Highly Sensitive Refuge
A woman journaling to process her emotions

How Journaling Helps You Make Sense of Your Emotions as an HSP

Not only can journaling help you process difficult emotions, it can also help you cultivate more good moments — and get more enjoyment from them.

I couldn’t stop crying. A few days earlier, my then-boyfriend and I had broken up over Indian food (I didn’t know how I’d ever eat tikka masala again); hopes of “the one” quickly fell to “no one.”  

My cell phone rang, the ringing accompanying my cries and matching the emotions I was experiencing. As much as I wanted to ignore the phone, I couldn’t. Shouldn’t. It was my therapist.

She heard me choking on my sobs and I briefly got out a sentence about how I was feeling: just as miserable as the day before, and the day before that …

“Natalia, are you HALT?” she said.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?” 

Um, of course? “Yes to all four,” I told her.

She paused. “And what have you done to alleviate them?”

Nothing. I’d done nothing. She then explained that not only should I ask myself if I’m H-A-L-T when I’m overwhelmed — an easy way to recognize anxiety or depression — but that I should start journaling about it, too. 

And about the breakup. Especially about the breakup. 

She said to journal about my moods, ebbs, flows, anxiety level, how much I slept the night before, and the positives that happened today (not just the one big negative). 

“You’re a writer,” she said. “So write about it,” she said.

Of course, you don’t have to be a writer to journal. And I’d kept plenty of them before, but not daily and never with the intention to process something, or work through feelings. But I may as well try it, right? (After all, fun fact, many famous people have kept journals — everyone from Charles Darwin to Frida Kahlo. If they could do it, I figured, so could I.)

And that was that. My journaling-as-therapy began.

Journaling Can Benefit Anyone — But Especially Sensitive People

Being a highly sensitive person (HSP), my senses are already on overdrive: I empathize with people to an extreme (as much as their joy is my joy, their pain is also my pain), I’m ultra-aware of stimuli around me (can someone please make that lightbulb less bright?!), and I tear up at the slightest thing (like a young boy helping an elderly woman with her groceries).

So when you throw a breakup into the mix, my sensitivity gets heightened that much more.

But thanks to my therapist, I learned firsthand that she was right: As an HSP, journaling can help you process your emotions. (And, to be honest, it’s much less expensive than therapy, but also a good supplement to it!)

“Not only can journaling help you process difficult emotions, such as stress, anxiety, sadness, and anger, but it can also help you document positive emotions, such as joy, contentment, and gratitude,” Annie Hsueh, Ph.D., clinical psychologist specializing in relationship therapy and founder of Hope & Sage Psychological Services, tells Highly Sensitive Refuge.

Research, too, indicates that there are many benefits of journaling, whether you’re trying to heal from a breakup, job loss, anxiety, depression, trauma, or want to simply track your mental health and how you’re doing from week-to-week or month-to-month.

And scientific evidence has revealed that since writing is a left-brained activity (analytical and rational), it leaves your right brain free to create, intuit, and feel.

“Highly sensitive people are often self-reflective and intuitive,” says Dr. Hsueh. “Practices like journaling are a great way for HSPs to slow down and to get recentered, which can also, at times, protect HSPs from overstimulation. Being an HSP myself, journaling has been a great way for me to find space to attune to myself, process my thoughts and feelings, and to remind myself of my values and goals.”  

The 7 Life-Changing Benefits of Keeping a Journal 

Journaling can help:

  1. Reduce stress
  2. Help manage anxiety and depression
  3. Recognize patterns of feelings and behaviors
  4. Problem-solve
  5. Get to know yourself better
  6. Process emotions you’re having about yourself
  7. Process emotions you’re having about others

Of course, there are many more ways journaling can benefit you in addition to the above. “Journaling helps us to name and label our emotions — and when we are able to bring words into what we are feeling, it can sometimes tame difficult emotions,” says Dr. Hsueh. “For example, when you are having difficulties with ruminative worries, writing them down can help externalize the concern, which can help you cope better.”

But journaling can also help you when you are facing practical concerns, she says. “Journaling can be a good way to define what the key issue is and provide you a space to brainstorm solutions,” says Dr. Hsueh. “It’s also wonderful for documenting positive things, such as what brings you gratitude and joy.” 

Plus, it’s easier than you may think, and there’s several ways to do it …

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How do I journal, and what kind of journal should I use?

With technology, journaling is easier these days than ever before.

You can use:

  • an old-school notebook
  • a formal journal or diary
  • an app, like Diarium and Journey — many of the apps give you a daily reminder to journal, too, which I find helpful
  • Bullet Journal (BuJo) — which comes in various forms: a journal, an app, and book — encourages you to do more than journal while using various symbols to code your entries; you’ll also add to-do lists, create goals, and track your physical and mental health
  • a Google Sheet on both your computer and phone, which makes journaling easy when you’re on the go
  • If you’re a creative type, you might even try “morning pages” — the practice of letting out a stream of thoughts every morning until you fill up three handwritten pages, unblocking yourself for the day and allowing you to reach your muse. 

Dr. Hsueh says that the good thing is, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method to journaling, which is another reason it can be helpful to HSPs. “You might tune into yourself to see what you think would be the best approach to begin with, and if you notice issues or barriers with that method, you can choose another method,” she says. “For example, some people might prefer to journal on paper whereas others prefer to type their journal into their devices. I think it’s good to be flexible and practical about what would fit you best personally.”

As for what to journal about, if you don’t get a journal with pre-set prompts, you can set up various categories on every page, such as:

  • mood
  • meals (& times)
  • sleep
  • about your day (and even if you’re having a bad day, it’s good to throw some positives in there, too; expressing gratitude each day is an instant mood-booster)

And if you’re working with a therapist, they can also help you design a journaling practice that will most benefit you.

How to Track Your Emotional Progress from Journaling

Need proof that journaling is working for you? Take a look back at older pages after a month or two — you’ll likely see firsthand how far you’ve come. 

In fact, Dr. Hsueh says looking back at your journal on a weekly or monthly basis can itself make a real difference. “Reviewing your journal from time to time can help you to recognize themes in your thoughts and feelings, as well as remind yourself of lessons you’ve learned or of challenges you’ve overcome,” says Dr. Hsueh. “In reviewing what you wrote, you can also think about how the emotions you’ve experienced may be a signal to your needs, and then think about how you can meet those needs.

For instance, if you go through your journal once a month — say, at the end of the month — you can see what patterns emerge and what triggered them:

  • Do you tend to cry more when you haven’t eaten for hours?
  • Have you been journaling about happier things lately versus earlier in the month (or year)?
  • And, congratulations! According to your journal, you didn’t try to text the ex at all last week!

For me personally, when I was finally able to eat tikka masala again — without crying — it was proof that my journaling was helping me heal from the breakup.

Journaling Doesn’t Have to Be Time-Consuming

If you’re saying, “I don’t have time to journal…” Wrong! Even journaling just five minutes a day has been proven to help you process your emotions, connect with yourself more deeply, and see things from a new perspective.

Don’t believe me? There’s even a journal out there that can help you out: The Five Minute Journal: A Happier You in 5 Minutes a Day

Dr. Hsueh agrees that journaling does not have to be a time-intensive practice. “Even just a few minutes a day of jotting down some reflections, thoughts, and feelings can help maintain your sense of calm and well-being,” she says. And that’s what it’s all about, right?

Want to reduce stress and thrive as a highly sensitive person? We recommend these online courses from psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland. Click here to learn more.

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