As family caregivers, we all know the pressures and stresses that come and go through our caregiving experience. That’s why it is so important to have tools and practices at our disposal to help us, especially during difficult times.

Over the years, I have touched on the importance of family caregivers being able to find a quiet space as part of their self-care process. A place where you go to be alone with your thoughts, connecting honestly with your feelings without the risk of being or feeling judged; a place where you can have a cathartic experience when you need it most. I’ve found that place through the practice of journaling.

I’ve been journaling for 43 years. Initially, I was introduced to journaling by author, speaker, and life coach Tony Robbins through a program designed to take more control of your thoughts. I remember how journaling helped me work through my thoughts during this process by helping me gain a more objective perspective of what was truly going on in my life.

My journaling has greatly evolved over the years and has become an invaluable tool in helping me better understand my thinking and its influence on how my perceptions can easily become my reality. This has especially been the case as I entered the family caregiver ranks nearly 20 years ago.

Gang, before I go any further, please know I realize journaling isn’t for everyone. And, that is fine. Neither is eating broccoli—but both can provide wonderful health benefits! First, let me dispel some of the biggest misconceptions about journaling that can stop people from giving it a try:

  1. I’m not a good writer. No biggie. If you can think, you can journal. Your journal is for you and you only. Forget spelling correctly, being an expert in grammar, etc. Journaling is just a place to write down your thoughts and give yourself time to think.
  2. I don’t have the time to journal every day. So what. BTW, neither do I and I don’t. Ultimately, the beauty of journaling is that it’s there when you want it to be. It can be every day, every few days, once a week—whatever works for you.
  3. I need to find something important enough to put in my journal or why do it? Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, when speaking to scores of folks who journal, they find writing about little thoughts and feelings helps provide the best insights into why they think the way they do.
  4. It is hard to start journaling. No problem. There is no magic to begin the process, and I’ll provide some simple steps to get you going. Easy smeasy! I promise.

Journaling can be your neutral Switzerland. OK Victor, what does that mean? What I love about my journaling is that it is not judgmental. There are no rights and wrongs. These are your thoughts and words within your unique situation, and what you write is no one’s business except your own.

And the benefits of journaling go a lot further than putting words on a page. Over the years, there has been quite a bit of scientific research addressing the physical and psychological benefits of journaling. Dr. James W. Pennebaker, Centennial Liberal Arts Professor of Psychology at University of Texas at Austin, is known as the leading voice in expressive writing/journaling. On the back cover of his seminal book on journaling, Writing to Heal, Dr. Pennebaker states: 

“The simple act of expressing your thoughts and feelings about emotionally challenging experiences on paper is proven to speed your recovery and improve your mental and physical health. Expressive writing will leave you with a stronger sense of value in the world and the ability to accept that life can be good even when it is sometimes bad.”

Dr. Pennebaker’s research is extensive and has become the path for many other prominent researchers to follow. They have found that the positive benefits of journaling include:

  1. Mood regulation
  2. Improved sleep
  3. New insight that facilitates effective problem solving
  4. Increased immune activity

Further, in discussions with Lynda Monk, Director of the International Association of Journal Writing, Lynda has found people who journal to be more optimistic and to have the ability to better connect with their inner feelings, which helps achieve more resiliency when addressing their issues. 

I have to tell you that when I first adopted journaling as a part of my psychological toolbox, I had no idea of these specific health and emotional benefits. However, I can say with complete certainty the benefits over the years have been wonderful.

How to Get Started Journaling

There is no right or wrong way to approach journaling. Dr. Pennebaker suggests beginning the process by writing for 3-4 days for 15 minutes at a time about a single issue that needs resolution. Yup, only about an hour over 4 days!

Tips to get you started:

  • Focus on a single issue that’s bothering you.
  • Write about that one issue for brief stretches of time each day. This is likely to take anywhere from 1-5 days. Stop writing when the issue no longer troubles you.
  • Experiment with a variety of methods. Typing, handwriting, in a book on a piece of paper. Hell, I started on a napkin in a booth at a diner. 
  • Avoid ruminating over the same issue. Dr. Pennebaker states an objective of journaling is to move you toward a new way of thinking; taking a single issue and growing our understanding of the feelings it brings up so that we can work toward positive change.

One question I am often asked, is there a time of day that is best to journal? In my opinion, this is a personal choice. Some like to start their day off with morning journaling, others prefer to journal just before they go to bed. I believe the best time for journaling is when you feel the need to address a specific thought or experience. Try different times and do what is most productive and comfortable for you.

As a family caregiver, there are times when events can drive me into a dark place and I can feel myself beginning to pile on. In these cases, journaling helps me disrupt this process with more balanced thinking. Conversely, there are times when I am walking in New York City and experience something wonderfully entertaining. On one particular situation, I wanted to capture how grateful I was that a 5-year-old boy named Devon came up to me at a street corner with his mom, in full costume, looked up at me and introduced himself…Hi Mister, I’m Batman. I loved it, and cherished putting the feeling it gave me in my journal.

Whether I am in a dark place, a happy place, or even an ambivalent place, I so value finding time to record my inner thoughts and true feelings. This is my safe place or, in Devon’s world…My Bat Cave.  Please take 15 minutes, give it a try. There is a good chance you will find this helpful practice has always been in your support toolbox. You just had to open it up!

Help yourself. Help others.