How to Journal About Negative Topics Without Feeling Overwhelmed
Journaling is an amazing tool for self-reflection, learning more about ourselves, and being conscious about how we want to live our lives. I’m a big believer in journaling for fun, but I also know that sometimes it involves writing about topics that are challenging, things we’d rather not think about, or things that are causing us discomfort, even distress.
There is huge value in taking a deep breath and being able to write about the things that weigh on our minds. At the same time, it’s also important to take care of ourselves in the process, and not reach a place where we either avoid these topics because writing about them is too painful, or we feel overcome by them. In this post, I want to share a few suggestions for how you can journal about negative topics without feeling overwhelmed.
1. Focus on emotional processing (and watch for rumination)
When we process an event, situation, or challenge, the way we think and feel about it shifts. Feelings become easier to experience, we gain new understanding of ourselves, and we eventually experience a kind of acceptance or closure. Depending on the situation, we might also come up with a range of solutions or ways to move forward.
This isn’t always a linear process, but through writing, thinking about, or discussing whatever happened, we at least have a sense we are moving somewhere. Processing often involves questioning our thoughts and stories: “Why do I think this? What triggered that thought? What have I learned from this experience? How can writing about this help me heal?” which leads to new realisations and growth.
When we ruminate on something, however, these kinds of shifts are absent. The feelings still feel as sharp as they did when we were first thinking about that particular thing (even years later), our thoughts are repetitive, even obsessive, and don’t lead anywhere—nothing changes regarding our perspective or understanding of the situation.
Rumination-based thinking also tends to be self-defeating. For example, it might involve placing full blame on someone else for a situation in which we also played a part, or blaming ourselves for something that was at least partially out of our control.
Not all journaling is equal, and just as it’s possible for us to think about an event, situation, or challenge on repeat without getting anywhere, it’s also possible to get stuck in this kind of rut with our writing too. As the writer Jonathan Fields says, “Memoir done really well isn't about what happened, it's about how it changed the writer.” Journaling is private memoir, and the same principles applies here too.
Be mindful of this difference between processing and rumination. If you notice that you’re journaling about the same negative topics over and over again without anything changing or shifting, that might be a sign you could use some outside support (for example, from a therapist or coach). This doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong—we all have specific events, experiences, or topics that are difficult to unravel without an outside perspective or additional tools to do so.
2. Keep a separate “Things That Bother Me” journal
In an episode of the Day One podcast, blogger and podcaster Rosemary Orchard explains how she keeps a separate journal called “Things that bother me”. At the end of each day, if something is on her mind, she writes down whatever is bothering her. Then, a couple of days later, she returns to that journaling entry and brainstorms potential solutions or resolutions.
I like this suggestion for a couple of reasons: first, it’s not just about venting, but also about moving forward (as I mentioned above, this is the key difference between rumination and processing). Second, leaving a day or two between writing about the issue and problem-solving gives us chance to calm down. When something happens that leaves me feeling upset or riled up, I usually need time before I can put on my "logical thinking" hat and work through potential solutions and answers. Sometimes, the calming down happens through journaling, but having the day or two between writing about the issue and trying to solve the issue also provides a useful buffer.
As Rosemary also explained, negativity can be overwhelming and easily drown out the positives. Keeping these “negative” entries in a separate journal helps her filter them out and jump from one to the other without feeling overwhelmed or being reminded of negative/unresolved issues when she’s trying to focus on something else.
3. Balance it out with a “3 good things” practice
Another great tip Rosemary shared on the Day One podcast was about balancing out the negative with the positive. As well as keeping a “Things That Bother Me” journal, she also keeps a positivity journal and makes a point of reviewing this afterwards.
This is something I enjoy doing too. As I’ve written about before, my inner critic can be vocal at times. I also enjoy having projects to work on and a sense that I’m growing and going somewhere. This drive has its benefits, but I also need to be careful not to turn my life into one big self-improvement project and constantly be living for a hypothetical future rather than enjoying the real-time present.
A quick and simple way I’ve found to counteract both these things is to write down three good things from each day. These can be tiny (“the way the sun shone through the living room window this morning”), or they can be big events, but what matters is they are meaningful to me. Doing this reminds me of the everyday positive experiences I have and how many things there are to appreciate about my life right now.
4. Keep a list of happy-making activities
Similar to the “three good things” practice, I keep a list of happy-making activities in my journal. If I’m feeling overwhelmed by or preoccupied about something, this is a useful quick-reference guide to things I know will help me feel grounded again. My happy-making activities are simple; none of them are time-consuming, expensive, or require special circumstances—and that’s the point. Items on my list include giving my kid a hug, spending some time making something, and going outside.
5. Set a time limit around it
If you know you’re going to be writing about something that’s challenging for you, set a boundary around it with a time limit. Decide in advance that you’ll write about this topic for 2/5/10/20 minutes, then stop and go do something else (like something from your happy-making list). After that time is up, you can continue if you want, but you also have permission to stop.
This approach is useful when you notice you’re feeling resistance to journaling or when you want to ease in to writing about a certain topic without feeling out of control or going deeper than you want.
6. Remember there is no “right” way to journal
Because journaling is so useful for working through personal issues, sometimes it’s tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that every time you sit down to journal, it needs to be about something deep and meaningful. Not so! You don’t need to go super deep and unearth unresolved issues with every journaling session. Journaling can be fun too (I shared some fun journaling ideas here and here).
Equally, you can spend as much or as little time writing as you want. Some people find value in long-form journaling like stream-of-consciousness entries. But if short entries help you maintain consistency, embrace that too. It’s your practice, so do what works best for you. I hope this post goes some way to helping you do that!
What are your suggestions for journaling about negative topics without feeling overwhelmed? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!