The Process of Journaling and its Benefits
“Writing in a journal reminds you of your goals and of your learning in life. It offers a place where you can hold a deliberate, thoughtful conversation with yourself.” – Robin S. Sharma
Some may easily confuse the concepts of diary writing and journaling. Diary writing is when you record the events of the day whereas journaling can lend itself as a therapeutic tool that explores the thoughts and feelings surrounding the events in your life. Like any habit, journaling has to become routine in order to reap the benefits.
It takes patience and practice to establish a rhythm. In order for it to be productive, in striving for mental balance, it must be effective journaling. What is effective journaling? It is journaling that helps you meet your goals or improves your quality of life. Writing down your feelings helps you to connect your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and it acts as a buffer for reducing the symptoms of mental illness.
We will explore the benefits of journaling for mental health, tailoring the process to get the most from journaling, ending with referenced statements from those of authority.
Tailor the process
Keep in mind there is no right or wrong method of journaling. It is an individual process meant to connect oneself with their emotions. While some can journal on the go, others may require a quiet, soothing environment. Journaling is a personal preference experience that you must tailor to fit your needs. It may take time to discover your journaling style but once you find it, you feel it. The ways of journaling are limitless!
If you cannot think of what to write about you can scour the internet for prompts, you can use your journal as a creative space to explore your feelings or do a mixture of the two. It is all up to you on how the process looks but it is important to allow it to be a healthy way of self-expression.
Journaling, for me, is a setting. In order for me to lose myself in my journal, I must achieve a level of comfort which I find in seclusion. My surrounding must be relaxing and quiet with no distractions. It is also a mood for me. I find I best describe my experiences with depression. I do not prefer this to be my mood but it is when writing my feelings becomes most effective in a healing aspect.
The most difficult idea to surpass is the invasion of privacy. Writing your most intimate thoughts down leaves you vulnerable and the fear of someone discovering our deepest thoughts is paralyzing. While I cannot guarantee privacy I can guarantee you will benefit from the practice of journaling.
From my own traumatic experience, I will say this… reading someone else’s personal writings is disrespectful and none of your business. There is always a debatable reason when it comes to the privacy of your child but this is not the case today. Reading the raw emotions of another without their permission should be prohibited as a common human law. Doing so crosses boundaries and ruins trust and with me, friendships. The only time it is ok is when the person is deceased.
How do you tailor it?
You may not know where to begin in your journaling journey and thank goodness I came prepared.
- I recommend first purchasing a book that you designate as your journal. This can be a notebook or a journal book that you buy from the book store.
- Second I choose a pen or pencil depending on my mood. Ideally, this would be the only tool I use but it never works out that way.
- Next is the part you must figure out. Your setting. I recommend trying all different kinds of places. The library, the park, in the woods, on the bus on your way to work or in your room. Do you allow yourself to be free with music? If so, play music.
For myself, I carry a travel notebook with an insert dedicated to thoughts. Throughout the day, if I am needing to get things out of my head, I will jot down words that reference what I am dealing with at the moment and later I use these words to guide a journal entry.
This works well for me and enables me to remember what I was feeling in the moment otherwise I may forget. It took me a while to figure out what works best for me. I am easily distracted and find it difficult to think in depth when the environment is noisy. Using the travel notebook allows me to document on the go yet journal at home.
- Finally, decide the direction you desire and remember you can change it up at any time because it is your space. I recommend following prompts until you reach a point when you feel you get the gist of choosing a topic.
- Last, write. Make sure to take note of how the process makes you feel.
Take note of how the process makes you feel. If you do not feel confident, that comes with practice but if you do not feel comfortable evaluate your environment. Change whatever it is that doesn’t suit your needs.
Journaling for mental health benefits looks different from “just journaling”. The subject of mental health encompasses a wide range of disorders. These disorders are accompanied by symptoms that hinder the way we approach life while some debilitate us. Journaling to receive benefits works best when following a specific method. Many times your counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist may recommend a particular method of journaling to enhance your results.
Now let’s break it down further to discuss more specific areas that effective journaling can act as a therapeutic tool. Depression, anxiety, stress management, PTSD, and substance abuse recovery have shown impressive results from writing your thoughts regarding current or past events.
This is not a substitute for receiving professional help. It is merely a tool used to help alleviate the symptoms experienced from mental illness often suggested by a professional.
Below you will find statements in regard to specific mental instabilities and how journaling can be used as an effective tool.
- Expressive writing can reduce symptoms of depression in women who are struggling with the aftermath of intimate partner violence (Koopman, Ismailji, Holmes, Classen, Palesh, & Wales, 2005).
- Writing in a journal may also be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for reducing symptoms of depression in high-risk adolescents (Stice, Burton, Bearman, & Rohde, 2006).
- Expressive journaling may not reduce the frequency of intrusive thoughts in depressed individuals, but it moderates their impact on depressive symptoms, leading to a reduction in symptoms (Lepore, 1997).
- Journaling can help college students who are vulnerable to depression reduce their brooding and rumination, two contributing factors of depressive symptoms (Gortner, Rude, & Pennebaker, 2006).
- In general, people diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder reported significantly lower depression scores after three days of expressive writing, 20 minutes per day (Krpan, Kross, Berman, Deldin, Askren, & Jonides, 2013).
Writing in a journal can positively impact your anxiety through:
- Calming and clearing your mind.
- Releasing pent-up feelings and everyday stress.
- Letting go of negative thoughts.
- Exploring your experiences with anxiety.
- Writing about your struggles and your successes.
- Enhancing your self-awareness and teaching you about your triggers.
- Track your progress as you undergo treatment (Star, 2018).
Through mechanisms like those listed above, journaling has been shown to:
- Reduce anxiety in patients with multiple sclerosis (Hasanzadeh, Khoshknab, & Norozi, 2012).
- Reduce physical symptoms, health problems, and anxiety in women (LaClaire, 2008).
- Help students manage their stress and anxiety and improve their engagement and enhance meaning found in the classroom (Flinchbaugh, Moore, Chang, & May 2012).
Keeping a journal can help you fully explore your emotions, release tension, and fully integrate your experiences into your mind (Scott, 2018). Further, it can help you work on reducing specific sources of stress or aid you in reaching an important goal (perhaps reducing your overall stress?).
- Decreasing symptoms of various health conditions
- Improving your cognitive functioning.
- Strengthening your immune system.
- Examining your thoughts and shifting your perspective.
- Reducing rumination and promoting action.
- Planning out your options and considering multiple outcomes of a situation (Scott, 2018).
It’s hypothesized that writing works to enhance our mental health through guiding us towards confronting previously inhibited emotions (reducing the stress from inhibition), helping us process difficult events and compose a coherent narrative about our experiences, and possibly even through repeated exposure to the negative emotions associated with traumatic memories (i.e., “extinction” of these negative emotions; Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).
In order for it to have a positive effect on our mental health, we must journal with purpose. Baikie & Wilhelm suggest the following:
- Write in a private and personalized space that is free from distractions.
- Write at least three or four times, and aim for writing consecutively (i.e., at least once each day).
- Give yourself some time to reflect and balance yourself after writing.
- If you’re writing to overcome trauma, don’t feel obligated to write about a specific traumatic event—journal about what feels right in the moment.
- Structure the writing, however, feels right to you.
- Keep your journal private; it’s for your eyes only—not your spouse, not your family, not your friends, not even your therapist (although you can discuss your experience with your therapist, of course!).
Another good set of guidelines on effective journaling can be found on the Center for Journal Therapy website. When you journal, remember the simple acronym: WRITE!
- W – What do you want to write about? Think about what is going on in your life, your current thoughts and feelings, what you’re striving towards or trying to avoid right now. Give it a name and put it all on paper.
- R – Review or reflect on it. Take a few moments to be still, calm your breath, and focus. A little mindfulness or meditation could help in this step. Try to start sentences with “I” statements like “I feel…”, “I want…”, and “I think…” Also, try to keep them in the present tense, with sentence stems like “Today…”, “Right now…”, or “In this moment…”
- I – Investigate your thoughts and feelings through your writing. Just keep going! If you feel you have run out of things to write or your mind starts to wander, take a moment to refocus (another opportunity for mindfulness meditation!), read over what you have just written, and continue on.
- T – Time yourself to ensure that you write for at least 5 minutes (or whatever your current goal is). Write down your start time and the projected end time based on your goal at the top of your page. Set a timer or alarm to go off when the time period you have set it up.
- E – Exit strategically and with introspection. Read what you have written and take a moment to reflect on it. Sum up your takeaway in one or two sentences, starting with statements like “As I read this, I notice…”, “I’m aware of…”, or “I feel…” If you have any action items or steps you would like to take next, write them down now (Adams, n.d.).
The above is a great way to guide yourself through the act of journaling. It eliminates any doubts you may have about the process.
“Whether you’re keeping a journal or writing as a meditation, it’s the same thing. What’s important is you’re having a relationship with your mind.” – Natalie Goldberg
Last but not least, what effects does journaling have on recovery?
If you are suffering in the aftermath of a traumatic event, journaling can help you find the good in life. It can even help you see the positive side of experiencing the trauma, which helps reduce the severe symptoms that can accompany trauma (Ullrich & Lutgendorf, 2002).
If you are grappling with an eating disorder, journal writing can be a huge source of relief and healing. Keeping a journal can help you stop distancing yourself from your issues, encourage you to confront your problems head-on, and reduce the obsessive component of your disorder (Rabinor, 1991).
If you are struggling with a debilitating psychiatric condition, journaling can help you get your thoughts down on paper and stop ruminating and worrying over them. This can free up your mind to manage your emotions and cope with stress that could trigger a relapse (Provencher, Gregg, Mead, & Mueser, 2002).
If the recovery you seek is for the death of a loved one, one of the most traumatic and heartbreaking events of all, journaling can help with that as well. Writing can give you a chance to process your enormous loss and reduce the most severe symptoms of grief. This has been proven to be especially effective for children dealing with bereavement (Kalantari, Yule, Dyregrov, Neshat Doost, & Ahmadi, 2012).
However, the recovery that journaling can have the biggest impact on is recovery from addiction. If you’re struggling to overcome an addiction, journaling can help you record your struggles and your accomplishments, hold yourself accountable and allow you an opportunity to work through difficult thoughts and emotions in a healthy manner (Milios, 2015).
Writing our thoughts, feelings, and actions down in a journal allows us to craft and maintain our sense of self and solidifies our identity. It helps us reflect on our experiences and discover our authentic self. Keeping a journal can give you a chance to create and consider the narrative of your life, with all of the choices you have made and the memories that make you who you are today. In a word, the benefits of journaling on recovery is “cathartic” (New Roads Treatment, 2017).
I found Positive Psychology Program a great resource for all things motivational to living a well -balanced life. I garnered a lot of useful information from this one source and highly recommend this site to anyone who is in search of practical tools to implement in their daily lives.
What the future has in store for us is unknown but what we can do is choose healthy coping mechanisms to deal with current and past events. Doing so increases our chances of having carved our own path towards a better future. We cannot change our past from bad decisions or involuntary acts but we do have some control over how our future looks.
Journaling is a process that familiarizes us with who we are. When we know who we are we can successfully share our wisdom with younger generations. The benefits of journaling far outweigh the possibility of failure. Self-awareness holds you responsible and accountable and gaining this through journaling will improve your decision-making skills, overall mental wellness and assist in your recovery.
So? What are you waiting for?? Grab a journal today!!