The benefits of journaling for your Mental Health and how to start it

July 8, 2019
Filipe Bastos

Journaling is an incredible tool for your mental health and improving your emotional intelligence (EQ). It’s a simple yet powerful way to manage thoughts and feelings as you move from day to day and it’s far from a new invention. Journaling helps you gain clarity, problem solve and manage stressful events. Yet often people don’t realise the enormous benefits of journaling and how it can be transformative. Let’s explain.

Ditching your journaling preconceptions

Before we go any further you need to challenge your journaling preconceptions. It is not a laborious and self-indulgent process. It’s also a long way removed from the stereotype of an angst-ridden teen writing reams in their bedroom! We also find that many are caught up with the idea that journaling is immensely time-consuming – it’s not and can take 20 minutes or less a day. You don’t need to be a good or eloquent writer to achieve the benefits of journaling.

The type of journaling we are talking about is journaling as a life management tool. It can be an important part of your self-care, and it can definitely help your mental health as well as assist you as you develop your emotional intelligence (EQ).

The science of journaling

It’s no accident that journaling is so powerful. Understanding this comes down to neuroscience. Grothaus (2015) explains how the act of writing invokes the use of the rational and analytical left brain whilst the right brain, responsible for creative thought and emotions, is able to be playful, wander and make connections.

Effective journaling is key

Whilst taking steps to start writing is a good beginning, the act of writing alone won’t ensure you get all the benefits of journaling. The important thing is to learn how to journal effectively.

The objective of effective journaling is a long term stress management and life management strategy. It can help you achieve life goals and more.

Central to effective journaling is journaling every day. Many of the benefits of journaling are a direct result of the habit of journaling. It needs to be a little and often approach.

Also important to effective journaling is expressive writing. You aren’t simply recounting facts but instead expressing a stream of consciousness which involves thoughts, feelings, reactions and emotions – no matter how random they may seem. Indeed, expressive writing has been shown to be particularly therapeutic.

When we learn how to journal effectively then you’ll enjoy the full benefits of journaling.

The benefits of journaling

It’s actually incredible just how wide-reaching and all-pervasive the benefits of journaling are. Journaling can:

  • Help you achieve goals: Setting goals is one thing, achieving them is another. Journaling helps you to consider the different outcomes possible (Scott, 2018) and therefore helps you to take concrete steps towards achieving your goals. Indeed, research shows how those who write down their goals are more likely to achieve them than those who don’t. Journaling can help you identify the next concrete steps to take and help you make focused decisions. It can also fuel your self-discipline and serve to be a means of gently holding you accountable in your own endeavours.
  • Reduce stress: Journaling is ideal for helping you to reduce and relieve stress as it helps you to release tension and regulate and integrate your emotions (Scott, 2018). Certainly, journaling can have a hugely cathartic effect.
  • Help you feel in control: Journaling can help reduce anxiety symptoms by helping you feel more in control of what is happening in your life because it brings clarity. It helps us understand and develop our sense of self – vital for EQ. Fritson (2008) explains how journaling helps gain a sense of control through increasing self-efficacy.
  • Boost your mental health: There is a vast amount of evidence linking journaling to positive improvements in depressive symptoms. It’s been shown to be as effective as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Stice, Burton, Bearman and Rohde, 2006). It can help reduce rumination (Gortner, Rude and Pennebacker, 2006). Expressive writing has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression following traumatic events (Koopman, Ismailji, Holmes, Classen, Palesh and Wales, 2005).
  • It can help you manage and overcome mental health difficulties: Journaling doesn’t just act as armour against mental health challenges. Journaling has been found to be particularly helpful for those who are suffering from the effects of trauma. It can help to reduce intrusive thoughts and avoidant behaviour. However, the mental health benefits of journaling don’t stop there. Rabinor, 1991 explains that journaling can reduce obsessive thinking in those suffering from eating disorders. Handling bereavement, especially in children, has also been shown to be aided through journaling (Kalantari, Yule, Dyregrov, Neshatdoost and Ahmadi, 2012). For those experiencing addiction, journaling can help with recovery (Milios, 2015).
  • It aids your physical health: Neuroscientists are still only really just beginning to learn about the integral relationship between mental and physical health. However, what we do know is that there is a link. This is demonstrated through journaling which has evidence for improving physical conditions such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. It’s even been linked to healing physical wounds more quickly.  Indeed, 76% of adults in a trial who spent 20 minutes journaling for 3 consecutive days two weeks before a medical biopsy were fully healed within 11 days. Those who didn’t journal saw only 58% heal in the same amount of time. It would appear that journaling is good for our immune system (Grothaus, 2015) and one American psychology researcher, James Pennebaker, asserts that it strengthens the immune cells (T-lymphocytes).
  • Better relationships: Learning about ourselves through journaling can help us form and nurture better relationships. This is true with romantic partners, friends, family members and colleagues. Importantly, it can help us resolve disagreements more easily and quickly.
  • Improve working memory: Baikie and Wilhelm (2005) showed that journaling can help improve your working memory and thus increase your effectiveness in numerous scenarios, including the workplace and education. Indeed, we are generally poor at remembering, but add in writing down our experiences and we manage to lodge the memories more effectively, even if we never re-read it again!
  • Helps us gain perspective: Journaling has been reported to help us shift to a more positive mindset (Robinson, 2017). This is probably also due to the fact that through journaling we notice more and can spot patterns in our feelings and behaviours.
  • You can increase your intelligence: It’s not just your EQ which stands to improve through journaling, but your IQ too. A report by the University of Victoria, Canada, is just one research example which links writing practice with intelligence. You’ll certainly improve your language development and vocabulary!
  • Sparks creativity: Journaling is like magic when it comes to creativity. It allows us to process and access creative thoughts in a tangible way. This creativity spills over from journaling in to your day to day life.

It’s intriguing to note that not all of the benefits of journaling disappear over time if you don’t practice journaling regularly. In fact journaling is great in the long term, equipping you with learning and strategies to use in future scenarios.

How to journal

Effective journaling needn’t be complicated. Expressive writing in a journal for just 15 to 20 minutes most days will be enough.

Interestingly, in many ways the actual act of writing – putting pen to paper – is as important as what you write. This is because it activates the reticular activating system of the brain. That’s not to say a typed journal (such as done by many bloggers) isn’t beneficial. Indeed, blogging has been shown to release dopamine – the happy hormone.

The goal of journaling is, in part, about documenting experience. However, only insofar as to help you gain greater insight and knowledge in to yourself. It can be understood as a way of listening to ourselves.

When writing in your journal don’t try to ‘think’ too much. It should simply be a stream of consciousness where thoughts and feelings aren’t inhibited. It doesn’t need to be a coherent narrative on the page to help you form a coherent narrative in your mind.

Baikie and Wilhelm (2005) have provided us with clear steps regarding how to journal:

  • Make it private and personal: Write somewhere where your privacy is secure and you won’t be distracted. Keep your journal itself private. This way you’ll be far less inhibited in your writing. Authenticity and honesty with yourself is vital.
  • Write frequently: You should aim to write regularly and consecutively (for example for 20 minutes for 3-4 days in a row).
  • Reflect: When you have finished your stream of consciousness take a little time to reflect. Mindfulness may prove to be particularly beneficial at this stage.
  • Structure: The only thing that matters about journaling structure is that it works for you. Some people find a gratitude journaling structure to be beneficial, others favour bullet methodology, or the WRITE technique (from the Center for Journal Therapy) or you may like to use a combination or find a structure which works for you.

Other tips for how to journal can include elements of performance analysis, describing your experiences, writing down affirmations of your self-worth, records of your successes, or perhaps ‘chatting’ to yourself as a child.

Carve out self-care time for journaling, ideally every day. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or presentation!

The benefits of journaling with gratitude

Gratitude journaling has gained considerable momentum in recent years and with good reason. Gratitude has been strongly linked with wellbeing, studies have shown. By incorporating gratitude in to your journaling you benefit both from the act of gratitude and journaling itself.

Specifically, gratitude journaling has been hailed for increasing your optimism and thus your happiness levels (Froh, Sefick and Emmons, 2008) and reducing the symptoms of depression (Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson, 2005).

Start writing today

Now you know the benefits of journaling it’s time to buy yourself a journal, grab a pen and start realising those benefits for yourself.

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