Thinking About Making Changes to Your Life? Pick up Your Pen and Write

Thinking About Making Changes to Your Life? Pick up Your Pen and Write

I first started keeping a diary when I was 10. Anytime anything exciting happened, I poured my heart onto its unicorn-traced pages.


About a year later, a friend stole my diary. Then she proceeded to tell everyone my big secret: I’d kissed a boy. In an effort to protect me, my mom suggested I put a hiatus on the whole diary thing. The lesson here was clear: impure thoughts were best kept in my head, where no one could see them.


A whole twenty years passed before I dared start a journal again. In my early thirties, I began a Masters in Creative Writing, where I was told to keep a journal. I wrote every once in a while. However, it wasn’t until about three years ago that I made a daily commitment to journaling. Now, writing a page or two is an essential part of my routine, like taking the kids to school or drinking coffee.


Over those twenty years keeping thoughts in my head, a lot of things happened. I graduated Magna cum Laude from an Ivy League school. I embarked on a successful corporate career. I married a great man and had three wonderful kids. On the surface, things looked peachy. But in the midst of those achievements, my mental health suffered. I lived with varying degrees of anxiety, which at my lowest point spiraled into an eating disorder.


During the past three years since I started journaling, my internal and external worlds have reached a stable, even joyful state. Fourteen houses and five cities later, Carlos and I are finally settled down in a city we love. When it comes to my career, I’ve found the courage to focus on the passion that drives me. I’m surrounded by healthy and nurturing relationships. Most recently, I’ve fallen into a creative writing flow, something I always believed was reserved for more creative, well-deserving people than me.


The jump from anxiety-ridden perfectionist to thriving creative writing enthusiast feels like a monumental jump. In moments of awareness, I stop myself and ask: How did I get here?


It’s no coincidence that my life started making sense once I committed to a daily journaling practice. Recently, I’ve begun incorporating journaling into my creative writing workshops. I like to tell the story of how writing every day changed me, and I encourage others to try it.


Some people are enthusiastic about starting a daily writing practice. But for most people, the idea of committing to another daily routine seems cumbersome. I understand the hesitation. Journaling feels natural to me because I love writing. But if writing is not your cup of tea, the idea of doing it every day might not sound so thrilling.


Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to reach people who don’t love to write. And because I like understanding how things work, I turned to science.


In “You Are Not Your Brain,” neuroscientists Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding explain how mindfulness techniques can be as effective as prescription medication in changing neurological pathways in the brain. Even though journaling is not part of their 4-step solution, I believe their work applies here.


In a recent workshop, I asked five adults to explain the difference between the mind and brain. Four people gave me blank stares. One person half-raised her hand in a way that said: Please, don’t call on me.


So let’s start by getting the story straight.


Simply put, the brain is the computer software that runs our bodies. It is a magnificent, powerful organ whose job is to help us operate in a safe, predictable way. The brain receives information from the environment and processes the information automatically, making assumptions about how we should act based on past experiences.


Living life through our brains is like driving a car on cruise control. It feels natural and easy. Often, we don’t even notice we’re in the driver’s seat.


If the brain is our computer software, then our minds are like computer programmers. When we activate our minds, we have the capacity to decide whether or not we want to continue to act according to our software.


The mind is like the driver who decides to override cruise control.


Thanks to a wonderful thing called neuroplasticity, we have the capacity to change our brains. Neuroplasticity means that even though our established neural pathways are strong, they’re not set in stone. It means that using our minds, we have the power to change our code.


Why would we want to change our software? Because our brain runs on outdated behaviors and habits.


Let’s say as a child you were given ice cream every time you got sad. Over time, your brain created a neural pathway linking sadness to ice cream. Suddenly you’re 40 years old and reaching for Ben & Jerry’s every time you feel blue.


Let’s say one day you became aware of this habit. You made a New Year’s resolution: every time you feel blue, you’ll go for a walk instead of eating a pint of ice cream. If you repeat this new behavior enough times, one day you’ll wake up and notice that every time you get sad, you go for a walk. You forget about the ice cream altogether. Ta-da! You’ve officially developed a new neural pathway.


In their book, Schwartz and Gladding call the act of using your mind to change your brain Self-Directed Neuroplasticity.


Mouthful that it is, Self-Directed Neuroplasticity is easier said than done. If you’ve recently given up on a New Year’s resolution, then you know how stubborn those neural pathways can be.


This, I believe, is where journaling comes in.


Journaling is not about crafting beautiful sentences. It’s not even about making gratitude lists (although I don’t mean to dismiss the benefits of gratitude lists). Journaling is a much more raw experience. It’s sitting down for 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes a day and writing like mad. It’s not lifting your pen off the page. It’s releasing yourself from any expectations about how you should feel or think. As I like to tell my students, journaling is the act of vomiting your thoughts on the page.


Over time, putting your uncensored thoughts down on the page allows you to see the existing neural pathways in your brain. Simply put, it’s a software download.  


When you journal on a daily basis, you create a physical space between your brain and you. This separation is awareness. And awareness is the first step to changing your life.


In the process of downloading your software every day, you begin to notice the outdated thoughts and behaviors that dictate your life. With newfound clarity, you develop an authentic desire to change your software. In my view, this authentic motivation is the one and only thing that drives real, long-lasting change.


When a person steals your diary, they have the power to ruin your reputation. When you keep your thoughts in your head, it has the power to ruin your mental health.


Start journaling a few minutes a day. Do it for a month. See what your software looks like. Then watch your life unfold. When you create space between the program running your life and the real, authentic you, incredible things start to happen.