The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Recovery Journal
Let me read you this article instead
If you are fighting a bad habit, you probably feel like you’re alone. You’re the only person trying to stop smoking, drinking, or using drugs. In reality, these are common problems that people face.
Let’s look at some statistics from 2018, so you can see how prevalent these problems are.
That year, approximately 34.2 million U.S. adults smoked cigarettes (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.). That breaks down to around 14 for every 100 adults in the country. That same year, 14.4 million U.S. adults suffered from alcohol use disorder, and 26.45 million admitted to binge drinking (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, n.d.). These statistics might be from 2018, but Americans face the same problems today.
Now, let’s look at a statistic regarding drug use. In 2017, 19.4 percent of Americans aged 12 and older had used an illicit drug in the past year (National Institute on Drug Abuse, n.d.). That includes opioids, sedatives, stimulants, and other drugs.
Those statistics might be startling, but if you’re one of the millions of people with a bad or dangerous habit, know that you can overcome your addiction. Many people have successfully used journaling to aid in their recovery, and you can follow in their footsteps. Once you begin journaling, your substance of choice won’t have as much of a hold on you. Before long, you’ll be able to put that substance in the rearview mirror.
Let’s look at the benefits of starting a recovery journal. Then, you will learn some tips you can use for your recovery journal.
Benefits of Starting a Recovery Journal
Before you start journaling, you probably want to learn the advantages. After all, you need to know if it’s worth it before you begin. Check out the benefits, and you’ll see that it’s worth it. In fact, it can change your life.
Process Your Feelings, Thoughts, and Emotions in a Safe Place
Going through recovery is frightening. You are committing to making a big life change, and that’s overwhelming. You have to deal with an assortment of emotions as you navigate the process (American Addiction Centers, n.d.).
Fear is one of the most common emotions that people face during recovery. It’s normal if you are afraid of the changes you have to make. You also might experience anger and resentment. You might be mad that your substance use turned into an addiction, or you might get upset when things don’t seem to go your way in recovery. That anger can reach dangerous levels if you don’t find an outlet for it.
Worry is also a common emotion in recovery. Much of that worry has to do with the fear of relapsing. You want to do well, and you can’t help but worry about slipping up.
That feeling gets worse if you are lonely and bored during recovery. Your life has changed so dramatically, and you aren’t sure how to fill the days.
These strong emotions can be quite dangerous when you’re going through recovery. Emotional overloads are an indication that you aren’t thinking clearly. When you aren’t thinking clearly, you’re more likely to make bad decisions. That could include relapsing.
Journaling provides a safe way to deal with these intense emotions. Instead of dealing with your feelings in front of others, you can do it quietly and privately. This feels so much safer, so it will help you move forward with your recovery. Also, because you can write anything that comes to mind, it’s the perfect outlet. The page won’t judge you or think differently about you. You can vent, celebrate, or do anything you want when it’s for your eyes only.
Deal With New Thoughts and Emotions
Many people turn to substances to quiet thoughts and emotions. While those thoughts and feelings go into hiding when people use substances, they come back with a vengeance during recovery.
Improve Your Self Control
Researchers have been studying impulse control and addiction for decades. Some researchers believe that impulse control lowers when people use substances. Other research has shown that people might be genetically predisposed to poor impulse control. Those people are also more likely to become addicted to a substance (Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, n.d.). Because of the dueling research, there is a question of which comes first. Do substances cause people to lose impulse control, or does poor impulse control cause people to abuse substances?
Fortunately, you can improve your impulse control with journaling, regardless if it is due to genetics or substance use. Researchers have found a link between keeping a gratitude journal and patience (Association for Psychological Science, 2014).
That might be surprising, but consider how emotions impact patience. If you’re sad, you’re likely less patient than normal. The same is true if you’re depressed. It’s hard to be patient and control your impulses when you’re dealing with depression.
There’s a flip side to this, though. While negative emotions reduce impulse control, positive emotions increase it. That’s why a gratitude journal improves your patience. A gratitude journal will increase your positive emotions. That, in turn, will help you improve your impulse control.
When you improve your impulse control, you put yourself on track for success. You’re less likely to relapse when you are patient.
Reduce Intrusive Thoughts
It’s estimated that 6 million United States residents suffer from intrusive thoughts (Martin Seif, n.d.). Intrusive thoughts come in different forms, such as bad memories and violent thoughts. While intrusive thoughts are always bothersome, they become more troublesome during recovery. The intrusive thoughts might become so painful that the person relapses.
Fortunately, you can overcome intrusive thoughts through journaling. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General discovered that expressive journaling reduces intrusive thoughts (CARPENTER, 2001). Expressive writing also reduces negative thoughts while improving working memory. By freeing up working memory, people can cope with life stressors more effectively. That includes the stress of going through recovery.
Let’s take a closer look at this study so you can understand the science behind journaling.
Researchers had undergraduates engage in three writing sessions. The sessions lasted 20 minutes and took place over two weeks. Half of the study’s participants engaged in expressive writing. That means they wrote about their thoughts and feelings related to going to college. Then, they were instructed to use their writing to tie it together.
The other half wrote about the daily events they’d engaged in and what they could have done to get better results.
The researchers measured the participants’ working memory before writing, a week into the study, and seven weeks after the writing was complete. The group that engaged in expressive writing showed modest gains in working memory.
The researchers theorized that the gains occurred because the expressive writing removed intrusive thoughts. They decided to conduct a second study to find out if they were correct.
For the second study, the participants were divided into three groups, with each group given an assignment. One group wrote about positive experiences, one group wrote about negative experiences, and the last group wrote about the day’s schedule. However, the third group did not evaluate the day.
At the end of the experiment, intrusive thoughts had decreased for the group who wrote about negative events. They also had fewer avoidant thoughts and had significant improvements in their working memory. The researchers believe that by reducing the negative and avoidant thoughts, the working memory was able to increase.
Improve Your Memory
Now you know that journaling improves working memory. Let’s back up a minute so you can see why that’s so important.
Using addictive substances has a substantial impact on your memory (Baron, 2018). Researchers have conducted various studies on the effects of substances on memory, and here’s what they’ve discovered.
First, people who use marijuana have demonstrated short- and long-term memory problems. When people use marijuana, it slows their brain’s processes, and that impacts memory. While most studies have focused on teens, researchers have discovered that older adults also suffer memory problems when they use marijuana. These memory problems don’t just go away when they stop using it either.
Alcohol also impacts memory. Researchers even believe that it can increase the risk of dementia. The memory-related issues are due to changes in the brain.
Opiates use can even hurt your memory. When you take opiates, the medicine inhibits your brain’s pain signals. Unfortunately, your pain signals are also tied to your cognitive processes. The problems can continue well after discontinuing opiate use.
You might not be surprised about those findings, but this one will likely shock you. Smoking cigarettes can cause cognitive decline (Lindberg, 2019). While most people experience cognitive decline as they age, research shows that smokers decline at faster rates. Also, if you smoke, you have an increased risk of suffering from dementia.
These are great reasons to take up journaling. With the help of a recovery journal, you won’t be as impacted by the memory issues that plague people in recovery.
Chart Your Progress
Progress monitoring is an essential aspect of addiction recovery. Researchers have discovered that progress monitoring improves care in addiction treatment (Goodman, 2013). While progress monitoring is critical in all cases, it’s exceptionally important when patients aren’t responding to addiction recovery treatment (Vista Research Group, n.d.).
Without progress monitoring, practitioners are likely to overestimate the patient’s response to treatment. They might think that the patient is doing much better than he or she actually is. On the other hand, when providers use progress monitoring, they know if a patient is doing well or is stuck in a rut. When a patient is stuck in a rut, providers can change the treatment, so it’s more effective for that patient’s needs.
Journaling is a way to monitor your progress. Unlike providers who might overestimate your progress, you’re likely to underestimate it. You might think that you aren’t doing very well, only to flip through your journal and notice that you’ve made great strides.
Of course, if you aren’t improving as you should, you can share that with your provider. You might even share some glimpses of your recovery journal, so the provider understands the help you need. Don’t write with that in mind, though. Write like each word is for your eyes only. Then, if you want to share something, you can, but you have full control over it.
Identify Your Triggers
Addictions don’t happen overnight. First, people engage in casual habits. A casual habit can then turn into a compulsion, at which point you’re addicted. If you give it some thought, you’ll realize that your compulsions are associated with triggers. When you encounter a trigger, you feel a compulsion to use your substance of choice or engage in a specific behavior.
For instance, if you quit smoking, you might feel triggered to grab a cigarette after finishing a meal. If you’re trying to stop drinking, you could feel triggered when you see a friend that you used to hang out with a lot.
Identifying triggers is a critical part of the recovery process. Failure to do so could cause you to relapse (Serenity at Summit, n.d.).
Triggers fall into three categories, which are environmental, social, and emotional. Environmental triggers are generally the easiest to identify. These refer to things like going to a bar. The environment triggers you, causing you to want to engage in an unhealthy habit.
Social triggers are generally easy to identify, as well. Examples include meeting up with a friend that you used drugs with on occasion. When you see that friend, you automatically feel the urge to use drugs. The trigger might be so strong that you could momentarily forget that you are recovering from the habit.
Emotional triggers aren’t nearly as easy to identify because people are often unclear about their emotions. These can include anger, loneliness, anxiety, or any other emotion that triggers you. This might sound strange, but happiness can even be a trigger. For example, maybe you used celebrations as an excuse to overeat. Then, when something good happens, you feel happy and triggered to eat.
Journaling is an excellent way to identify triggers. Once you name your triggers, it’s easier to manage or avoid them. For example, if you realize that visiting your parents’ house causes you to want to use drugs, you know to avoid that right now while you work through the emotional baggage. You can even use your journal to work through the issues, so your triggers lose their hold on you.
Engage in Self-Reflection
Self-reflection is an integral part of the recovery process. It allows you to discover why you have taken up bad habits or started abusing substances. Once you know the why behind the behavior, it’s easier to stop it. Journaling can help you with the self-reflection process so you can begin healing.
Recovered binge drinker Jessi Stafford did an excellent job of explaining this in a piece she wrote for Vice (Standford, 2016). Her story starts when she’s 28 years old, recovering from yet another night of binge drinking. She fit the familiar patterns. She could go weeks without drinking, but then when she did indulge, she binged. She would black out, unaware of how she got home. Then, the following day, she’d feel anxious, unsure if she’d done anything wrong during the blender.
She finally decided to dedicate a full year to sobriety. During that time, she meditated and wrote in a journal. That allowed her to reflect on her innermost thoughts and feelings and how they related to her behaviors.
With the help of journaling, she realized she isn’t addicted to alcohol. Instead, she is prone to binge drinking because of a fear of missing out, people-pleasing, and anxiety. By drinking faster than her peers, she coped with those feelings. Of course, the coping mechanism was dangerous and did more harm than good.
After discovering that, she was able to have a reset of sorts. She filled her life with activities that didn’t center around alcohol and continued to journal while adding therapy into the mix as well.
Jessi’s story is one of many. Each year, countless people discover who they are with the help of journaling. Once you find out who you are, you can forge a new path in life and find happiness free of the substances and habits that hold you back.
Improve Your Self-Esteem
Building up self-esteem is generally a big part of recovery. That’s because addiction and low self-esteem tend to go hand in hand. A study published in the journal “Addict Health” discovered a link between low self-esteem, addiction, theft, and prostitution (Hamid Reza Alavi, 2011). The study makes it clear that if you have low self-esteem, you’re more likely to engage in these risky behaviors.
That’s just one of many studies. Other studies have been done that showed a link between low self-esteem and drug abuse, internet addiction, compulsive shopping, and eating problems (Elizabeth Hartney, How to Build Self-Esteem During Recovery From an Addiction, 2020). In all cases, raising self-esteem can help people overcome their compulsive and addictive behaviors.
Fortunately, journaling can help you improve your self-esteem. Your journal holds your deepest thoughts, both positive and negative. As you release these thoughts into your journal, you lay the groundwork for improving your self-esteem (Manhattan Wellness, n.d.). You will learn more about your true self and realize how amazing you are. With each realization, your self-esteem will increase. Before long, you’ll feel more powerful.
If you’ve investigated recovery programs lately, you’ve likely noticed that lots of them include mindfulness therapy. Mindfulness is the act of being aware and present in the moment. When you’re mindful, you aren’t thinking about the future or worrying about the past. You are in the here and now, and this can help you overcome addiction.
Photographer and writer Keri Wiginton wrote about her own experience with drinking and mindfulness in the Washington Post (Wiginton, 2018). When she hit her 30s, she realized she was drinking daily. While she wasn’t physically addicted to alcohol, it was a problem in her life and needed to stop. That wasn’t very easy, though, even without physical addiction.
Drinking wine was a regular part of her social life, and her friends didn’t hide their disappointment when she didn’t imbibe. Also, she felt anxious about going out without the crutch of wine. She soon discovered that mindfulness was the key to overcoming her drinking habit.
Let’s go back for a second and look at how the brain works. When you have a negative feeling, and then something makes you feel better, your brain prompts you to repeat the process. For instance, if you feel anxious, reach for a glass of wine, and feel better, your brain will keep telling you that you need wine when you have anxiety. You reinforce the behavior each time you do it, and before long, it turns into a habit. Some people can form a habit in as little as two weeks, so it doesn’t take long for the new behavior to become a routine part of your life.
To break the habit, Wiginton focused on the present moment. When a craving hit, she turned to mindfulness to experience her feelings and actions. She started to see patterns regarding her cravings. Soon, she was able to manage and overcome the cravings.
There are other benefits to mindfulness too. For example, it slows things down (Elizabeth Hartney, 2020). When you’re dealing with an addiction, everything can seem so fast and out of focus. Slowing things down prevents you from rushing and making poor choices.
Mindfulness also alleviates stress. It’s easy to become stressed when you think about past mistakes or future fears. However, when you focus on the present, you aren’t burdened with those disappointments or fears. You only have to deal with what is happening at that exact moment. That helps stress melt away. When you’re less stressed, you’re also less likely to fall into old habits that you’ve used as coping mechanisms.
It also makes you more conscious of the world around you. With mindfulness, you will start to see the beauty in the world and our experiences. Everything is richer and fuller when you’re in the present moment. Instead of trying to escape with a substance, you’ll realize that being aware is the best way to live your life. You will take pleasure in the little things that make life an amazing experience, and you won’t want to dull your senses because that will cause you to miss something.
While there are many ways to practice mindfulness, journaling is one of the easiest (Alicia Nortje, 2020). You can accomplish this with any form of expressive writing. Just focus on the moment, and you will find that it soon becomes a habit. That’s what’s so great about the brain. It doesn’t just form bad habits. It can develop good habits too.
Tips for Starting a Recovery Journal
Now that you know the reasons to start a recovery journal, you just have one problem.
You really aren’t sure how to begin.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to start a recovery journal. That’s what’s so great about the process. It’s about you, your thoughts, your feelings, and the journal. Still, if you’re new to writing a journal, you might need some help getting started. Here are some tips you can incorporate into your journal.
Write as Often as Needed
Generally, it’s recommended that you write in a journal once a day. However, a recovery journal is a bit different. You will rely on your journal to help you deal with emotions, triggers, and cravings, so don’t be afraid to write in your journal more often. By turning to your journal as needed, you can come out on the other side, free from substances.
Leanne provides a perfect example of how writing often can help you overcome your addiction. She finally quit smoking after 35 years and used a journal to handle the cravings (Leanne, n.d.).
She started her journal at 9 a.m. on a Monday and wrote additional entries in the afternoon and at 11 p.m. The entries detail her cravings and emotions. She wrote about crying, feeling anxious, and the desire to reach for a cigarette. Those entries helped her get through the first day, and then, when she woke up the next morning, she was pleased that she was smoke-free.
She continued to rely on her journal but didn’t need to write multiple times a day. Instead, she wrote daily or several times a week. Once she reached the one-year mark, she started journaling less, and then even less at the two-year mark. Still, she used her journal to check-in, evaluate her feelings, and stay on track.
Keep Leanne in mind when you write your recovery journal. You will likely rely on it much more in the early stages. Don’t worry about journaling too often. If it’s helping you move forward, it’s a positive addition to your life.
Can’t Figure Out Where to Start? Start With Gratitude
It might seem strange to recommend starting with journaling about what you’re grateful for when you’re in the throes of recovery, but it works. Just consider one woman’s struggle overcoming an addiction to see how this can benefit you.
“Anonymous” was a 22-year-old recovering alcoholic when she shared her story with Women’s Health in 2017 (BREIT, 2017). By the time the magazine interviewed her, she had five years of sobriety under her belt. It wasn’t an easy journey for her. She doesn’t remember a semester from her senior year of high school, but things got even worse after that. She went on a family vacation when she graduated, and someone sexually assaulted her. That cased a downward spiral, and eventually, she physically assaulted a man. She went onto rehab and tried different programs. Finally, something clicked, and she got sober.
Getting sober is one thing, but staying sober is another. She joined a 12-step program and got a sponsor. Her sponsor gave her some critical advice. She was told to write down 10 things she’s grateful for, and not just once. She needed to do it daily and wasn’t allowed to repeat any of the items.
Anonymous had never journaled before, but she went for it. At first, it was easy to think of things she was grateful for, but as the days progressed, she had to do some digging and evaluate her life to find hidden pleasures. She opened herself up to the world around her to see things that made her grateful.
Opening herself up did something else as well. As she became more comfortable writing about the things she was grateful for, she also discovered that writing about her doubts, fears, and shortcomings were much easier. She started writing these items down, so she would remember to talk about them with her sponsor or therapist.
She realized that putting the words in her journal removed the power. They weren’t emotions or fears that could hurt her. They were just words.
If you don’t know where to begin, consider following in her footsteps. Simply getting started is often enough to create a habit, and gratitude is an excellent way to begin.
Be as descriptive as possible when writing in your recovery journal. The more descriptive you are, the easier it is to connect to what you’re writing. Instead of saying that you’re thankful for your partner, explain why you’re grateful. Go into detail, so the words jump off the page.
Use Journaling Prompts if Necessary
If you have a hard time starting, you can use journaling prompts. Prompts can include:
· What am I frightened of the most during recovery?
· What is my plan for tomorrow?
· Dear past me…
· What would life be like if I wasn’t in recovery?
· My goals are…
These are just some examples to get the ball rolling. Again, you’ll find that once you start writing, it gets much easier.
Spend Some Time Focusing on Your Positive Attributes
Remember that you want to build your self-esteem through journaling. That means you need to spend some time focusing on your positive attributes. Create a journal entry that goes over all the positive, unique traits you have. You can also write about times you were proud of yourself and what you bring to relationships. With each exercise, stick to the positive so you can begin to improve your self-esteem.
But Don’t Forget About Negative Thoughts
While you should journal about gratitude and positive thoughts, you also need to empty your negative thoughts. According to a study published in the journal Science, journaling about their worries reduces anxiety (Gerardo Ramirez, 2011).
It makes perfect sense that writing down your bad thoughts can alleviate anxiety. When you write those bad thoughts down, you are essentially taking away their power. Something happens when they move from your head to the journal. You’ll notice that you feel more in control and ready to tackle recovery.
Go Back Over Your Journal
Some people write in a journal, never to go back and look at the previous entries. You’re focusing on making progress with this journal, though. Remember how you can use your journal to track your progress? You will see the progress when you go back to previous entries, so don’t forget to do that. Expect to be pleasantly surprised when you flip through the earlier entries.
Find the Format That Works Best for You
Did you know you have different options for creating a recovery journal when you use an online platform? You can type the journal if you prefer writing, or you can create audio files. You can even make a video recovery journal if you wish. You might choose to do a combination of options or stick to one. By exploring your choices, you’ll find what you prefer. Then, it will be easier for you to stick to journaling.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Accountability is a critical component of recovery. You need to be held accountable, so you follow through with your program. That means you’ll need an accountability partner. This is someone who checks in and holds you accountable. Your accountability partner can keep you on track regarding writing in your journal and meeting your recovery goals.
People occasionally make mistakes when choosing accountability partners. They select someone who is struggling to break the same habit. While it’s an understandable choice, people who are struggling are more apt to let someone slip up. The two might decide to take a “cheat night” or even a week off. Even if the person chooses to stick to the program, he or she won’t have the tools to overcome the addiction. That’s why it’s better to go with someone who doesn’t have the same issue.
Fortunately, you can get accountability with journaling. Platforms like Journal Owl can send text messages to people. These text messages check in to make sure you’re sticking to your plan. You can even get a coach to hold you accountable.
Start Journaling Toward Recovery Today
A recovery journal can supplement a treatment plan, or it can be used by itself to help you overcome dangerous habits. No matter how you choose to use your journal, it won’t help you until you get started. Make a plan to start journaling today. Choose a program and dive in, using the journal as a way to express yourself. After a few days, you’ll realize that you start looking forward to putting your thoughts into your journal. Then, in a few weeks, journaling will be a habit and part of your daily routine. Unlike a bad habit, though, journaling is a positive part of your routine. It will help you grow as a person as you overcome your addiction. No matter what your addiction or habit is, you can overcome it, and the time to start is now.
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I tried mindfulness to quit drinking. It actually worked.
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