May 20, 2021
July 5, 2021

Troubled? Try Journaling


Dr. Johnben Loy, Ph.D., LMFT


There is nothing so precious to me as a retreat to a remote location on my own for a time of quiet reflection. With my journal in hand and nature all around me, I enter into my soul, look for my core self, and as if meeting an old friend, we get comfortable, sit down, and have long, deep conversations. Work stresses and family difficulties melt into the background.

I have been journaling since I was eleven. For years, I thought everyone journaled. So it still surprises me every now and then when I ask clients to spend some time journaling, and they look back strangely at me.

“Journaling? What do you mean?” some would ask.

Journaling is one of the best self-care activities you can do for yourself. When you are troubled and have no one to talk to, your journal can become your best friend and personal therapist. In this post, I would like to teach you a simple and effective way to engage in expressive journaling. The exercise itself will only take 10 minutes.

1. Choose your writing medium

It can be as simple as a pen and a large napkin. I have used anything from recycled paper to fancy leather-bound dairies. These days, I mostly type on my computer as I prefer to encrypt my journal entries. Whatever your writing medium, find something that feels comfortable for you but do not spend too much time searching for it.

2. Set a timer for 10 minutes

Some people find journaling intimidating because they think they have to write an essay. Do not worry about how much you will write. Focus more on the process of pouring out your thoughts and feelings than on crafting good writing.

Start by setting a timer, and then free write. Just let the words pour out and do not stop to edit. Focus on what is currently troubling you. To give you an idea, here is an excerpt from one of my journal entries in December 2010.

Freewriting. In very small font. Because I don’t want to be distracted. Tired. Exhausted. Body feels like it is tired and wanting a break. A serious break. From all the things that I have been doing. This is the break that I have been looking for. Bali. Try not to do anything really vigorous. But can’t really stop thinking of all the things I need to do. So many clients. Love what I am doing, but it’s feeling like a bit too much. Need a break.

3. Once you start to flow, keep writing

It is perfectly alright to go beyond the 10 minutes. The timer is more to help you get started. Write as much as you need, and get all your thoughts and feelings out in words. It is your private journal, you can express anything you wish. If you are using pen and paper, do no hesitate to draw or scribble if that is what you feel like doing. The main thing is to keep your thoughts and feelings flowing.

4. Notice your tone shifting

At some point in your writing, you will begin to see a shift in the tone of your writing. What started out as an angry rant may ebb into a sadder yet more adaptive understanding. Or a tired and demotivated state may morph into a more hopeful and positive direction.

For some reason, we shift from negative to positive when we express ourselves honestly and fully. Psychologist Francine Shapiro postulated the Adaptive Information Processing model* that seems to fit with this positive tone-shifting phenomenon that I observe when I take clients through such expressive journaling exercises.

5. When you feel better, you are done

Once you have entered into that adaptive state in your writing, you will find yourself no longer needing to continue journaling. This means you are done. Once you start to feel better, you have derived what you needed from the process.

Some people may wish to do a different kind of journaling at this point, one that I might call generative journaling. This kind of journaling is not so much about processing your feelings (as in expressive journaling above) but more on generating new ideas for the future. I will write more about that in another post.

If you would like to read more about the benefits of expressive journaling, look up James Pennebaker’s work, for example, this article.

Happy journaling!

*EMDR is one of my favourite models of psychotherapy for helping people resolve traumatic memories.


Note: This article was originally written by Dr. Johnben Loy and posted on his personal blog in 2014 here.

© Rekindle Sdn. Bhd., 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Rekindle Centre for Systemic Therapy and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.