When our thoughts are overwhelming or we find ourselves ruminating on the past, journaling can be incredibly helpful. Cracking open a new notebook and filling its blank pages with our thoughts and feelings can help us process, clear our minds, and examine our memories, behaviors, or habits from a new angle without feeling like we’re being judged by anyone else.
But journaling isn’t for everyone. Some people find that it doesn’t feel calming or fulfilling and the stress of finding the “perfect” words to put on paper can be overwhelming.
As a child, I would get super excited every time I got a new diary or notebook—and then stress out if I missed writing for a few days. To try to make myself stick to my journaling habit, I would pre-date all of the pages—and then doubly stress when I still didn’t write every day. And I’m a writer!
If writing isn’t your thing or the pressure of journaling on a regular basis is stressful, there are still plenty of things you can do to self-reflect, process your thoughts and feelings, or get what’s in your brain out in the world so you can examine it from a different perspective.
Here are a few alternatives to journaling if you just don’t love to write.
For some people, journaling is a great way to process thoughts, feelings, fears, and memories. When you work with a therapist or coach, they might encourage you to journal in order to increase your self-awareness around things that cause you stress or impact your mental health and happiness as well as things that support you, encourage you, or lead to growth. Through journaling, you can self-reflect and start noticing patterns that you might want to improve or change.
Writing about traumatic, stressful, or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health. In some studies, those who practiced expressive writing for fifteen to twenty minutes on just three to five occasions had significantly better physical and psychological outcomes compared with those who wrote about neutral topics.
Even if you’re not embarking on a therapy or coaching journey, you might be thinking about journaling as a way to record memories, unload your thoughts, or simply get creative.
But journaling is not for everyone! So what could you do instead?
When we think of journaling, we might picture sinking hours of time into painstakingly filling a sea of blank notebook pages until our hands cramp up. But that’s not necessarily the case!
For you, journaling could mean writing down a bullet-pointed list of what happened each week, filling out a post-it with something you want to let go of (and then throwing it away), or writing down something you’re grateful for each day before you go to sleep.
You could write poetry, keep a dream journal, or track your moods or habits in a calendar. The form doesn’t matter as much as the practice of writing does.
But if writing in any form really doesn’t appeal to you, there are other options that will let you explore your thoughts and feelings and build self-awareness.
Speaking out loud forces us to slow down our thoughts and process them differently by engaging the language centers of our brain.
You can use an audio note on your phone or computer or stroll outside or around your home and talk to yourself out loud. And even though you’re not journaling through writing, you can still use journaling prompts.
Remember to use positive (or even neutral) self-talk. For example, instead of saying, “I’m stupid, I’m underqualified, I should never have applied for that job last month, of course I wouldn’t get it,” try something like, “Maybe an internal candidate ended up getting promoted, let me go back to my resume and see if I can make any updates.” Or, “This outcome might have had nothing to do with me at all.” Or, “I can use this energy to apply for my next dream job.”
It doesn’t matter if you don’t consider yourself artistic. You can still do something creative! Creative activities can help you transition between the left and right sides of your brain and give the side that might be overused a bit of a break.
Here are a few things you could try:
The important thing to remember is that you’re doing these activities for you. You don’t need to show them to anyone, explain them to anybody, post them on social media, or even keep them! They’re simply a way to express yourself creatively, see what comes out, and use a different part of your brain.
While it might seem like they are opposite activities—you might journal to be more aware of your thoughts while meditation may focus more on letting thoughts go—taking time out of your day to simply sit, reduce external sensory overload, and notice your thoughts and your body can be incredibly beneficial.
Notice any particular bodily sensations or circulating thought processes that come up. Observe any sounds or smells around you or the temperature of the room you are in. The fine-tuned awareness you use during meditation can help you train yourself to pay more attention elsewhere.
For example, if I notice that my neck is tight during a body scan meditation and later, when I’m working on the computer, I notice that my neck is tight again, I might pause and realize that I need to take a break or that the person I’m emailing with stresses me out or that I let myself get too close to a deadline again and I might benefit from starting my work a bit earlier so I don’t get so tense.
If you get distracted while you meditation, note that your thoughts are bouncing around in your head and come back to the present moment. And if you need some help getting started, try this guided meditation with therapist Ric Mathews and MyWellbeing.
Again, the format or medium doesn’t matter as much as the practice. Journaling doesn’t have to mean long hours hunched over a notebook, making sure each page comes out perfectly. It doesn’t have to be anything other than a way to express your thoughts, take time to self-reflect, and take from the practice what you need.
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Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.