comes from the philosophy that if you envision and put something out there persistently and strongly enough, it will manifest itself and become a reality.
Meditation Journal is for recording your insightful thoughts, reflections, inspiration, visions, realizations, and revelations that come to you during your daily life activities, dreams, or in your mindfulness and meditation practices. Journaling can be a meditation practice for enlightenment, mindfulness with the awareness of mind, emotions, body, and spirit.
Creative Journal provides a place to develop, imagine, record, or plan any creative vision or project, ideas, writings, poetry, prayers, or letters.
Collection or Scrapbook Journal is for pictures, art, photos, clippings, or words from papers or magazines for later creation as collages or abstract artwork.
Business or Healthcare Journal is for notes, records, progress tracking, activities, intervention, plans, or future considerations and options. As I was growing up, my father, as a small business owner, kept exacting merchandize ledgers and accounting records. In my medical career, medical records and progress note-keeping were a daily part of my routine.
Bullet Journal helps organize, plan, and prioritize your life activities, thoughts, goals, or intentions. You can have an index, sections, and even a calendar-like setup. In this type of journal, you can record anything important that needs attention, organization, and tracking. ⁶
Calendar Journal has similarities to a bullet journal, and you can set it up on your own to track your daily activity, thoughts, ideas, or tasks. Its value is to help like a bullet journal, organize, plan, and prioritize your life activities, goals, or intentions. It can also be a place to record notes.
Workbook Journal has a structure where there may be specific areas to record requested information. Prompts* are often present, with the chance to express yourself, as in writing, drawing, journaling, scribbling, or making notes. We often used this type of writing or journaling in courses, counseling, addiction recovery work, therapy work, or projects and self-help.
*Prompts aid the journaling process, especially when getting started, providing some ideas and direction to your writing. They are questions or statements that inspire you or offer you an idea of what to write about.⁷
A journal can be multi-purposed and serve many needs or intentions.
There are infinite possibilities for choosing a journal type, depending on your need and purpose. When helpful and needed, you can use different ones as for a daily diary, ledger, to-do lists, spreadsheets, artwork, poetry, short stories, or one for mental health therapy work.
Other types and considerations for journaling
- Project ideas, planning, goals, progress, and completions
- Making lists as a new book to read, task to do, items to buy, places to vacation
- Field Journals for lovers of nature, birds, wildlife, and the environment
- Video or audio journaling
- Positive affirmations or quotes to help change your life in a meaningful direction
- Travel journaling for trip preparation, documenting places visited, and details of a trip
- Books read, reviews, critiques
- Fitness, training regimes and work-outs, planning, and fitness goal
- Weight loss, dieting, exercise, and other health endeavors for optimal health and well-being
- Food or Gardening Journaling
- Pregnancy, births, children’s development, milestones, and accomplishments
- Unsent letters — for letters you were thinking of sending but didn’t. Writing the letter, not to be sent, gets it “off your chest” without getting you deeper into a conflictual relationship⁸
- Reduces loneliness, painful memories, stress, fears, anxiety, and symptoms from trauma experiences
- Improves coping, depression, emotion, and moods
- Provides the opportunity to clarify thoughts, feelings, concerns, and intentions for future undertakings
- Improves memory by recording new information and helping retention in short- and long-term memory
- Gets excessive thought out of mind, which frees up working memory for improved problem-solving
- Clarifies alternatives and perspectives when there are difficult choices
- Aids the prioritization of your needs, options, and actions to reduce worry, fears, and confusion to get things going and done
- Acts as a motivational and recording tool to help change unhealthy lifestyles, habits, behaviors, and conflicts
- Benefits mindfulness, meditation practices, creative expression, and problem-solving
- Helps in programs to improve restorative sleep, healthy nutrition, and exercise
- Helps in substance use disorder and addictions to reduce cravings and increase avoidance of drug and alcohol use
- Tracks and aids your progress and motivation with tasks and projects
- Brings order when you might feel disorganized and off-track with an activity or project
- Improve relationships, and the quality of life with mental, physical, and spiritual wellness
- Uncovers hidden or unconscious feelings, beliefs, thoughts, fears, harbored resentments, or hatreds so that growth, learning, and change can occur
- Provides a beneficial time out for you to unwind and get out of your head all those pent-up feelings and thoughts
- Have a regular schedule for journaling as the first thing in the morning or before bed at night — let it become a habit.
- Consider a special setup place free from distraction, as some do with a meditation room. The setting itself can bring you into a relaxed state of mind and feel like a reprieve from the day’s stress or the anticipation of tough challenges.
- Keep it simple and easy by having your journal ready to go and close by with the writing or drawing instrument. If you like technology, there are some great programs and apps for your smartphone, tablet, or computer to record things when you are ready, or something comes up you want to record. I like to use Evernote as it will show up on all my devices and has some handy features I like.
- Make your journal entries in any manner or style that fits your creativity and expression, whether in prose, poetry, art, music, or scribbles. Don’t worry about exactness or correctness; let it flow in the most comfortable, uninhibited way with your sincere expression.
- Let journaling help meet your needs and goals and be a positive and beneficial practice for your mind, body, and spirit⁹
- Use prompts to give you direction in your journaling, such as “what is going wrong in your life and what options you have or could imagine would be helpful right now. Look for articles that suggest prompts or some workbook for specific needs with prompts to help you progress along.¹⁰
- Reach out for help from a teacher, mentor, therapist, or professional mental health caregiver if you have any symptoms of severe anxiety or mood disturbance.¹¹
- Linda Donovan¹² adds when there has been a loss of a significant other, “If you haven’t tried journaling, even if it’s a year or more since you lost someone, get a notebook and set aside time as needed to write about what you want to express. When you see those words in an entry, they will help you sort through your emotions. Or if you prefer to write using a computer, that will work too. You’ll be surprised how this simple exercise can provide insight to guide you.”
Thank you for reading, Ron Parks, MD
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¹ Linda Donovan is an award-winning author, grief support advocate, and marketing consultant for technology companies. Her work has appeared in books, blogs, newspapers, magazines, and popular online publications.
Linda has been leading grief support groups for the Hospice of Santa Cruz County for more than a decade. She became involved with her local hospice after experiencing how the team provided so much assistance to her family before and after the death of her late husband, Paul.
Linda’s latest book is Beyond loss in a Pandemic: Find Hope and Move Through Grief After Someone Close to You Dies. In a Five-Star Review of the book, the Manhattan Book Review says, “Beyond Loss in a Pandemic provides alternatives for dealing with grief while not forgetting to live your own life.”
Linda is also the co-author of Tech Grief: Survive and Thrive Through Career Losses, which won a Writer’s Digest Award, and the author of After Loss: Hope for Widows, Widowers and Partners. She has taught writing courses at three universities and has been a featured speaker at book clubs, hospice community gatherings, webinars, and technology conferences. Website: lindadonovanbooks.com
⁴ Man’s Search for Meaning https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man%27s_Search_for_Meaning
¹² See Linda Donovan 1. above