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Journal Your Life Story

Journaling today seems to be an effective way of self care.The market is flooded with sophisticated digital and designer diaries to choose from. To each his own. It’s important that whatever medium you choose to journal, it should be effective. It must keep you motivated, disciplined and moving forward. The article explores that journaling should be beyond facts and emotions. It should be a reflective and iterative process of writing your life story that results in an enriched life.

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As a kid, I used to write stories. My mum still has a booklet somewhere which has all my weird and wonderful ideas, imaginations and interests written down. The writing bug continues to be a part of both my professional and personal life. As an academic, writing scientific articles is a part of my job. But that’s not free writing. It’s constrained.

The other form of writing that’s now a ritual and I truly appreciate is Reflective Writing. Some people might just call it keeping a diary while others call it journaling. But it’s more than that. Of course I write about my day, the progress I make, the challenges I face, and the frustrations I encounter. But what really helps me get clarity and perspective is writing about events that shocked the foundations of my world. In those situations, writing is a tool for self-reflection. It can be therapeutic. It can be confidence boosting. It can also be humbling.


Reflective writing as a tool to deal with life events

When you write about events in your life you practice a form of expressive writing. This is a self-process, a process focused on yourself, that has a positive impact on your mental health (Taylor,Lerner, Sherman, Sage, & McDowell, 2003b). It acts as a stress-buffer. In other words, it’s a tool you have available that can help you process and make sense of negative events.

A mechanism that makes reflective journaling effective is self-affirmation. In this process, you’re affirming important values to yourself. In a way, you clarify to yourself what you stand for. Self-affirmation has been related to lower negative physical health symptoms (Cresswell et al. 2007). This mechanism works through expressing emotions and finding benefits in the current situation.

In practice, self-affirmation begins with a description of the situation. Not just factual information, but also positive and negative emotions. For example, a woman who has breast cancer might write about how she is feeling, how the illness is progressing, how she feels about losing her breasts, and how this impacts her view of femininity. In turn, she might change her mindset of what it means to be a woman, from physical characteristics (surface features) to internal characteristics (deep features).

Another mechanism at work during reflective writing is cognitive processing. This is when you actively write not just about the events, but about the thoughts and your feelings associated with the stressful event (Pennebaker et al., 1997, O’Cleirigh et al, 2003).
But cognitive processing alone is not enough. You need to arrive at a new discovery of meaning. Traumatic events lead you to establish a new meaning in your life. But this new meaning requires that you appreciate life and recognize its fragility (Bower et al., 2003).

2. Second, temptations and distractions are other reasons to lose (momentary) focus on goals. Nudge Theory attempts to solve problems to goal attainment by changing aspects of the environment. These changes reduce the impact of temptation and distractions.

According to Thaler and Sunstein (2008), a nudge is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates forcing people to change their behaviour.
An example: Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

3. Third, escalation of commitment or in other words keep on trying something that clearly doesn’t help you reach your goal. Certain goal-striving behaviours are not helpful in achieving a goal and are actually counterproductive. In other words, it’s staying committed to behaviours that are not helping you achieve your goals but you persist simply because you have started with them.

Brain Work

Would you view periodical journaling as self-care and wellness ritual?

If you journal what do you like about it? What works for you?

If you do not journal or have given up on it what about it doesn’t work for you?


When does reflective journaling work?

If you want to use journaling to effectively deal with life events you need to write about how the event leads to new benefits. You can write about life events in three ways.

1. Describe what happens by focusing on facts. This is a mere repetition of what is occurring. List the sequence of events, who was involved, where it took place. Like in a movie, retell the story.

2. Write down how you feel about the events by being aware of your emotions. While describing the event, or after you are done with it, focus on your feelings. Write down your emotions. What made you sad, angry, frustrated, happy, excited? Do this several times. Think several times about the event and note your feelings.

3. Look for how your current situation has a benefit for yourself. This is not about finding a happy ending, but looking for the silver lining. Maybe all looks sh*t on the surface, but what if you dig deeper? How are you growing? What new strengths or new sides of life are you discovering?

For example, during the COVID-19 induced lockdown in Ireland (March – August 2019), I could feel the stress of being a single parent, working full-time from home, teaching 4 kids, and being a mother. There was hardly space for me to be me. But it cemented in me the importance of family (self-affirmation) and helped me to set new goals in line with my values (cognitive processing). Thus, while living through the pandemic was no cakewalk, it gave me a new way to look and plan my life.

It’s not enough to just write about the event or the emotions you experienced. The next step is making sense of it and looking at how the event benefits you. Everything happens for a reason, so look further and keep on searching. You’ll end up learning something about yourself. Just writing about how you feel might even be worse than not writing anything at all (Ullrich et al. 2002). The goal here is through the process of writing about how you feel you become more self aware and discover

Tiny tips

For first timers

1. If you have never done reflective journaling, experiment with prompts that work for you.

2. Remember, you do not need to write every day. The writing should help you make sense of your life, not be an additional burden

For those who already journal

1. Once in a while, read what you wrote and note changes in your perspective on events and life.

2. Color code negative and positive words or passages to make it easier to note a change in perspective. Life isn’t just good or bad, don’t fill your journal only with happy or sad thoughts and feelings


Bower, J. E., Kemeny, M. E., Taylor, S. E., & Fahey, J. L. (2003). Finding positive meaning and its association with natural killer cell cytotoxicity among participants in a bereavement-related dis- closure intervention. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 25, 146-155.

Creswell, J. D., Lam, S., Stanton, A. L., Taylor, S. E., Bower, J. E., & Sherman, D. K. (2007). Does Self-Affirmation, Cognitive Processing, or Discovery of Meaning Explain Cancer-Related Health Benefits of Expressive Writing? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(2), 238–250. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167206294412

O’Cleirigh, C., Ironson, G., Antoni, M. H., Fletcher, M. A., McGuffey, L., Balbin, E., et al. (2003). Emotional expression and depth processing of trauma and their relation to long-term sur- vival in patients with HIV/AIDS. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 54, 225-235.

Pennebaker, J. W., Mayne, T. J., & Francis, M. E. (1997). Linguistic predictors of adaptive bereavement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 863-871.

Taylor, S. E., Lerner, J. S., Sherman, D. K., Sage, R. M., & McDowell, N. K. (2003). Portrait of the self-enhancer: Well adjusted and well liked or maladjusted and friendless? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 165-176.

Ullrich, P. M., & Lutgendorf, S. K. (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24(3), 244–250. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15324796ABM2403_10.

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