Reflective journal writing: how can it help?

Discover the benefits of writing down your thoughts and how to get started

Reflective journal writing is a way of documenting what you’re thinking and feeling in the moment, and can be a useful tool to help manage stress and anxiety.

Dr Christopher Westoby, author of The Fear Talking: The True Story of a Young Man and Anxiety, is a strong believer in the power of stories to educate, improve understanding and benefit the wellbeing of the storyteller.

We spoke to Chris about the benefits of writing for your mental wellbeing.

Can reflective writing help nursing staff?

Absolutely. Regardless of your background, and wherever you work, everyone has this universal need to reflect upon their own experiences and one of the best tools we have for that is writing. It is similar to the process of opening the windows to a room and letting some air in.

Everyone has this universal need to reflect upon their own experiences 

We all have so many thoughts and memories whirling round our head at any given time – especially in the current climate. Sometimes the cloud of everything happening at once can be more overwhelming than any one event itself. Reflective journal writing can help with that.

How does it help?

We often struggle to come to terms with whatever it is we’ve been through unless we take a second and address these things head on. And while it may not always be an easy thing to do – or a quick fix – by writing what’s going on internally, what you’re doing is externalising something that has been haunting you or playing on your mind. Once it’s out there on the page, it’s like you can lay it to rest. 

You also now have a choice on what you want to do with it. Are you going to delete it or keep it for yourself? Are you going to let someone else read it? As you make those decisions, you’re taking control of your emotions and the clouds may start to clear.

Chris Westoby headshot

Dr Christopher Westoby

So, what are the benefits?

The sense of control over your own experiences can be empowering and help relieve any stress or anxiety you’re experiencing. You’ve let it be acknowledged that what you’re feeling is something, it’s being validated and now it’s written down, it may no longer feel quite so insurmountable.

Any tips to get started?

My first tip is to use whatever format works best for you – whatever it is that will help get you in the habit of doing it. Don’t use handwriting if you’d rather type, and vice versa. 

I’ve worked with students before who have talked about using voice memos. They’ve just hit record and then they either deleted it or transcribed it depending on what they’ve found most beneficial. 

My second tip is to think of prompts. Maybe ask yourself questions to help get you started – what am I grateful for? What have I found difficult? Perhaps focus on one part of the day – how did I feel after my shift? On the way to work? Going to bed?

Finally, think about setting yourself some restrictions. Try setting a timer on your phone and then keep writing until it goes off. The more restrictions you set, the less daunting writing can be. You might actually find yourself more inspired.

How often should I write?

It’s a good thing to try and do every day – even if it’s only a few sentences – for as long as you find it useful. I’d suggest giving it a go for two weeks and see how you’re finding it.

What if I find it hard writing about myself?

If it seems too difficult writing about yourself, try writing about someone else or something you observed today – perhaps something you noticed on your journey home or through your window. If you write about something else, you will inevitably find yourself beginning to include elements of yourself. 

If you’re finding it too emotionally draining to revisit certain memories, remember this writing is your property – you can change what you need to, you can change the details and you can just talk about a small part of it. The key is to remember that you’re in control and it’s up to you how you document it.

The key is to remember you're in control

There are fewer ways to offload to one another at the moment, to distract ourselves and to blow off steam, so even if journal writing doesn’t work for you, it’s worth a try.

The benefits might surprise you.

About Chris

Chris is Programme Director of the Hull Creative Writing MA (Online). His book The Fear Talking: The True Story of a Young Man and Anxiety was published in December 2020. He led the RCN’s workshop “Time to Write for Yourself” earlier this year.

Chris Westoby book cover

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