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The Power of Journaling

Overcoming a painful past usually involves sharing one’s story and the associated feelings. Developing insight into past hurts, and connecting the dots between then and now enables one to make better choices moving forward. Journal writing is a powerful tool that opens the path to greater insight and self-knowledge.

This guest post is by Randy Kamen, ED.D., author of Behind the Therapy Door: Simple Strategies to Transform Your Life. She is a psychologist and educator who helped pioneer new territory in mind-body medicine at Boston University's School of Medicine and Harvard's Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. She has long been on the leading edge of her profession, integrating insight oriented and cognitive behavioral therapy with holistic methods in her research and clinical work. She helps women build on their strengths and implement new strategies to deepen their experience of insight, healing, and happiness. Dr. Kamen has appeared on numerous TV and radio programs. She writes for the Huffington Post and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @DrRandyKamen to learn about her speaking engagements and women's retreats on Martha's Vineyard and around the country or visit her website DrRandyKamen.com.

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The pioneer work of James Pennebaker in his book Writing to Heal and subsequent research on the topic of journal writing, confirms what many of us already know intuitively: Journal writing is a highly effective way to manage stress and alter a wide range of problematic behaviors. Strongly encouraged in the field of psychology and medicine journaling fosters deeper insight, self-awareness, and behavioral change. Behavioral psychologists often say, “If you can track it, you can change it.”

Journaling opens the door for the writer to express personal impressions, daily experiences, and evolving insights as well as reflections about the self, relationships, experiences, dreams, fantasies, and creative musings. This can be done without judgment or restriction. Reviewing earlier entries cultivates the writer’s ability to learn from past events and circumstances that might otherwise go unnoticed. A repetitive, self-destructive behavior becomes more apparent when seen through the lens of these journal entries.

A Vehicle for Mindfulness

Journal writing can be a vehicle for deepening mindfulness as it helps to clarify and refine thoughts and emotions and brings the writer into the present. Like meditation, journal writing helps to clear the mind by transcribing emotional clutter onto the written page. The writer becomes a witness to his or her past behaviors which then paves the way for fresh thought and perspective. Journaling provides a forum that can be both cathartic and revelatory.

A journal creates a great companion wherever you go. It is a resource for observing shifts in your inner world and outer behavior.

Getting Started

Begin the journaling practice by buying a notebook that you can slip into a pocketbook or even a pocket. Consider keeping a separate notebook by the bed to record dreams. Keeping a journal as a private file on the computer is another option. Choose any method that enables you to write consistently for at least ten minutes a day. Some people find that lingering over the writing takes them into a state of reflection about the past, present, or future. Others prefer to track their thoughts about particular subjects, such as dreams, and certain behaviors like smoking, eating, or mood variations. Journaling helps to identify and clarify goals, wishes, and emotional reality without inhibition. Consider a brief meditation as a prelude to journal writing. At a minimum take a few deep breaths for grounding purposes before beginning each new entry. In this way, you will create the condition for even greater focus and lucidity in capturing thoughts and writing.

There are many ways to keep a journal. You may wish to consider the type of journal you would like to keep. There are four kinds of journal that I am proposing here: free associating, gratitude, sentence prompts, and dreams.

Free Associating Journal

In a free associating journal the writer records what- ever comes to mind. This type of journal helps with processing events and clarifying thoughts. It is a venue for noticing feelings, insights, and matters of the heart. This kind of journaling also creates an opportunity for recording life lessons and reflecting on important questions.

Gratitude Journal

In a gratitude journal the writer makes daily recordings about several events for which she is grateful. The idea behind the gratitude journal is to strengthen the part of the brain that focuses on positive thoughts and deepens the capacity to appreciate. This type of journaling is strongly associated with diminished depression and the heightened experience of inner peace and well-being.

Sentence Prompts Journal

In a sentence prompts journal the writer uses open- ended questions or incomplete sentences to evoke (unique) thoughts, feelings, and associations. For example: My relationships will improve when…A risk I am willing to take today is...My life feels most harmonious when I...My goal today is…I believe that...I have always wanted to...I have decided to...My greatest strengths are...I am grateful for...I love...I am happiest when...

Dream Journal

In a dream journal the writer records her dreams upon awaking. Dreams can be a powerful source of insight. Once you begin keeping this kind of journal, you are likely to improve your dream recall. Your dreams are a window into your subconscious mind, which is a powerful way to understand your inner world. Sometimes, in the time it takes say “Good morning” to your partner, your dream can slip away. At first, you may only remember fragments or images from your dreams, but in time you will find that you have access to more vivid recollections.

Healing Childhood Trauma through Connection

Getting in touch with one’s early childhood memories, particularly memories from a challenging history, can cause old emotional pain to resurface, sometimes with a vengeance. Journaling can be a powerful tool to rethink your past, your current behaviors, and explore opportunities for change going forward.

Enjoy the process

Journal writing can become your guide and confidant. Most importantly you can tap into your authentic self without inhibition or judgment. The precious time spent journaling will deepen insight, and wisdom. You may find that your journaling ushers you into a healthier and happier place within yourself and with others.

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