Writing as Meditation: The Benefits of Journaling

Dec 20, 2018

Kaiya Ansorge prefers journaling by hand in a basic spiral notebook. Sometimes she'll pick a favorite record to play as she writes at home in Vermillion.
Credit Jackie Hendry

Life can be hectic - and for many people, the holiday season can bring a seemingly endless list of to-dos and deadlines. But what if you could find a little peace by picking up a pen? The health benefits of writing and journaling are gaining more attention in research, but for some people this is nothing new. 

There’s an extensive record collection in the corner of Kaiya Ansorge’s living room. Sometimes, she sifts through the albums to find just the right sound for the day. Today she pulls out “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.

She settles on the couch with a cup of tea, a cheap spiral notebook and pen. This is her meditation.

Kaiya Ansorge has a PhD in religion and a bachelors in psychology. She teaches a variety of meditation classes around South Dakota and the world. Over the last two years, she’s developed a workshop called Writing as Meditation. It’s based on a practice she discovered nearly 20 years ago as a student in a demanding doctorate program.

“I thought, if I have to write another paper….I just felt lost. And I--words didn’t even make sense to me on the page, and I thought, ‘This isn’t good! I’m not going to be able to finish!’” she remembers.

Ansorge tried a different approach: writing down her casual thoughts. She says author and artist Julia Cameron calls it “relaxing on the page.”

“And that phrase became so important to me because when I would sit down I would think that everything I wrote had to be perfect, or precious, or beautiful. Or something! And that’s not at all what it is. It’s a respite,”
says Ansorge. 

And the new approach worked. Ansorge says writing about average events or concerns helped her refocus.

“Then what would happen is that as I was writing all of my boring bits of my life, suddenly I would get an idea for what I was working on.”

Ansorge says writing has helped her at other stages of life too, like the early days of parenting her now ten-year-old son.

“I would get to a point where I was just so sort of tightly wound that I wasn’t doing anybody any good anymore. And so writing was a good way for me to let go of that and to get myself back on track.”

Journaling practices have been gaining more attention in recent mental health research. Malia Holbeck is the manager of Avera Health’s Addiction Recovery Program. She says it’s common to encourage people who are in treatment to journal about their cravings. She says the practice helps them reflect on the nature of their addiction.

“I think the more that they are able to look at those situations, identify some of the triggers that evoke some of those feelings to wanna be able to drink or use, they’re really able to create a more solid recovery plan for themselves,” says Holbeck.

But the benefits of journaling extend far beyond addiction recovery. Holbeck says recent studies show that people who spend just a few minutes a day writing about something they’re grateful for, tend to be happier.

“Some of those things don’t always have to be very significant or don’t always have to be very big. It might just be--appreciative of what the weather is today or, you know, a beautiful sunrise that you’re seeing on your way to work," she explains.

Holbeck adds that journaling can be a big help in stress management.

“If stress is left untreated it really can develop into some more significant symptoms of depression or anxiety as well.”

And that can create physical symptoms, like poor sleep patterns and low energy. Holbeck says journaling lets someone process emotions productively while reflecting on specific situations.

“Really activating your brain to be able to think through some of that, to write that down and then even just to be able to do some evaluation after you get that down on paper about how to problem solve,” says Holbeck.

Another benefit of journaling? It’s a relatively cheap method of self-care that can happen almost anywhere. That was another part of the appeal when Kaiya Ansorge first started using writing as meditation.

“It really can happen everywhere, and I think that says a lot about our own...the sacredness of the practice and the sacredness of our own being that goes with us everywhere, no matter where we are," she says. "We always have that with us. So it’s not something that is particular to a place.”

When Ansorge leads writing workshops, she says the most common concern is that people will have nothing to write.

“But then they just started writing and it just started pouring out of them and they were surprised. Surprised because I didn’t really give a huge prompt, right, like I gave some sort of vague... And just go with it!”

She encourages people to write about whatever is worrying them that day. She also says it’s helpful to focus on a particular word that captures their attention. Unlike other meditation practices that encourage a break from thought, Ansorge says writing as meditation lets people store their thoughts.

“Which is wonderful about writing, because if you were doing that on a meditation then you’d be really worried about losing that one thought. Well, you won’t lose it, it’s on your piece of paper, you can go back and find it and meditate on that next.”

Ansorge says it’s important to find the right supplies to make writing feel comfortable. While some like the speed of typing on a computer or the beauty of fancy journals, she prefers writing by hand in basic spiral notebooks. She suggests setting some goals as well -- either setting a number of pages to write or an amount of time to spend writing.

“One of the unique parts of writing to me is that, I think that it doesn’t take a lot of practice to get better at that when we do it. It’s almost immediate if we sit long enough that day,” she says.

Ansorge says writing through emotions helps transform them. Big problems don’t seem as overwhelming once they’re written down on paper. Malia Holbeck with Avera Health says that’s part of why journaling is so helpful in managing stress and processing emotions: writing is a release.

“And then you’re able to kind of have that in a place and get that out, to be able to kind of release that and hopefully just be able to put the pencil down and hopefully just kind of lay that situation there,” Holbeck says. 

And by managing stress and other emotions in a productive way, Ansorge says the positive effects of writing can spread into other aspects of life.

“We only--well, we might get more than one chance of living, I don’t know," she says. "But at least we have this life. And if we miss out, then we’ve missed the whole game. And so writing is one of the ways that we can get very very specific about what that life is about.”

Ansorge says it’s important for people to meditate in ways that work best for them--whether that’s through prayer, through exercise, or taking a little time to write.