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How to Keep a Journal

“Reflective journaling can be a cost-​effective way to give yourself therapy,” says Melanie H. Morris, 61, an assistant professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. You don’t need to be an accomplished writer with perfect penmanship and spelling; the words are for you. Try to establish a routine in which you write for 15 minutes several times a week, even if you get just one or two sentences down in a session. Put writing in your calendar as you would other things you schedule. Morris is always urging her students to journal, a practice she calls “CPR for the soul.”

Self-reflective writing can be especially beneficial if your work requires constant caretaking, empathy or an outpouring of emotional energy. In a study of 66 registered nurses, six weeks of journaling was found to decrease burnout and compassion fatigue and increase feelings of satisfaction. To get started, just start. “Write by hand,” Morris says. If you find yourself ruminating on something negative that happened during your day — a mistake you made, an argument, a patient you couldn’t help — jot down what happened and how it made you feel. “Get it out of your head and onto the page,” Morris says. Remember, though: A journal is more than a dumping ground for bleakness. It can be a repository of lightness too. Sometimes it helps to give yourself a prompt — like, write down three things you are grateful for today or three things that brought you joy. It might feel corny at first, but tilting your thinking toward positivity can alter the chemistry of your brain.

Date your entries so you can go back, should you choose to. If you are worried about someone else’s reading your journal, find a place to hide it or lock it away. “Write it down and burn it if you have to, but do write it down,” Morris says. You will begin to forget things otherwise; details of events that seem sharp and extraordinary now will begin to erode. A journal, even an imperfect and sparse one, can pull particulars back into focus. Morris became a nurse in 1983 and spent many years assisting with births. She wishes she had written down more about those experiences — each birth so specific, miraculous, sometimes harrowing but now blurred and mostly unretrievable. “You think you won’t forget,” Morris says. “But you do.”

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