The rise of journaling: a powerful tool for emotional health and creativity

Journaling, especially the ‘Morning Pages’ technique, has gained popularity post-pandemic as a tool for emotional processing and self-reflection.

Abhilasha Ojha
Published14 Jun 2024, 07:30 AM IST
Everyone from CXOs to students find journaling meditative.
Everyone from CXOs to students find journaling meditative.

In a recent episode of Journey of a Joke, a YouTube series anchored by satirist Abish Mathew, actor Vir Das talked about journaling. Das, who will be touring India next month with his MindFool World Tour 2024, explained that US author-artist Julia Cameron’s journaling technique, Morning Pages, aids his process of writing jokes. On his social media pages too, Das often posts images of himself journaling with the hashtag “Morning Pages”.

This particular technique is one of the fundamental tools Cameron uses in her best-selling book, The Artist’s Way (1992), a 12-week guide to creative recovery. The technique involves three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, and is ideally done first thing in the morning. Apart from Das, other celebrities who write Morning Pages include Alicia Keys and Reese Witherspoon. Actor Huma Qureshi too has a dedicated morning routine that involves not looking at her phone for an hour after she wakes up, doing a quick workout and writing Morning Pages, followed by meditation.

“Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritise and synchronise the day at hand,” Cameron explains in an email interview with Lounge. It helps one discover—and recover—one’s personal creativity, artistic confidence and productivity.

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While this is just one form of journaling, more people have taken up the meditative practice post pandemic, believing that it helps them focus. Journaling can take many forms, from “bullet” and “gratitude” journals to “dream recorders” and “feeling trackers” and it is a popular method to process one’s emotions. While bullet journaling suggests writing down points to identify feelings without elaborating, a “feeling tracker” requires one to capture one’s emotional journey during a 3-4 hour window and capture one’s thoughts. The idea is to “tag” the feeling and be aware of it while detaching from it. Gratitude journaling, on the other hand, is awareness of being grateful, even in the most trying circumstances, while the dream recorder tracks any nightmares or dreams immediately upon waking to understand one’s subconscious feelings.

“Though journaling has been around for long, it was during the pandemic that more people took to it,” says Tanya Rajwanshi, clinical psychologist, Fortis Escorts Heart Institute, Delhi. Rajwanshi often recommends a “feeling tracker” to her patients, especially those battling depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. “At the end of the day, you have proof of how you’ve articulated your feelings,” she says. One of her corporate clients cut the number of cigarettes he smoked through another technique—habit tracking, where one makes a list of habits through the month in an excel sheet and tracks each of them at the end of the day.

“Putting your thoughts down on paper gives you perspective,” says Delhi-based Harnehmat Kaur, co-founder of Daak Room, which promotes letter-writing by curating postcard gift boxes and customised letter-writing hampers. “With writing comes slowing down, finding patience and clarity of thought,” says Kaur, who begins her day by journaling. She says the exercise of writing down feelings and thoughts reduces anxiety. “It allows for better articulation and a more meditative experience of conversing with the self,” she says. “You reflect deeply when you physically write on paper with your hand as opposed to typing away on a laptop or any other gadget.”

Rajwanshi cites an example of a patient who had the urge to take a bath each time she saw a dog. For her, Rajwanshi suggested a rational versus irrational thought journal. “A rational thought in this case is, ‘The dog hasn’t touched me’. An irrational thought is, ‘The dog is close to me’.” Once you have chosen the rational thought consciously, you will try to do the right thing.

Rajwanshi introduces children to the concept of journaling through charts and emoji stickers, urging families to participate on a daily basis to quell feelings of separation anxiety, depression, lack of self-esteem and bullying that some school-going children might experience.

Most psychotherapists and counsellors encourage people to write. According to a January 2024 research report, Handwriting but not typewriting leads to widespread brain connectivity, by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, writing by hand improves overall learning and memory, given the communication between the brain’s visual, sensory and motor cortices.

Neuroscientists have found that writing longhand engages various regions of the brain involved in emotional regulation, self-reflection, cognition and memory. The exercise of putting pen to paper activates the amygdala, the brain’s emotional centre, which plays a crucial role in processing emotions, particularly fear and stress.

No surprise then that everyone from C-suite executives to doctors, lawyers and artists find journaling an introspective, meditative tool to heal and press forward. British entrepreneur Richard Branson, for instance, is known to carry a notebook with him to jot down his thoughts. American entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, author of the best-selling book The 4-Hour Workweek, spends five minutes each morning writing in a gratitude journal.

While few negate the positive effects of journaling, Namrata Gupta, senior consultant, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist at Delhi’s Vimhans, urges caution when it comes to exercises in manifesting, visualising and healing through journaling. “Writing is a reflective activity but if it triggers my patient and makes him or her more anxious in the moment, I would recommend it at a later stage or customise it accordingly,” says Gupta.

She recommends three pages of writing a day, urging her clients to see the pages as their space to vent and rant without judgement. However, she customises it—for patients who are restless at night, for instance, she recommends night-time journaling. “Think of putting pen to paper as a sword in the hands of a ninja—you break through the dark clouds of the mind to gain more insight and clarity,” says Gupta.

Cameron, whose self-help classic has sold over five million copies worldwide and has been translated into 40 languages, has her own journaling routine: “I am a tea drinker, and I have my first cup of tea as I sit in my library, writing out pages. I use a fast-writing pen: Uniball 207 in black, and I write my daily three pages on A4 sized paper, in The Artist’s Way Morning Pages Journal.

Mathew, who was gifted The Artist’s Way by satirist Kanan Gill, has adapted the technique to suit his schedule and work commitments. He takes notes through the day, but journaling gives him the time and space to get into a flow and understand his own creative process. He says he doesn’t go back and read what he’s written, but instead returns to the pages after three-four months. Often the insights he gains from looking back at the journal with the advantage of time and distance is translated into material that he eventually uses for his stage shows.

“So much has evolved for me through journaling—songs, jokes, insights, scripts,” he says. Mathew stresses that journaling “is a review of your life”.

While journaling is, at its essence, writing to communicate with oneself, those who journal regularly also see it as a tool to develop patience.

“It is a throwback to our childhood days when we wrote in our secret diaries, allowing ourselves to get bored in order to think more creatively,” says Mathew.

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based art and culture writer.

Also read: Decoding high-functioning depression: signs, causes and ways to treat it 

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First Published:14 Jun 2024, 07:30 AM IST
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