How to Use Journaling to Cope with Negative Thoughts and Painful Emotions

How to Use Journaling to Cope with Negative Thoughts and Painful Emotions

How to Use Journaling to Cope with Negative Thoughts and Painful Emotions

Whether you are a long-time journaler or have never really used journaling as a way to cope with what life throws at you, this post is for you. Journaling can be a very effective way to process your thoughts and feelings about the day. Many use their journals to vent overwhelming thoughts and emotions.

Today was the worst! My boss drives me so crazy! I could just explode with anger! I am so done with everyone in my life!

Sound familiar? There definitely can be something therapeutic in frantically scribbling down an angry rant or writing until your journal is so tear-soaked that your pen begins to rip the now-delicate page. However, if your journal becomes exclusively a place to dump only the negative thoughts that traverses the neurons of your brain, there is the potential that this process is actually deepening the entrenchment of your dark and painful thoughts.

So, once you have vented a bit, are there some other strategies to use when you are journaling to cope with negative thoughts and low mood?

Yes! Kristin Neff, PhD., a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is a leader in the field for self-compassion research. In her book, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself: Self Compassion, she recommends journaling as one way of developing self-kindness and self-compassion. The journaling process she suggests, based on a wealth of research, goes beyond venting and encourages the use of a 3-step structure to process your feelings.

3 Steps to Taking Your Journaling Beyond Venting

Step 1: Mindfully Acknowledge Your Feelings

Sometimes we can be so busy that we do not take time to notice and acknowledge the mix of feelings we are experiencing throughout the day. Try to find time in your day to stop, slow down, and mindfully tune into what you are feeling. Turn toward your pain and identify what is hurting you, making you angry, or causing your suffering. You will also begin to notice the string of negative thoughts that are contributing to these feelings. Your feelings are legitimate and deserve to be acknowledged and addressed. To help shift from venting to mindfully identifying your feelings, try underlining the feeling words in your journal entries.

Today I actually lost it and yelled at my boss! I am so sick of his condescension and micromanagement. He stands in the way of me ever being promoted! I actually used the f-bomb three times! I think I might actually hate him! [venting]

I just felt so angry with him. He makes me feel insignificant and invisible. I’m so ashamed and embarrassed that I totally lost it during this meeting in front of so many co-workers that I respect and admire. I fear they will never see me the same way ever again. Now, I just can’t stop crying. I’m tired of always feeling discouraged or feeling less than everyone else. [mindful acknowledgment of  many painful emotions]

Did you notice the shift from venting to identifying emotions and naming them? That is step one in coping with painful feelings. It is difficult to process a feeling that remains nebulous or completely unacknowledged.

Step 2: Remember You Are Not Alone

It is helpful to remember that part of being human is that we all struggle. You are not alone.

When we buy into thoughts that no one has experienced pain like our own, we may begin to feel disconnected, isolated, less-than, and unworthy of others. Remind yourself as you journal that others experience feelings like yours. When you focus on your connectedness with others, self-compassion, self-understanding, and self-forgiveness will be more likely to follow. Dr. Neff states, “The very fact that we are imperfect affirms that we are card-carrying members of the human race and are therefore always, automatically, connected to the whole.”  Perfection is hard for all of us to relate to!

I know most of my co-workers are pretty frustrated with him too. And I am definitely not the first person that has lost it with him. Everyone gets pretty aggravated by him. Still, I don’t feel great about how I handle this at all. I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person on this planet that fell apart at work. I know I am not perfect, but who is? I guess perfect is not the goal. But still, I know I can do better. I just gotta keep reminding myself that everyone falls short sometimes. [focus on interconnectedness]

Step 3: Be Kind to Yourself

When we experience feelings that threaten us, either in our relationships or from intense self-criticism, our brains interpret these feelings as a threat and may trigger our fight, flight, or freeze response resulting in a flood of adrenaline and cortisol throughout our body. These responses may have been very effective in a time when we had to flee from an attacking lion, but it is much less helpful when faced with emotional injuries and pain!

So, try a different response. Be kind and compassionate with yourself. Provide yourself with soothing and calming words. After all, you would do this for a friend who was suffering, right? Turn the compassionate part of you inward, and provide yourself with nonjudgmental words of support, reassurance, encouragement, and hope.

Though I don’t feel great about screaming at my boss, I also need to remember that I am still struggling to process Grandpa’s death. I’m just trying to get by. I just am not at my best right now, and I am going to allow for that. I loved him so much, and there is a giant hole in my heart. At this point, maybe I should be impressed that I continue to contribute at work despite the deep loss I am feeling. I guess what I really need to do is stop beating myself up and remember how fragile I am right now. I will apologize to my boss tomorrow because it is the right thing to do, but I also feel it is OK that I am struggling with anger and grief right now. [self-compassion and kindness]

So there you have it–the 3 steps to taking your journaling beyond venting. And if you are curious to see just how self-compassionate you are, go to Dr.Neff’s website and take the self-compassion quiz. This quiz uses 26 questions to assess self-kindness, self-judgment, common humanity, isolation, mindfulness, and over-identification with others. If your score is low, fear not. Try using self-compassion in your daily thoughts and journaling, then try the test a month from now and see what happens. Thought patterns are habits, and we absolutely can change the way we think. Don’t forget to check out this post about how to combat negative thoughts, which can be helpful as you get started in the process of journaling your thoughts and feelings. We are all in this together!

If you are experiencing anxiety, depression, or have a history of trauma, there may be times when mustering up self-compassion feels out of reach. Try confiding in a family member or friend. If your symptoms are intense and you would like to seek additional support, please consider contacting North Star Therapy.