What to Do When Journaling Makes You Feel Worse 8

THOSE OF US WHO JOURNAL regularly believe in the power and benefits of journaling — how it helps us cope with life’s challenges, relieve stress, increase self-awareness, reach our goals, and analyze and improve just about every aspect of our lives.

BUT — what do you do when it doesn’t? What do you do when journaling about a situation doesn’t help you move through it and, in spite of writing and writing and pouring your thoughts and feelings onto the page, actually makes you feel worse? When you’re accustomed to receiving healing and strength from writing, a situation like this can feel almost like a betrayal by your best friend. The place you’ve always gone to for solace and strength — your journal — is letting you down. Now what?

The first thing to know when this happens is that you’re not alone. There are times when writing about traumatic or angry-making events stirs up emotions rather than calming or comforting. Particularly when fear and anger and loss of control over a situation are involved.

So, when is it better not to write about something?

Journaling can make you feel worse when you brood on the page, when writing is just a method of venting in which you constantly reinforce the story at the core of your reactions and emotions. In this case, indulging your anger only prolongs it — and your suffering. Even worse, it may become a habit that can spiral down to depression.

But there are ways to approach journaling when you have intense negative emotions, such as fear, anger, rage, and feelings of hopelessness. It is possible to write about negative events or emotions and feel calmed and even uplifted afterward. The key is to choose carefully what to write about and how to write about it — structuring your writing to provide ways to constructively process the emotions.

Journaling is best when it leads to greater understanding and changes in behavior. And you can accomplish this when you take a step back to evaluate your thoughts and emotions, and not simply vent them onto the page.

The key is to use your journal as a mechanism to reflect upon your reactions and emotions and find meaning in the event.

Equally important is to approach your journaling as a form of compassionate introspection — special emphasis on the compassionate.

Some tips to help you journal through the hard times:

  • Bring curiosity, a non-judgmental attitude, and self-compassion to your writing. When you’re feeling intense and difficult emotions, the typical response is to judge yourself for having them. However, if you allow yourself to sit with your emotions, without judgment, and bring love and compassion to yourself in that state — much as you would to a friend in the same situation — you can begin to shift the emotion to a constructive state.
  • Don’t write the story about what happened and why you are so angry or hurt or blame others. Instead, write about what you need — what would make you feel better.
  • Write encouraging letters to yourself, just as you would encourage a friend or loved one. Stepping outside yourself and providing comfort and advice to yourself can be incredibly healing. Write what you need to hear from others — to yourself.
  • Explore solutions that are within your control. Often, anger and rage spring from a feeling of no control over a situation. Write about what you CAN control, including your emotional state. In what ways can you make this situation less uncomfortable?
  • Ask yourself: How can I channel all this intense emotional energy and negative experience into constructive and creative growth? How can I become a better person as a result of this experience?
  • Write about things you can do that will help you decrease the need for immediate resolution and increase tolerance for mixed feelings and uncertainty: meditation, exercise, gardening, and volunteer activities are a few that come to mind.
  • Write with compassion from the other person’s perspective. No matter how awful someone has treated you, that person is also human. What might be the issues, fears, and emotions driving that person’s behavior? Get inside that person’s head and heart. This can be a difficult task, but it will also be instructive.
  • Balance the difficult emotions with writing about life-affirming topics — reminding yourself of all the abundance in your life and all the things and people you have to be grateful for, listing your daily and weekly successes, acknowledging any baby steps you’ve taken forward — all these things can raise your energy and shift to a more positive mindset.

So the next time you’re experiencing intense negative emotions as a result of an undesirable life experience, go ahead and write about them. And use these tips to raise your focus from the negative to the positive, and to shift from helpless passivity to constructive action.


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8 thoughts on “What to Do When Journaling Makes You Feel Worse

  • Sara Baker

    Amber–what a sensitive topic to address. Thank you. Journaling can and often does bring forth feelings or situations that have been deeply buried. Such was my case. I was caught unaware and at first felt so overwhelmed and even beat myself up a bit for having been “human enough” to bury horrible things rather than coping with them initially. I realized that I needed to be kind with myself, acknowledge the pain, and find ways to nurture myself. I kept telling myself that facing the pain was better than burying it. I didn’t dwell on the negative but did as you suggested. Used the negative energy to learn and grow. Even that was hard. The waters were terribly murky for a while.

  • Sharon Lippincott

    Amber, you rock. This post is splendid. I’ve raged and yelled in my journal for decades (though much less in recent years), usually to good effect. In general, journalig is enough. You mention on Facebook that we had email correspondence about this. Yes. I did write for over twenty hours about a situation that provoked intense rage and became increasingly angry as I continued to write. I did use many of the tips you give above, though I do see a few new ones there. I’m filing your list away for future reference.

    An eerily similar situation arose more recently, and again I wrote! The good news is that although results were not immediate in either case, all that writing ultimately DID help. In both cases, after journaling to sort out my thoughts, I wrote letters to People in Power, and I posted reviews in appropriate places. In both cases, changes were made in an underlying system. So ultimately that journaling did bear fruit. Aside from positive results, within several weeks I felt closure. Today, five months after the last situation, should someone else bring it up, I need less than a minute to cover the matter before changing the subject.

    So here’s one more thought: Emotional trauma is similar to physical. Whatever the treatment, whether physical or emotional, bruises take time to heal and fade, but even the worst bruise will disappear within six weeks. The writing I did, especially the action steps, brings me a certain amount of satisfaction and helped bring scar-free closure more effectively than simple journaling would. Action steps like that are not always possible, but polishing and sharing the story with trusted people like a writing group is another good step, perhaps toward incorporating the episode into a memoir.

    However you write, have faith that Tincture of Time, the treatment my children’s pediatrician often prescribed, is a powerful addition to all the steps above. If journaling is not enough. use it as a springboard to other forms of writing.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Sharon, thank you for your thoughtful response. I have certainly spilled lots of anger into my journal over the years, as well. (I would blush if anyone were to read some of the stuff I’ve written while I’m still alive.) It’s good to know that even though writing did not seem to reduce the intensity of the feelings, over time you could see the benefits. This confirms my own experience with journaling through my intense life experiences. And the fact that you were able to take back your power and take action — even making changes to systems — is a powerful testimony to the positive impact of self-reflection. And I agree that emotional trauma is similar to physical. Some would argue that it can be even worse, because bruises fade fairly quickly, but emotional trauma can take years to heal. Thank you again. You’ve given me and my readers additional food for thought.

      • Sharon Lippincott

        Ah, yes, it’s true that bruises do disappear. Last year I had a massive hematoma on my wrist that turned the inside of my arm black from mid-palm to above my elbow. The hematoma itself was the size of half a small hen’s egg. Six weeks later, my arm had returned to normal. Beyond bruising, trauma (physical or emotional), can create lasting scars, some so serious they require surgery or therapy to restore full function. I think we both support the position that writing with smoking fingers could possibly limit damage, preventing or minimizing scar formation. It may soften and shrink them later. That writing may be in a journal or on loose paper that’s immediately burned or shredded. Fingers may hold a pen or pound keys. It’s all good.

        I had not thought of writing those official letters as a form of taking back power. I like the way you put that. Yes, indeed, it did just that, and on some level I knew that, even if I didn’t specifically articulate it to myself. I have no idea when or how I became brave enough to speak out and found my voice. That’s a topic worth exploring, personally and publicly. Thank you for shining a light in that corner.

  • Kate Evans

    Thanks Amber for this useful article (I picked it up through the link from the Lapidus newsletter). I think I would only add, perhaps, seek support, whether this be from trusted peers or from a professional. Don’t got the journaling journey alone.