Journaling Ideas for a Busy Schedule

Journaling Benefits

I love journaling. Or to be more specific, I love the benefits I receive from journaling. Among many other benefits, journaling always calms me down when I feel stressed. Even if I only journal for 10 minutes, I always come away from it feeling supported, like I’ve just talked with a trusted friend. And most of the time, along with the stress reduction, I gain fresh perspective and insights that sometimes surprise me and always are helpful.

Meaningful Journaling on a Busy Schedule

Because I, like most people, don’t have a lot of time to spend on journaling, I want to make the most of the time I do have. That is why I love using sentence stems. A sentence stem is essentially a half finished sentence, for example: “What I really wanted to say to Susan was……” Sentence stems help focus your journaling around issues or ideas that you want to explore or understand better. Sentence stems can also help you solve problems that you feel stuck on.

What I find works best is to choose a sentence stem that strikes a chord, and then to spend 10-15 minutes writing about it. Write fast without stopping; don’t lift your pen from the page; don’t censor yourself. If you don’t know what to write, just write “blah, blah, blah….” until the thoughts come – then let it rip!

The reason why you want to write like this is because it allows you to bypass your inner critic and makes room for your subconscious thoughts and feelings to surface. This is where the real juice is. Practice this kind of writing for a while, and you will be amazed at the insights and answers you get to questions or problems in your life.

Some advice:

Keep your journal in a private place where only you will find it. This will allow you to let your thoughts flow uncensored.

Enjoy your journaling. This is a time to spend quality time with yourself. Be curious. Explore. There are no right or wrong ways to journal so enjoy the process and see what unfolds!

Some Sentence Stems

Below are some sentence stems to get you started. 

What I really wanted to say was.....

My heart tells me to....

My biggest fear is....

I am grateful for....

I feel misunderstood when....

Deep down I know....

I am beautiful because....

I worry too much about....

I get stuck because....

I am happiest when....

My secret dream is....

If I were a super hero I would....

As you can see, the sky is the limit with sentence stems.  Now you've got the hang of it, experiment with some stems of your own.


Questioning our Feelings

 The other day I was out walking with a friend, who told me about a class she had taken about mindfulness and fear.  One of the questions they asked in the class was, “who is it (in me) that is feeling this fear?”  I think that is such a useful question to ask, and it can be extrapolated to a number of situations in life.

“Who is it in me that’s stressed?”  “Who is it in me that’s worried?”  “Who is it in me that wants this second piece of chocolate cake?”  When we only feel the stress or the worry or the craving it is easy to just react to the feeling, which isn’t always productive.  When we ask the question we disidentify from the feeling and the feeling loses some of its power over us.

The question helps us begin to understand where the feeling comes from and the reason behind it.  Perhaps we’re stressed not just because we have a new presentation coming up at work, but also because we have a belief that if we don’t please everyone we will be abandoned.  When we recognize that our work stress and our core belief about abandonment have become intertwined we can then separate them.  We can begin to question if our core belief is really true and give support and acceptance to the part of ourselves that fears abandonment.  Doing so, we free up energy to focus on what we need to do to create a presentation we feel proud of.

Five Minute Stress Relief

You’ve just gotten home from a long day at work and all you want to do is kick your feet up and relax, but the dog is whining to be walked, the kids are hungry, there’s wet laundry in the washer and your partner forgot to pick up tonight’s dinner fixings at the store.  This or your own (fill in the blank) version of a crazy, hectic day can leave you feeling like the world is spinning waaay too fast.  All you want to do is go hide your head somewhere, but you can’t. 

Thankfully, there is a 5 minute (5 minutes only!) exercise you can do that can help you relax and feel more human again.

The simple breathing technique I’m going to share with you is one that you can do at your desk, in your (parked) car, or even in the restroom if you have to disappear for a few minutes so your coworkers don’t give you funny looks.

The Exercise

I got this from “Relax Into Your Being”, by B.K. Frantzis.  It is a wonderful book about Taoist meditation and qi gong practices.  I find this exercise very relaxing and I like how calm I feel after doing it.  I’ve adapted it slightly.

1. Sit comfortably with your feet placed on the ground in front of you.  Relax your shoulders; notice your buttocks in the chair and your feet on the ground.  Keeping your mouth closed, place your tongue at the roof of your mouth and relax your face.

2. Bring your attention to your breath as it travels in and out of your nostrils.  Really notice the sensations of your breath moving in and out of your nostrils, even down to the movement of your nose hairs.  Take your time doing this and don’t worry if you get it “right” or not; just notice what you notice.

3. Once you have experienced those sensations, slowly notice your breath as it continues to enter into your body.  Notice the sensations as it moves from your nostrils and into your throat.  Follow the flow of your breath as it moves into your chest and into your lungs.  Feel the line of your breath as it moves into your belly and down to your belly button and finally down to your lower dan tien*, which is the area roughly half way between your belly button and your genitals.  Do not speed through this.  Give yourself time to really feel the sensation of your breath in each of these areas before you move to the next area.  The main goal isn’t to reach the lower dan tien, but instead to feel the sensation of your breath in each of these areas as it moves on down.  If you don’t reach your lower dan tien on the first try or even the tenth try, that is fine.  Give yourself time to feel the sensations and relax into the exercise.  Don’t push yourself.  Eventually you will reach your lower dan tien.  And again, don’t worry if you do it “right” or not, just follow the instructions as best you can and notice what you notice and you’ll do great.

4. Continue with this exercise for 5 or 10 minutes, really feeling the sensations of your breath as it travels through each of these areas.  If you want, see if you can take longer breaths while doing the exercise, but again, don’t push yourself.  This exercise is about relaxing and feeling your breath.  Even if you just do the exercise for two minutes, that is good.  Again, the exercise is about relaxing and feeling your breath.

5. When you are ready to stop, sit for a moment and breath normally.  Notice your feet on the ground and your buttocks in the chair.  Bring your awareness back to the room in which you are sitting.  When you are ready, return to your day.

*The lower dan tien is an area about 4 finger breadths below the belly button, in the center of the body.  It is considered, in Chinese philosophy, to be the seat or focal point of one’s internal energy or qi, and is utilized frequently during meditation and qi gong practices.


A Simple Tip to Reduce Stress

We all know that stress can have a negative impact on our health and lives. But how can we not just manage stress, but minimize it so that it doesn’t run the show?

I have found that learning how I react to stress, both physically and emotionally, as well as noticing my thought patterns, is a great first step towards minimizing stressful feelings.

Study the ways you react to stress 

Do your shoulders tighten up and start creeping towards your ears?
Does your head start to ache?
Do you get a knotted feeling in your belly?
Do you hold your breath?
Do you eat more sweets or drink more wine?
Do your thoughts speed up or do you just want to take a nap?
Do you feel more prone to angry outbursts or crying?
Do you feel anxious, worried or impatient?

These are just some of the ways you might react to feeling stressed out.

All of us have a patterned response to stress. Once we recognize our particular pattern, we can then start to notice the precursors to our stress reactions. For example, if we know our shoulders get tight, we can make a point to notice how they feel throughout the day. If we know our minds race we can notice if our thoughts are speeding up and taking on a worried tone, or if they're staying steady and even-keeled. Noticing our reactions and their precursors are the beginning to getting a handle on stress.

How Does Studying Our Stress-Reactions Help?

When we know our stress-response, it is easier to catch ourselves moving into stress mode, before it becomes full-blown.  We can then take a moment to step back and breathe for a few moments.  Then we can assess what is triggering the stress response.   We can look at the situation, and look at our thoughts and feelings about the situation, because our thoughts and feelings are generally what stress us out, not the situation itself.

Once we know what our thoughts and feelings about the situation are, we can decide if they are relevant for the situation or not. Once we’ve determined that, then we can decide how we want to move forward.

An Example

One simple example might be needing to bring a main dish to a potluck on a Friday night. You promised to bring the dish, but the week wound up getting crazy and the potluck is now in 2 hours and you have nothing prepared. You’re stressed out because you promised to cook a main dish and feel like a guilty wimp who can't get her act together.  A simple solution, of course, would be to get “take out”, but you don’t like that idea. You decide to ask yourself why you don’t like the idea and realize you feel ashamed at the thought of bringing “take out”. You ask yourself why that idea makes you feel ashamed. You remember that your mother placed a high value on cooking meals and thought that buying “take out” for her family was lazy and showed a lack of care.  

Ah so.  Now that you understand where your feelings of shame come from, you have more room for self-compassion AND to make choices, rather than just react to thoughts and feelings.  Whether you decide to quickly cook something or to get "take-out" is irrelevant.  The important thing is that you can now make that decision from a more grounded, aware place that honors both your needs as well as your commitments.  Of course, this is a very simplistic example, but the process can be applied to any number of situations.

While cultivating an awareness of our reactions and thought patterns around stressful situations can really help us minimize stressful feelings, it’s really important to reach out for extra support when needed. Talk to trusted friends or family members; find a counselor; come in for acupuncture.

Please contact me if you have any questions or would like to know how acupuncture and Chinese medicine might be helpful for you.


Using Dialogue Method in Journaling to Problem-Solve and Find Internal Support

Let’s face it – life can be tough sometimes. Whether we are in a communication road-block with our partner, have a child struggling at school, or just can't lose that extra 25 pounds, life finds endlessly creative ways to challenge us.

Talking to friends or family can be a great way to blow off steam and even to brainstorm creative ways to solve the problem.  However, finding a solution can sometimes be difficult, especially if the problem is a chronic one.  This may be because our perspectives on the problem and its causes stay the same, in other words, we have the same belief systems around what is wrong, who or what might be at fault or how the problem should be solved. I certainly have been “guilty” of this, and it can make it difficult to effectively deal with the issue at hand when a fresh approach may be what’s required.

When facing an uncomfortable problem, we generally want to feel supported and understood, and we want a solution. If we’ve been going around in circles with no resolution in sight, we can sometimes begin to feel a bit hopeless.

A fresh perspective on the issue could help bring new understanding and creative possibilities for solving the problem, but how can we get that?

Get a Fresh Perspective with Dialogue Journaling

Journaling with Dialogue, developed by American psychologist Ira Progoff in the 1960s, is one of my favorite ways for gaining insights and perspective on a problem. It is a written dialogue between yourself and another person, object, or concept, taking on the perspective of that person, object or concept when you write their part.

For example, you might write a dialogue between yourself and your partner, if you are struggling in your relationship. If you always seem to be wrestling with your finances, you might write a dialogue between yourself and Money.

When writing about an object or concept, such as Money, it can be helpful to personify it first – give it a personality, describe what it’s wearing, what its voice sounds like etc.  Describe whatever comes to you when you think about this object or concept. It doesn’t have to “make sense”.  Giving the object or concept a personality to “relate to” makes it easier to dialogue with.

When writing both your description and dialogue, write quickly; keep your hand moving on the page or on the keyboard. Don’t censor yourself and don’t worry about “getting it right”. Let whatever you want to write come out, even if it seems irrelevant. Keep going until you feel finished.

In your dialogue, start by stating your concern. Be honest about your thoughts and feelings and stay open and curious about your dialogue partner’s perspective. Ask them questions. Ask them what they want and need. Be sincere in inviting them to share with you.  You may be very surprised at what you learn.

Here are brief excerpts from a journaler’s dialogue with her body around weight loss to get you started. In personifying her body, the words,  “a warm animal who likes softness and kindness” arose as part of the "personality" of her body.

Some of the dialogue looked like this:

Journaler (J) : I can’t seem to lose this belly weight.

Body: You’ve been way too critical about me. I do my best for you and you just complain. It’s not as easy as it used to be.

J: Is there anything I can do to help?

Body: Well, relax a little for starters. You stress too much and that hurts your blood sugar.  Also, love me more and realize that you’re not 22 anymore. Maybe cut down on the fats some, but not too much because I like those….

Stay open and curious about the insights and solutions that arise, as they may be different from what you’d normally expect. If you struggle with this method at first, keep trying. Like anything, journaling with dialogue improves with practice and the more you do it, the more natural it will feel. Done regularly over time, it will reward you with insights, ideas and a sense of strong inner guidance.

Journaling can be a very beneficial tool for gaining insights, solving problems and exercising creativity, but it is not a substitute for psychotherapy. If you ever feel like you need help beyond that which a journal or your friends and family can provide, don’t hesitate to seek help from a licensed, qualified counselor or psychotherapist.

Originally published on May 1, 2015 in Portland's SE Examiner's "Wellness Word"