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May 24, 2022

The Power of Journaling: Not Your Childhood Diary

By: Cathy Peterson

Of all the things you can do for your mental health, who would have thought keeping a journal would be one of the most therapeutic? Many people kept a diary when they were younger, it was simply a place to keep their secrets and wanderlust ramblings of their youth. What no one realized at the time, was this simple act of purging the mind and recording thoughts is a deeply healing tool. Journaling is a way to keep a record of your feelings, insights and personal thoughts. You can take pen to paper the old fashioned way, or use your keyboard of choice. Regardless of how you do it, expressive writing can greatly improve your mental health.

Benefits of Journaling

Although it may seem simplistic, the act of writing down your thoughts and memories is part of the self-care movement, right in line with meditation. Journaling, even three times a week for 15 minutes per day, can help reduce anxiety. A study (9) showed that over a 12 week period, participants who wrote down their thoughts had increased feelings of well-being and fewer depressive symptoms. As those in the study continued to journal, their mental health continued to improve.

Expressive writing can be used as a therapeutic tool for survivors of trauma. Writing about a stressful or emotional event has been found to result in both psychological and physical health. Psychologists often recommend their patients keep a journal as it helps them to stop obsessing and allows them to make sense of traumatic events. Seeing and reading it written down helps the patient from being overwhelmed by the experience. A study by Cambridge University found journaling helps improve well-being after traumatic or stressful events. Participants asked to write about such events for 15-20 minutes resulted in improvements both psychologically and physically. (4)

It is suggested that the actual act of writing things down does not heal, but the mind of the writer holds the power to change. Journaling is a way to acknowledge your goals and see your life visions. If someone writes and rewrites their goals, they become manifested in their subconscious mind. Change occurs over time as dreams and goals can become physical reality.

Not only can expressive writing reduce anxiety and help deal with traumatic events, it can help with improved sleep, better memory and a stronger immune system. It has been found that journaling before bed decreases cognitive stimulus and worrying, therefore allowing you to fall asleep faster. (6) Recent studies suggest that expressive writing about emotions and stress can boost immune functioning in patients with such illnesses as HIV/AIDS, asthma and arthritis. (10) Writing down your feelings allows you to let go of emotions. If you hold onto anger for example, the process of getting it out and expressing it, can cause the anger to subside over time.

Famous people wrote it down

Journaling is a strategy that has helped successful people achieve greatness. It has helped brilliant and powerful people become much better at what they do. Susan Sontag, Oscar Wilde, John Quincy Adams and Ralph Waldo Emmerson are just a few of the greats who have credited expressive writing as their way to purge their minds of agitation.

Anne Frank made her first entry into her famous diary on June 12, 1942. As if speaking to the diary in the beginning she wrote, “I hope you’ll be a great source of comfort and support.” Anne and her family were forced into hiding 24 days after that first entry, into the cramped attic behind her father’s business in Amsterdam. It was there they would spend the next two years. Anne did not write in her journal everyday, she only wrote when she was confused, dealing with a problem or upset. She used that diary as a form of therapy, so as not to overburden her family with her concerns. Her most insightful line regarding journaling came on a particularly difficult day when she wrote, “Paper has more patience than people.”

A more modern day example of the power of journaling came in 2018 when Shia LaBeouf stood trial for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and obstruction. It came to light that LaBeouf’s anger and rage resulted from a traumatic upbringing resulting in PTSD. As a way of treating the victim rather than punishing the crime, the judge ordered a court-mandated journaling on his childhood trauma. LaBeouf commented how journaling became his therapy, “It was part of sussing out my past, flashlight to your soul, trying to get to know myself, like a shedding of skin in a way.”

The science: Why journaling works

According to a study conducted by Harvard Business School (2) participants who journaled at the end of the day had a 25% increase in grades and an increased ability to complete tasks when compared with a control group who did not journal. Researchers concluded, “Our results reveal reflection to be a powerful mechanism behind learning, confirming the words of American philosopher John Dewey: ‘We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.’”

Many argue that once an individual has accumulated experience, the benefit of accumulating additional experience is not as beneficial as attempting to learn from the past experience. It is believed that attempting to learn from accumulated experience generates higher performance outcomes than accumulating further experience. Researchers state that when individuals are given feedback on their prior performance, they experience a higher self-efficacy and perform better in the future as a result. (3) Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in their capacity to execute behaviors necessary to complete tasks. When people experience self-efficacy in an activity, they devote more time and energy to it because they truly believe their efforts will translate into success. Self-efficacy is a proven essential motive to learn.

Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that reflective writing reduces intrusive thoughts about negative events and improves working memory. These improvements free up our cognitive resources for other mental activities, including our ability to cope more effectively with stress. (7)

Start unraveling your truth

“One of the more effective acts of self-care is also, happily, one of the cheapest,” as Hayley Phelan of the New York Times wrote of starting her journaling practice at a time when, “I was in a place where I would have tried anything to feel better.” (8) There are no rules of how or what you should write. It is meant to be your own personal space to write down your feelings and express yourself. Spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure should be of no concern. You should write freely without fear of judgment and keep in mind there is no wrong or right method. Regardless of when and how you do it, expressive writing through journaling can be a powerful way to process different emotions, stress and trauma. Above all else, journaling provides a method for identifying what we need and who we are, so invest in a notebook and take care of your mental health.