Where to Start
Find a Journal You Love
First things first: in order to write in a journal, you need to own one. Find a journal that best suits your needs, personality and lifestyle. Perhaps you want one that’s small and fits in your purse. Or maybe you’re looking for a classic Moleskine journal. It’s important to think about what works best for you. Some seniors may struggle with eyesight or dexterity, so think about getting one that is wide-ruled or even blank so you’re not constricted by space. The journal you use sets the tone for your writing journey.
Pick a Process
So, you have your journal ready—now where to start? There are several different methods. One way to journal is to pour out your thoughts as a stream of consciousness, writing them down as they come to you. According to clinical psychologist, Beth Jacobs this type of journaling may help one’s emotions. “There’s an incredible release when emotions become tangible and visible, out of your head and into the world in a contained, self-controlled way,” she says.
Jacobs recommends writing for 30 minutes (or three pages) to vent about whatever is on your mind. Afterward, spend about 10 minutes writing a positive affirmation or questions to ponder post-journaling.
Another popular method of journaling is keeping a Bullet Journal. This type of journaling is equal parts day planner, diary and written meditation. Let’s say you have a small list of to-do items. This could include getting your hair done, buying groceries and calling your grandson. Bullet Journaling takes the to-dos and also incorporates your inner thoughts and feelings.
With Bullet Journaling, your writing is organized into short-form sentences paired with symbols that visually categorize your entries into tasks, events or notes.
Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journal, says, “By updating it daily, you learn how to get rid of things that are distracting you and add things you care about.”
How It Helps
If you want to improve your memory with age, writing things down on paper may help. The Journal of Experimental Psychology published research that suggests writing your thoughts down can help reduce negative thoughts and improve working memory.
The first way it may help is through external storage, whereby storing information about your thoughts in a specific location (i.e. a piece of paper) may help your brain remember using a visual cue.
The other deeper reason is due to encoding. Encoding is the biological process where thoughts are processed in your brain’s hippocampus as either “keep it long-term” or “let it go.” When you write thoughts or goals down, you can help increase your chance of remembering them.
Life has many unexpected detours, such as the loss of a job, moving to a new community or a medical diagnosis. By doing what’s called expressive writing, you may actually help yourself cope with emotional trauma through words.
Dr. James W. Pennebaker studied the effects of trauma with journaling. He asked 46 healthy college students to write about either personally traumatic life events or trivial topics for 15 minutes, four days a week, for six months. Results of the study indicated that students who wrote about traumatic events visited the campus health center less often and used pain relievers less frequently than those who wrote about trivial matters.
In the same study, Dr. Pennebaker also evaluated the impact of expressive writing on people with physical health conditions such as sleep apnea, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and HIV. The results of the study suggest that expressive writing may help lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Thirty-seven HIV patients in four 30-minute sessions wrote about negative life experiences or about their daily schedules. Afterward, the study found, patients who wrote about life experiences measured higher on CD4 lymphocyte counts—a gauge of immune functioning—than did the controlled subjects.
Why It Works
The prevailing theory from Dr. Pennebaker is that people who suppressed a traumatic memory might learn to move beyond the experience once they expressed their emotions. The act of thinking about an experience, as well as expressing emotions, the theory goes, gives meaning to a traumatic experience, helps people regulate emotions and could be the first step in asking for help.
"By writing, you put some structure and organization to those anxious feelings. It helps you to get past them,” Pennebaker said.
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