Learning How To Reflect Will Save Your Life, Part 5: When To Stop Journaling For Maximum Benefit

Once I teach people how to start journaling comfortably (see last week), the next limiting thought I hear a lot is:

How do I know when it is helpful?

It is a good question but it is not the point. The act of journaling is beneficial no matter what; it takes the writer's openness and attitude toward the idea of reflection that cracks open its true value. 

Just Start Writing

I used to work on a crisis inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital and I had taught a sixty-five year old woman how to journal for the first time in her life. 

At the beginning of a shift, I found her crying in the hallway. She said she had received bad news and had a horrible afternoon and was very angry and wanted to know how to journal about it. 

I told her "The most important thing is that you want to journal about it. That you are already open to processing it. All you have to do is sit down and start writing about your anger. What you are mad at, who you are mad at, and why."

"But then what?" she said.

"Nothing beyond that. You will know when to stop. You will notice what happens once you get into writing your thoughts down."

And she did. She wrote free hand like I do about what had triggered her, why it triggered her anger, and why she felt helpless about it. She cried throughout the process but then noticed when she was losing steam and stopped writing. 

Unfortunately, for many of you overthinkers out there, journaling is that simple. You simply write until you should not anymore. 

Criteria For Stopping

"Easier said than done, Taylor. What are the criteria for that?"

Happy you asked.

Some signs for you to stop a journaling session include:

  1. feelings of physical fatigue from mentally focusing and thinking so hard

  2. trying to force the thoughts to come 

  3. you forget why you are journaling in the first place 

Number 2 refers to the point when the thoughts are not flowing naturally anymore and you are adding extra mental effort to think of the next connection or note to write. 

Regarding number 3, sure, this means you were properly immersed in the process, and it is the point of journaling to see where the mind flows, but be mindful of the overall intention. 

I once thought that I needed to journal and dive deep into it every day, which takes a lot of time and mental force since it is not natural. It was not sustainable because my intention was no longer about the immersion but about the habit of unnecessarily journaling every day of the week. 

The Power Of Immersion

Let me give you a good example of the power of journaling:

Close to four years ago now, I hurt a close friend's feelings. I did not intend to, but I own that I did anyway. I was so distraught by what I had done and how they had reacted and the whole situation of emotions and miscommunications that I had a hard time sleeping and spun my head into a migraine. 

I went to a local cafe I loved with only my journal, ordered a milkshake, and began to write. I wrote for four hours straight before I began to feel the fatigue (#1) between my head and my body that told me the immersion was ending. 

Furthermore, I noticed that the thoughts were not flowing as naturally and the connections I was making slowed down. Writing any more would have been more effortful than beneficial. 

I felt clearer. I felt so much more connected and integrated with my emotions. 

I was still sad, of course, but I had a deep understanding of why I was sad and what my triggers were in the situation. 

For the journaling process to have lasted four hours, the content flowed way beyond the incident with my friend. And that is the point of the immersion. 

You go wherever the thoughts take you. 

The journaling had also ameliorated my migraine. 

I will say that again: JOURNALING CURED A MIGRAINE.

Journaling did not fix my friendship, but it allowed me to speak with the friend with more understanding and clarity on my role in the situation. 

Even more, the journaling taught me how to be aware of situations like that in the future.

It had been made real and I had been made accountable. 

You Are More Ready Than You Think

Do not worry, I am not telling you that you must spend four hours journaling in order to get "immersed". The immersion happens almost immediately if you are open to the process. I just happened to need four hours on that particular day to work through what was in my mind.

To recap, here is what you do need:

  1. a journal that is best suited for your personality and productivity (see two posts back to determine this)

  2. a pen

  3. a simplified starting point - what you are feeling right then, a subject that is on your mind, etc.

  4. openness to the immersion

  5. awareness to stop when you hit the energetic markers I mentioned above. 

Within that, though, go for it. See where your mind takes you. It is a fascinating and wondrous journey to go on. Enjoy the ride.