Creative expression has long been recognized as a therapeutic outlet, but in recent years it has proven instrumental for people recovering from substance use disorder. Akin to talk therapy but more personal and private, putting pen to paper helps you organize your thoughts, express fears and worries, and work through difficult feelings and situations that arise.
Opening up a blank journal might feel intimidating at first, but know that journaling is for you—a safe space. Addiction counselors credit journaling with helping patients overcome their addiction problems, and some patients attribute having a writing practice with saving their lives.
The key is to know that you are free to write whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t have to be poetry, nor elegant prose, and you don’t have to have perfect handwriting! All you need is willingness. The first step is to simply buy a notebook and pen (or pencil, marker, crayon—up to you!) to start. Before you know it, you might be tapping into wells of creativity that you never knew you had. Journaling can be empowering, healing, and even enjoyable if you let it be.
How Journaling Can Help Your Recovery
It might seem far-fetched that keeping a journal can help someone get sober—it might even seem juvenile or simplistic, but it has proven instrumental in organizing thoughts and emotions. Writing things down can aid with anxiety, depression, and other overwhelming emotions often felt during the fragile period of early sobriety. It creates a space where you won’t be judged or feel unliked for sharing your thoughts and feelings, as these pages are for you and anyone you decide to share them with.
The following covers some of the ways that journaling can contribute to your recovery.
Journaling gives you the opportunity to express yourself and tell your story. You get to let out the emotions you have pent up inside of you that may be causing you to act out, or the emotions that make you reach for a substance because they are too difficult to handle. Drugs and alcohol are used to escape or bottle up emotions that we cannot deal with; they’re a way we think helps us to cope with reality. Once the substance wears off, we are left with those feelings again, if not worse had the use resulted in consequences.
Instead of masking or suppressing these intense feelings for a brief time with drugs or alcohol, writing allows you to process these feelings in a healthy way. The simple act of writing, drawing, or coloring can be therapeutic, which is why coloring books have become very popular for clients with mental health or substance use disorders.
When you write your story, you get the opportunity to think about what brought you to your low point. This can be a time for reflection and self-analysis, which can help you see things that may be triggers or high stressors. Using those to map out what led you to substances in the first place can also help you see what you will have to do—and what you might want to avoid—to succeed.
You can journal your goals and journey towards achieving those goals, all the while maintaining the most important thing of all: your sobriety.
Write each goal down and document your progress. It will feel good as you hit certain amounts of time, milestones, and you can mark them accordingly. This will feel good to look back on if you ever have moments of doubt or thoughts of relapse.
Cravings hit most people during recovery. A proper outlet to express yourself about your cravings can give you the strength you need to make the right decision and stay sober. You can outline your strengths and coping mechanisms to have a solid list to go to when you’re feeling unsure.
The act of journaling, in itself, can stop someone from relapsing. Instead of making an impulsive decision to pick up, it will implore you to write through your thoughts and examine why you’re feeling this way. From there you’ll likely come to weighing the pros and cons of using, and you’ll see why you stopped in the first place.
Journaling Is a Positive Action
The very act of journaling is positive for your recovery. Writing in the journal every day teaches stability and consistency. Organizing your thoughts on paper is an act most of us learned as children, and it feels naturally good to do so. Just as having an organized, clean place to live is excellent for mental clarity and emotional health, having your thoughts on paper can feel neater and more calm. The same process translates into your attempts to stay sober; by having an organized timeline to look back to, you’ll have a more solid, tangible map of what you did before and what you’ll do now to stay the path.
Why Journaling Is a Good Choice
There are a number of therapy options out there, with everything from very complex and emotionally challenging EMDR therapy to options that are less intensive, such as peer-to-peer workshops. Choosing to include journaling in your treatment plan is an active investment in yourself and your wellness. Some other practical benefits journaling provide include:
- It’s Inexpensive. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to start journaling. A fancy journal and pen are nice, but you can get started with nothing more than a notebook and a cheap pen. Most other therapy methods cost money, so it’s nice to have an option that doesn’t cost much at all. There are also plenty of resources online you can look into if you need inspiration or guidance.
- Journaling Can Improve Communication Skills. Some people struggle with communication, particularly in early recovery. Being somewhat absent from society, either emotionally, mentally, or physically, their ability to share with others can be rusty, making communication more difficult. Writing every day will help you increase your communication skills and gain more clarity to your thought process. You may learn how to talk about difficult topics and feelings. Also, you will learn how to write more effectively, which is a valuable skill that will be a great benefit when the time comes to go back to work.
- Makes Way for Self-Discovery. You never know what will happen when you put pen to paper. You may learn things about yourself that you never expected. These can be both good and bad things. Either way, these moments of self-discovery will help you learn how your brain works and why you do the things you do. You can use this information to put you in the best situations to stay sober.
How to Start Journaling
It’s fine to simply start journaling without a plan. However, some people don’t have the words naturally flowing out of them. For people who need a little more help, here are some tips on how to start journaling.
Working journaling into your daily routine will strengthen the benefits. Many recovery groups advocate for writing a “Nightly Review,” as found in the Big Book. If you are nervous to begin journaling on your own, you can begin with writing these nightly inventories. Once you get into the practice, you may find you wish to write more and have more to say.
Buying the Right Supplies
First, you need a journal and a pen. When you pick a journal, you should find one with a thick cover to prevent the journal from getting damaged easily. When looking at journals, pick one that will fit into your purse or glove box. If you write personal things in your journal, you may want to buy one that can be locked. The cover doesn’t matter, especially if you don’t have much to spend. If journaling becomes something useful to you, you can buy a fancier one after you fill out your first.
Another option is to journal digitally. This could be on your cell phone or computer if you have one. You may find you have a lot to share, and choose to start a blog or journal on a website. These can be private or public, depending on your preference. A digital journal can be saved on your computer or online.
There are a number of different ways to journal. Some common types include:
- Diary Entries: Diary entries are the most common form of journaling. You simply write about what happened in your day, and how you felt about it. You can also write about any topics that came into your mind. This is a good way of keeping track of your daily life, writing down things you want to remember, channeling any difficult emotions you need to get out, and having a place to write down your dreams for the future.
- Reflection Journal: In a reflection journal, you will write down a significant event and reflect on it. This gives you the opportunity to analyze your reactions and the implications of the events, and can be a useful tool in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). If you did not handle things properly, your reflections could help you learn how to handle things better in the future.
- Gratitude Journal: Gratitude is a major facet of the recovery journey, as many who experience addiction likely skirted fatal consequences or lost family or loved ones because of their using. Once we’re on our recovery journey, it’s important to take note of your blessings. In a gratitude journal, events of the day are detailed through the lens of gratitude, which helps the writer see things in a positive light.
- Goal-focused Journal: A goal-focus journal gives the person journaling the opportunity to write about what they want to accomplish and how they plan to get there. This is great for setting goals in early recovery and keeping yourself on track as you work your way toward them.
- Creative Journal: Some people express themselves creatively. In a creative journal, you can use poetry or sketches to express the things that happen in your day and how you feel about them. You can also buy unlined journals if you like to write or draw uninhibited by lined pages.
- Bullet Journal: Many like bullet journaling as it is simple and quick to do—it can even double as a planner or to-do workbook. The main focus is to organize your schedules, keep track of reminders and to-do lists, have space for brainstorming, and other tasks.
Some people don’t know what they should write about when they start a journal. The truth of the matter is that some days aren’t very interesting. You might find yourself bored in early recovery without much to say. This is relatively normal, as when in active addiction our lives are usually quite chaotic. If you don’t think you have words one particular day, try drawing or doodling.
If you do struggle to find something to discuss and are eager to write regardless, you can look for a journal prompt. Here are some prompts to give you an idea:
- A letter to someone you love or yourself (past or future)
- Something surprising you learned about yourself in recovery
- The first time you used your drug of choice
- Your progress
- What you want people to think when they meet you, and how to portray yourself in that light
- A skill you want to learn
- Write down different things you like about yourself, or things you do better than most other people
- A recent mistake you made, and what you can do to not make that mistake again
- Someone or something you need to say goodbye to
- What freedom means to you
- Pick up the nearest book, open to a page, and use the first line you see as inspiration or a jumping off point
Tips for Effective Journaling
If you take the time to journal, you want to do it in the most effective way. The following provides some tips for effective journaling.
- Set Time for Journaling Every Day. Journaling is most effective when you do it regularly, just like Nightly Reviews that we discussed earlier. You need to set time every day to write. Most people write at night so that they can reflect on what happened throughout the day. Try to set aside 20 or 30 minutes. Naturally, there will be days where you don’t have time to journal, but do your best to journal at least four to five days a week.
- Write While Free From Distractions. Life can be very distracting. However, it’s up to you to eliminate the distractions while writing so that you have the opportunity to focus. Let people in your home know if you need some time to yourself for a little bit. You should also put the phone on silent and turn off the television. Put headphones on if you can’t get the quiet you’re looking for, and play some instrumental or ambient music to drown out the external noise.
- Choose a Good Setting. Try writing in a comfortable, peaceful place. Most people need to find a place at home. However, you should also consider a nearby park, beach, or cafe if you have the ability to get away for a little bit. If you use public transportation, a great place for inspiration can be there while you’re riding to your destination.
- Write Honestly. One of the most important aspects of effective journaling is writing from the heart. Some people avoid the truth, and in active addiction, many of us became used to lying or manipulating the truth to keep our use going. Honesty can take time to get used to, which is why it’s so important, along with accountability, as you move forward. Journaling can teach you how to be honest again, even if it begins with yourself first. Write about your honest feelings and your honest progress. If you do make a mistake, don’t be afraid to write about it.
- Keep it in a Safe Place. Many people fear others will read their journal and use it against them. While this could happen, it’s less likely as we get older and our privacy is more respected. Make sure to keep it in a secure place when you aren’t writing if you want to keep it for your eyes only. Don’t forget a digital or key lock, too.
- Reflect. When you finish writing a journal entry, that shouldn’t be the absolute last time you read it; the words and thoughts can be useful to apply in the future. Going back to read them from time to time can be a good refresher, remind you of something you forgot, or reiterate a lesson you might need to re-digest. Once a month or once every couple of months, go back and read your entries. While you read your past entries, you may be able to recognize progress, triggers, or room for improvement.
Use Journaling in Conjunction With Other Treatment
Journaling is a great tool. However, just like all the components of successful addiction treatment, it isn’t the magic elixir for staying sober. Journaling works best when used in conjunction with other methods, such as traditional therapy. If journaling worked for you while in rehabilitation, talk to someone about how to incorporate it into your treatment plan as you move onto the next phase of your new life in sobriety.
Granite Recovery Centers
Committing to bettering your life and repairing damage done due to a substance use disorder is the first step to take. If you or a loved one are having difficulty with substance use disorder, Granite Recovery Centers utilizes a 12-Step rehab curriculum alongside individualized, evidence-based therapies to help lay the foundation toward a new healthy, sober way of living.
Our team of Admissions Specialists is available 24/7 and would be happy to discuss any questions you may have. We can also work together to determine the best course of treatment that suits you or your loved one. Please give us a call today at 855.712.7784.