How To Start A Journal : Life Kit Journaling helps you process emotions and gain insight. But you don't have to write for an hour a day or keep a beautiful bullet journal to get the benefits of journaling. This episode helps you get started with helpful journal prompts, even if you're wary about putting your feelings out there.
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Not Sure What You're Feeling? Journaling Can Help

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Not Sure What You're Feeling? Journaling Can Help

Not Sure What You're Feeling? Journaling Can Help

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LEO: Hi. My name is Leo (ph). I'm a student from China. This random tip is for all the English learners who listen to NPR to improve English. Whenever I listen to a show, I take out my notebook to jot down interesting things and try to look up unfamiliar words as foundation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org.

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. A lot of times on "Star Trek," the episode will start like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION")

PATRICK STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) Captain's log, stardate 43930.7.

LIMBONG: This is the captain's log.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION")

STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) The Enterprise has been in attendance at the biennial Trade Agreements Conference on Betazed.

LIMBONG: We, the audience, know that it's a way of table setting, getting some plot points for the episode out of the way. But in the world of the show, it implies that the captain of the ship, Jean-Luc Picard in this case, the person responsible for making all the decisions that'll affect his crew, puts a lot of value on getting his fuzzy thoughts and ideas into words. Some might call this journaling.

RASHAWNDA JAMES: It's a great first step to opening up and learning who you are and what you believe in and how you feel and how you see and understand the world.

LIMBONG: That's Rashawnda James, a licensed therapist, YouTuber and a big booster for journaling.

JAMES: Journaling is for processing, logging things down and really just kind of bookmarking where you are in life.

LIMBONG: I'm Andrew Limbong, arts reporter for NPR. On this episode of LIFE KIT, if you've ever thought about journaling but don't know where to start, we'll give you a hand. Or if you're like me and you're skeptical about putting your feelings out there, even if it is just in private, well, we're here for you, too.

Journaling can mean a lot of different things. You might keep a log of all the birds you see in your neighborhood or write down different things you saw on a recent road trip. Some people keep a dream journal to log their adventures from the night before. We're going to talk about journaling in the more general sense here, the sort of I've-got-a-lot-going-on-in-my-life-right-now-and-need-to-write-it-down type of journaling, which on its own can still mean a lot of different things to different people. But let's talk about a few starting points, namely what journaling has to offer. Here's Rashawnda James again.

JAMES: You know, if you're a person who is kind of scatterbrained and finds themselves overwhelmed a lot, a journal can be a place for you to kind of keep your thoughts and organize them. If you're a person who is like, I need to write down this goal; I need to write down the steps to be able to get to this goal, journaling could be a great way because you can kind of follow your process, follow your thoughts, follow your actions.

LIMBONG: If you're going through something in particular and you don't know actually how you feel about it or if you don't have anyone you can talk to...

JAMES: Journaling can be a great way for you to do that self-reflection and just kind of bookmark what you're feeling and what you're thinking at that time and then say - you know what? - I need to come back to that later, or let me gather all my thoughts and work through some things.

LIMBONG: Studies have shown that if something's bothering you and you take some time to write about it, there's a whole host of benefits.

JAMES PENNEBAKER: It was associated with improvements in physical health, improvements in markers of mental health. So it's associated with improvements in immune function, reductions in physician visits. Students do better in university, in terms of their grades are better after they do this. There's improvements in working memory.

LIMBONG: James Pennebaker is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He spent decades studying what he calls expressive writing.

PENNEBAKER: Expressive writing is a technique where people stand back and they, if they find themselves thinking about something or dreaming about something or worrying about something too much, they simply set aside some time to write about it for, you know, anywhere from five to 20 minutes a day for one day, two days, maybe as many as five days.

LIMBONG: Which brings us to our first takeaway for journaling - do it whenever you want for however long you want. It doesn't have to be a daily thing where you get up early every morning to write for an hour. In fact, it might be better if you start small.

JAMES: But I would say start with five minutes. Set a timer on your phone. And kind of those first couple minutes are like - you're like, what do I do? What do I say? And then after a couple minutes of writing, you're like, wait a minute; I actually have a lot to say. I'm actually thinking about a lot of things.

LIMBONG: Pennebaker only practices expressive writing when there's something specific bugging him.

PENNEBAKER: And sometimes I'll be asleep, and all the sudden, I'll wake up and I'll start mulling. This student - why are they doing this? How can I deal with a student better or whatever? And I'll get up in the middle of the night, and I'll just sit down and I'll start typing about it until I get bored.

LIMBONG: And if you don't feel like doing it, then don't. Once it becomes yet another thing on your to-do list, it becomes less helpful.

JAMES: I really want it to just be for you because when it's for you, then you can really see the benefits. But if you're doing it thinking that you have to check off a box, it becomes - you're running on autopilot instead of really being able to express and open up to those thoughts and praise yourself and value yourself and understand yourself.

LIMBONG: And as a part of making journaling just for you, tip No. 2 is don't tie yourself to any medium. If you look up journaling culture online, there's a certain aesthetic to them - beautiful handwriting and expensive books, meticulously color-coded and stickered, which is cool if that's your thing. But don't let it intimidate you. You can use a dirty napkin and a crayon or your phone. You don't even really have to write.

JAMES: I also have people who are like, I don't really like writing. So then I tell them keep a voice memo journal. Just start recording. Just talk out loud, because some people are verbal processors.

PENNEBAKER: I've done informal studies where I have people write with their fingers in the air. In other words, you don't even have to write it down, but it is critical that you translate this experience into words.

LIMBONG: Pennebaker says the important part of expressive writing is taking the pictures in your head and turning them into language however you see fit.

PENNEBAKER: It forces a certain kind of organization or structure because you're using language, you're now having to tie issues together. So if you are going to be spending 15 minutes on this and you start writing, you often discover that, oh, I see why I was so upset.

LIMBONG: Tip No. 3 is write about anything, and let it take you wherever.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIMBONG: Now, this can be hard. Getting started can be intimidating and overwhelming. And as you keep writing, you might not feel comfortable with what you're saying. Pennebaker says the key to unpacking an issue through expressive writing is letting your feelings connect the dots for you.

PENNEBAKER: Sit down and explore your deepest thoughts and feelings about this issue. In your writing, you might tie it into other issues. For example, how does it relate to your childhood, your relationship with other people in your life right now, maybe your job, who you'd like to be in the future, maybe who you've been in the past or who you are now? In your writing, you can write about the same topic every day. You can write about something completely different. The only rule I have is once you start writing, write continuously. And this writing's for you and you alone. Don't worry about spelling or grammar. It's not going to be read by your high school English teacher. But the point is in your writing, really explore these deep thoughts and feelings.

LIMBONG: The idea of tapping into my feelings is not...

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: ...Like, at all appealing to me. Let's say hypothetically you were born and raised into a culture that doesn't necessarily reward feeling your feelings, and you know that that's bad, but you've internalized all that anyway, and when something bothers you, you just suppress it and put it all in a little box that lives inside your stomach never to be opened by anyone - again, hypothetically.

JAMES: Yeah, I think that's a very genuine and honest, you know, answer regarding journaling. Some people are very, very conditioned, depending on your environment, whether that's verbally or emotionally. So if you weren't encouraged or given the verbiage as a child to say, I feel such and such, then writing it down is going to be like, you know, what? I'm supposed to do this? I can't even say it out loud; how am I supposed to write it?

And for those times, I - there are tons of them out there - just feeling charts for you to kind of pick from. So I would give them a feelings chart and kind of just say, OK, you know, you got anger, you got sadness, you got happiness, you got exhausted, you got annoyed, you got frustrated, you got frightened, you know, you got rage, you got uncomfortable.

LIMBONG: A feelings chart is exactly what it sounds like - a chart with a list of feelings to help you figure out where you are. And sometimes as a therapist, James offers specific prompts to get people started on writing.

JAMES: I feel sad about - and use that as to set the tone where it may not be necessarily where you're connecting that word, but you're like, wait a minute; that experience would fit with sadness or that experience would feel with anger. It gives you that starting point to pick from a cluster of emotions. And then as you're learning and you're putting image and feelings and experiences to those words, it becomes easier to express it and write it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMES: So there's hope for you.

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: The fourth and final tip is more of a reminder, really, but come to journaling looking for reflections and not solutions. A journal isn't a friend or a therapist or a counselor. It's not going to fix your problems, but it'll help you find out more about yourself.

PENNEBAKER: I guess I just go in with the expectation of, let's see what happens when I write about this. Maybe I could learn something about it. Maybe I'll learn how to deal with my mother better. Maybe I'll do this. Don't have hard or high expectations. You know, it's kind of like when you're in a new town and you see a street that looks interesting. The best way to approach it is, I'll go down this street and see what I find. But if you say, I'm just going to look for shoes size 8 and nothing else, you're going to miss everything that's on the street.

LIMBONG: So to recap, tip one - journal whenever you want for however long you want to - five minutes here, 15 minutes there. Do it a few days, a week - whatever. And if you think it's becoming a chore or if you don't feel like it's helping, then stop - no fuss, no muss.

Tip two is to feel free to use whatever medium you want. Write longhand, text yourself, record yourself on video. Remember; the key here is putting thoughts into words.

Tip three is to let yourself write about anything. If something's on your mind, start there and keep going. If you don't know where to start, here are some more prompts from Rashawnda James.

JAMES: What is something you're most grateful for? What is the biggest risk you took in life? If there was something you could tell your younger self, what would that be? What do you feel like in your life is missing for you to smile more?

LIMBONG: This process might be scary, and you might not like what you see, but it's for you and you alone. And speaking of you alone, tip four is to come to journaling looking for reflections and different perspectives, not solutions or fixes. For all you Type A, goal-oriented people out there, 10 minutes of expressive writing or a quick recording of your feelings is your chance to take a breather and learn more about yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIMBONG: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one on how to enjoy poetry. You can find that episode and more at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Andrew Limbong. Thanks for listening.

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