Self-reflection isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it.
As a longtime writer, I’ve always struggled with putting a pen to a page for myself. I construct sentences and stories all day, every day, so I kind of consider words to be my speciality. But when it comes to journaling, it’s not always been so easy.
Suddenly a blank page seems intimidating, no combination of words seem to convey how I feel and the worst writers block sets in. Unlike a lot of the stories I write — whether I’ve pitched them or they’ve been assigned — journaling is personal and the audience is just me, my biggest critic.
Sometimes journaling can be a means of coping with the day to day or recounting memories. Sometimes it’s just a thought dump. At any rate, it can be daunting, but the more I’m able to incorporate structure and prompts into my writing the friendlier it becomes.
Having a road map offers a little encouragement, but also direction and inspiration for what could be an otherwise stressful act of self-care. Experts tend to agree that journaling is good for mental health and managing stress, but being mindful about it is the best approach.
“One of the interesting problems of writing too much, especially if you’re going through a difficult time, is that writing becomes more like rumination and that’s the last thing in the world you need,” James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist, told the New York Times. “My recommendation is to think of expressive writing as a life course correction. As opposed to something you have to commit to doing every day for the rest of your life.”
Research has shown that journaling does, in fact, reduce stress. In a 2006 study, 100 students were asked to journal just 15 minutes twice per week and those that did reported reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. Journaling has also been linked to surprising health outcomes like improved immunity and better vaccine effectiveness.
Journaling is a practice every person can adapt to their own lives. Whether it’s keeping a record of the day, documenting big memories, practicing gratitude or recounting travel, the options are nearly endless. Experts say this exercise of expressive writing can be especially during stressful periods.
Pennebaker, who is a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, and a team of other psychologists started the Pandemic Project last year to help people get into or expand their expressive writing as a way to help deal with the stress of rolling lockdowns across the country.
“Many people often start writing about COVID-19 and then begin writing about other topics that are bothering them more than they thought,” says the project website. “Use it to try to understand those problems that are getting under your skin.”
The project offers prompts related to pandemic-related stressors that stretch from the obvious, like health anxieties, to more specific topics like how relationships may be evolving or changing throughout this time.
Perhaps most helpful about the Pandemic Project is that it presents journaling about really big, stressful events in a bite-sized fashion. Sitting down to spill onto a page can seem too much at times, but a more narrow approach helps to sort thoughts more effectively.
Even during more normal times, this approach is one that’s effective.
Below is a list of prompts that you can incorporate into your own practice, whether it’s a daily journal that you use to de-stress and clear your head, or one that focuses on gratitude and happiness.
Prompts for self-reflection
- How do you absorb other people’s energy? What boundaries could you set to deflect that?
- Write about a time you felt happiest and the most at peace in your own skin. What can you do to incorporate that feeling into your life more often?
- Which life experience would you most like to relive? Why?
- When do you feel most like an introvert? When do you feel most like an extrovert? What do you believe shapes those feelings and experiences?
- What’s the most recent challenge you’ve had to overcome? How did you strategize it?
Prompts for stress relief
- What’s something you’re judging yourself for? Name three ways you can change that line of thinking.
- What are you frustrated with right now? Write about whether you’re in control of that frustration and what kinds of things you can do to work through it.
- Name a big decision you’ve been weighing and how you’re considering it. How will this decision impact your life? What’s the best possible outcome?
- Write about a time where you found opportunities in a challenging situation.
- Name five ways you handle a bad day. Why do they work?
Prompts for success
- Write about a time when you didn’t give up.
- Who is somebody you look up to? What qualities do you admire about them?
- Think about your ideal life and write about the steps you’d have to take to get there.
- What values do you live by? How have they contributed to where you are today?
- How do you define success? Do you think your definition is realistic, and if not, what’s preventing you from redefining success?
Prompts for gratitude
- What is your most cherished possession?
- List 10 normal, everyday occurrences that make you happy.
- If less is more, then what can you remove from your life for a better experience?
- Compare your life today to your life last year. What has changed? In what ways is it better?
- List five qualities you have that you are proud of.
Prompts for wellness
- What are your favorite acts of self care? Are any of these acts unconventional?
- Think about times when you are stressed. What can you do to help yourself in the moment?
- Describe a time when you felt like you were thriving. What contributed to that feeling?
- Name a choice you can make this week to improve your life and how it will impact your wellness.
- Do you feel present lately? What makes you feel that way?