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Duluth experts weigh in on the benefits of journaling

DULUTH -- When Laurie Anderson’s husband died, she turned to the pen.

“People journal their grief. … That really got me through,” the Duluth woman said.

There are many ways to manage intense emotions, stress, anxiety or depression. Regular exercise, meditation, a balanced diet, adequate sleep and healthy expression are key.

Journaling is another way to help with the latter.

“There are 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.,” according to the New York Times.

Journaling also helps improve mood and manage stress by helping prioritize fears and concerns, tracking patterns and symptoms and providing a space for positive self-talk and identifying negative behaviors, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.

There are many ways to do it: Freewriting, expressive or therapeutic journaling, listing goals or gratitude. And while there’s no wrong way, there are avenues that don’t aid stress or anxiety, Anderson said.

It’s OK to vent and reflect through journaling, but without a constructive turn, the practice can further negative feelings. We ruminate by gossiping, in resentment and grief, and ruminating isn’t good for us, Anderson said. Journaling is more beneficial when it’s reflecting positively and gratitude.

She teaches introduction to counseling, abnormal psychology and the science of happiness at the College of St. Scholastica. Happiness is on a spectrum, she said.

Happy people have bad days and experiences that weigh on them, but a positive outlook follows positive practices, and one big characteristic of happy people is gratitude, she said.

Journaling has a way of reconnecting both sides of the brain, said Dina Clabaugh, psychotherapist and owner at Insight Counseling in Duluth.

The left side is analytical, linguistic, factual; the right side is emotional, intuitive, visual. Experiencing a moment, and processing it verbally or through writing connects the two sides cognitively and emotionally, she said.

Journaling lowers cortisol levels and improves sleep, emotional stability and self-compassion, she said.

In her practice, she focuses on self-compassion and mindfulness for anxiety, trauma and depression. She describes journaling as a validating exercise, and she prescribes it to patients for a number of reasons.

“When you’re talking to a therapist, there’s a human tendency to feel judged. A journal is a place to not have answers, it’s OK to be vulnerable,” she said.

Journaling in any way helps you see a common humanity, which acknowledges that being human means being imperfect and that we all have painful experiences. That’s so beneficial during a healing process and in life.

Clabaugh doesn’t have a daily practice, but she journals around new experiences and she called it a form of mindfulness.

Serenity Schoonover kept diaries since she was in first grade. “(I) didn’t really grow up in a community or a home where we could speak freely about some things, and that was a space where I could process life.

“As humans, we need space to plan and complain, dream,” Schoonover said.

Journaling can make us feel like we have some agency over unresolved problems, and it’s “a generous practice in helping actualize change.”

Five years ago, she started journaling consistently, and this winter, it helped with parenting. Note-taking and processing their child’s behavior with her husband helped the couple understand a pattern.

Schoonover is an Arrowhead Regional Arts Council writing fellow and has taught writing classes through Duluth Community education. She called journaling a warmup for her professional writing, and she does it more often when there are unresolved issues.

She likes gel pens, because they move quickly, and journals small enough to fit in her bag. Schoonover called a journal a record of life, where “there are no rules.”

Elizabethada Wright found journaling therapeutic when she was younger. Today, she writes all the time, mostly for work. She’s a professor of English, linguistics and writing studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Her primary focus is teaching students how to write effectively across disciplines, so they have a voice and engage in their communities, she said. Writing is hard, but being able to do it well helps you deal with problems in a proactive way.

“(Writing) doesn’t always give you what you want, but it gives you a way to approach things that’s really powerful.”

And the struggle to journal is real.

There could be privacy concerns, and people may overthink how to do it, like any sort of meditative practice. It can also be uncomfortable to look closely at hard circumstances.

“Part of the human condition involves suffering and pain and processing things that are out of our control,” said Schoonover.

Reflecting on negative experiences could trigger retraumatizing or reliving the experience, though, that’s very rare, added Clabaugh. Personally and professionally, the benefits outweigh any risks in a practice that allows “that calm we so desperately needs in a culture that is really fast.”

Anderson noted that journaling can be a helpful reference for personal progress, one you can look back on and see how far you’ve come.

“Journaling is an emotional catharsis.”

Journaling: Just do it

Journaling creates a space for private thoughts, feelings and fears, which can help create order out of emotional chaos. Here’s how:

  • Be realistic about what you can do and start there. If you’re consistent after that and notice benefits, expand your time.

  • Make it easy. Keep a pen and paper handy at all times. You can also keep a digital file on your phone.

  • Write freely. Forget about structure, unless it’s helpful in the process. Don't worry about spelling or what others might think.

  • Lose expectation. Journaling can be doodles, lists, long rambles without paragraphs or periods.

  • Consider writing time as a time to wind down and de-stress.

  • Look forward to journaling time. Know you're doing something good for your mind and body.

  • Write in a place that's soothing. Add a cuppa tea or hot chocolate.

  • Every six weeks, look back with a pen or highlighter to check for patterns or areas of repeated rumination.

  • Set a time and show up for yourself and the creative process. Make it special.

  • Just start.

Sources: University of Rochester Medical Center, Serenity Schoonover, Dina Clabaugh