5 Ways Journaling Can Build Your Resilience

Michelle Pearce, PhD

Writing is good for you. I don’t mean writing a term paper or a work report or even a Dear Diary entry. I mean a type of reflective writing that allows you to get your deep thoughts and feelings out of your head and onto the page. This type of journaling has been a lifeline for me and for many of my clients during difficult times.

Journaling helps us to process adversity, improve our health, and build our resilience—all things we could use during this challenging year! But you don’t have to take my word for it. There are have been more than three decades worth of research on the benefits of reflective journaling. Let’s first look at why writing is good for you. Then, I’ll share 5 ways you can use journaling to build your resilience.

Research Shows Writing is Helpful

Dr. James Pennebaker, a social psychologist, conducted the first journaling experiment in 1986, now repeated hundreds of times by researchers around the world. He and his team asked undergraduate students to write about either a trauma or a neutral topic (such as describing the room they were sitting in) for 15 to 20 minutes a day over a period of four days. The students who wrote about a trauma, describing both the traumatic event and their feelings about it, experienced better physical health, fewer doctor visits, improved sleep, less pain, and more positive mood over the following months.

That was our first glimpse that there is something about getting one’s pain into the written word that helps the body and mind feel better.

Since then, researchers have found a host of other benefits for the writer, including better immune system functioning, improved sleep, reduced depression, and lower stress hormones and blood pressure. The physiological and psychological changes facilitated by writing cause our bodies and minds to relax, creating a fertile context for healing.

How Writing Helps us to Build Resilience

Writing is an effective and convenient tool, one we can use anytime and anywhere when we’re going through times of suffering, stress, and loss. Here are at least five ways that journaling can help us better manage adversity and build our resilience. To help you experience the benefits of journaling yourself, I’ll provide a writing prompt for each way below. Try giving yourself 10 to 15 minutes to write about each prompt.

  • Grieve Your Loss
Writing helps us to move through our suffering and pain by first acknowledging its existence. Many of us want to skip over mourning and get right on to feeling resilient. I get it, I’m the same way. But I’ve learned through years of clinical practice as a psychologist, and in my own life journey through loss, that you have to grieve before you can grow. There’s just no way around this. 

Thankfully, journaling provides us with a safe, private, and welcoming place to release our painful emotions and dark thoughts. We can say the same thing over and over again in our journal without worrying that anyone will get tired of hearing about it. We can also write about the things we’re too afraid or ashamed to say to someone else. Our journals can help us ride the inevitable waves of grief. 

Try this Writing Prompt: 

“I said to someone I know, ‘I don’t know why this hurts so much.’ And she said, ‘it hurts because it mattered.’ And that was a huge thing for me to realize. That there are things in life that hurt. And they hurt because they were important.” (John Green)

Can you identify with this idea that “it hurts because it mattered? What in your life has hurt because it mattered?

  • Mine Your Mess

“Mine your mess” is a phrase I use with my clients to describe the process of looking back at what has happened in our lives, so that we can learn from our painful experiences and from any mistakes we may have made. Armed with this precious knowledge, we can make the changes we need to overcome adversity and become more resilient. The difference between thinking about our mess and mining our mess is meaning-making. 

When we find meaning in our mess, we are mining the lessons that will allow us to change course. When we simply think about the mess, we stay stuck in the past way of doing things. Researchers who study loss and bereavement have discovered that it is not time that heals all wounds, but rather it is meaning that heals all wounds. Making meaning or making sense of our painful experiences and our potential role in them is what leads to healing and transformation. In other words, reflecting on the mess plus finding meaning and lessons to be learned equals mining the mess. Our journal is an excellent place to mine our messes!

Try this Writing Prompt: 

It has been said that our fiercest enemies can be our greatest teachers. Make a list of at least ten things you have learned through experiencing this difficult time in your life. These might be things you have learned about yourself, others, relationships, your priorities, your strengths and weaknesses, spirituality, and life in general. Elaborate on how you learned each of these things. Notice what feelings come up for you as you make this list and take some time to write about these emotions.

  • Explore Other Perspectives

Journaling is like acting—the page is a stage where we can try out new identities, new perspectives, and new ways of thinking and being. There is often a difference between who we are showing up as in our lives and who we wish we were showing up as. We can use our writing to explore a different way of thinking about and handling the challenging situations in our lives. 

One of the most powerful things a therapist can do is help a client find a new perspective—a new way of thinking about something that has caused distress. We can use our journals to do the very same thing a therapist would help us do: Explore a different perspective and change our thoughts. Once we change how we are thinking, we start a dynamic chain reaction. Our feelings, outlook, behavior, and physiology all change when we change how we are thinking. 

Try this Writing Prompt: 

We spend a lot of our mental energy worrying about the worst-case scenario. We imagine that if we plan for the worst, we will somehow be better prepared for it. Unfortunately, not only are we no more prepared for this feared situation, but we also make ourselves miserable in the process. Most of the time, what we worry about never happens! 

Rather than imagining the worst-case scenario, we can use our minds to do the opposite: imagine the best-case scenario. Take some time to write about the very best way your current circumstance (or life) could go. Be as detailed as you can. Then, write about how you feel dwelling on the best-case scenario.

  • Create a New Narrative 

To heal, we need to do more than simply recall our story of pain and suffering. We need to reconstruct our story. You’ll find that as you write your story about the adversity you endured or are currently experiencing, it will become more objective and you will gain emotional distance from it. Eventually, you will integrate the trauma and suffering into your overall life narrative, so that it no longer runs the show. Like editing, you will “rework and reword,” and finally you will find yourself with a new narrative and with a new ending to your story.

Try this Writing Prompt: 

What story have you been telling yourself about your challenging life situation? This might be a story about what led you into this time of pain and suffering or what it’s been like for you since you’ve experienced this difficult event. Write a few paragraphs describing your current story. Include facts, feelings, thoughts, and explanations.

What would your story look like from the vantage point of you already thriving? Write a different story about the same facts and events you wrote about above, but this time from the perspective of your already thriving self. You might also incorporate the best-case scenario ending you wrote about above.

  • Celebrate Your Growth 

It can be easy when we’re grieving or going through adversity to just put our heads down and do whatever needs to be done to get to the other side. But there are lots of things to celebrate before we get to that other side. In fact, it’s vital that we take time to acknowledge and celebrate each baby step we take forward. These moments of celebration fuel our next steps and remind us how we are growing through this pain. 

Try this Writing Prompt: 

No matter where you are in your process, take a few moments to celebrate your achievements (big and small), as well as your effort, perseverance, and courage. Use this space to list all the things you have to celebrate. Include all of the blessings, benefits, and becomings as a result of this challenging time. You might reflect on the following questions as you write your celebration list: 

  •  What character traits have you developed or refined?
  •  What new doors have opened?
  •  How has your life expanded?
  •  How have your priorities changed?

Your journal is a powerful tool for healing and transformation. When your world gets turned upside down, when you’re grieving a loss, when you’re trying to make sense of something or chart a new way forward—try journaling, and build your resilience, one word at a time. 

  • About Dr. Michelle Pearce:

Dr. Michelle Pearce is a clinical psychologist, author, researcher, health and wellness coach, and Professor in the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Her newest book, “Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity,” uses journaling as a tool for building resilience. For more journaling prompts, check out her book at one of your favorite online retailers, including AmazonBarnes and Noble, and Indie Bound.

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