“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” – Oscar Wilde
Within my holistic private practice and Let Go & Grow® programs, I have found journaling to be a valuable tool to engage the process and connect the dots to bring awareness to one’s own life experiences. I often prescribe particular methods of journaling and personalized exercises to accelerate the healing process to help my patients heal. Words matter, and writing to heal works- especially when done with intention. I’ve seen journaling ease anxiety, shift the stress response, and alleviate pain in real time. When you allow yourself to express what has been suppressed and repressed- more space within the system becomes readily available. I’ve also seen it assist my patients in achieving personal goals, just by the simple acknowledgment of them, bringing them into reality through a written creation.
If you love to write and already keep a daily journal, you may be surprised to discover that you’re already engaging one of the most reliable, evidence-based therapeutic practices that there is. In this article, we will explore some of the ins, outs and many health benefits of journaling. Let’s Begin!
What is Therapeutic Journaling?
Writing in a journal is an effective, therapeutic tool that is easy to do. It can be a space to open up to new ideas, free write, meditate, celebrate, appreciate, connect the dots and bring clarity to certain life experiences and daily events. Journaling can come in many forms and be a space to simply record your experiences and look at your thoughts and feelings objectively. It is a great tool for personal exploration, introspection, and for helping yourself move through and understand your own experiences on a deeper level.
When done consistently, therapeutic journaling can become even more powerful- as consistency brings momentum to life and requires and strengthens discipline and a dedication to yourself and your growth journey. Taking even three minutes to write in a journal each morning, night or throughout the day can create an ideal routine for you to express and release your experiences onto the page while intentionally choosing to shift perception and focus on what you desire to create.
Even occasional impromptu journaling can be of great benefit. If you’re not currently in the habit of journaling on a regular basis, it can still be valuable to outline your thoughts and feelings in this way. Writing down your thoughts can be like opening up the door to your own heart and allowing yourself to sit with all of it.
Whether you are engaged in a disciplined practice or you spontaneously choose to write, journaling is one of the best ways to process and bring yourself through difficult times. Writing down your fears, feelings and thoughts on a past, present or future experience, when done strategically, can provide clarity and help you determine the best course of action while bringing more grace and ease to the healing process.
The Health Benefits of Journaling
The health benefits of journaling are incredible, and they make a holistic impact, able to influence one’s mind, body, heart and life, from the physical to the psycho-spiritual. Throughout this section, we will talk about some of the many benefits, just to illuminate the power of journaling!
The Physiological Impact of Journaling
Not only can writing in a journal help you to work through issues, it can help people with terminal illness improve their condition as well. This may come as a surprise at first, but James Pennebaker, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin and Joshua Smyth, PhD, of Syracuse University- two leaders spearheading this particular type of research- have proven its efficacy in a number studies.
Dr. Pennebaker, author of Writing to Heal, has seen improved immune function in participants of writing exercises. A lot of stress is reflected physically through decreased immune function and is reflective of unaddressed trauma, “when we translate an experience into language we essentially make the experience graspable.” This allows you to release yourself from the grasp of a traumatic experience. Their findings show that journaling about the intense, conflicting and often painful experiences that terminally ill patients must deal with can help improve immune function, simultaneously easing symptoms and creating space for change.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1999) led by Smyth relayed interesting results on the physical benefits of written therapy as well. In this study, 107 patients with asthma and arthritis were told to write for 20 minutes a day. 71 of them were told to write about stressful experiences, while the others wrote about less emotional situations. The study concluded after four months and revealed that all but one of the patients who had been writing about their stress showed significant improvement. Only 37 of the control patients for both groups showed improvement.
This heavily suggests that the content of your journaling is just as important as the act of journaling itself. Writing about the people, places, things and situations that create a sense of distress, gives you the opportunity to look at, address and work through difficulties in a different, more empowered way.
These two psychiatrists have conducted several, creative studies that have shown the following:
- People who write about stress tend to visit the doctor less.
- People who suppress these emotions tend to have lower immune system functioning.
- Patients suffering from a wide variety of physical ailments can improve their condition by writing.
Since this is a fairly new area of research, there is undoubtedly more to come. The results, so far, are quite promising- very exciting!
The Mental-Emotional Impact of Journaling
Dr. Matthew Lieberman, of the University of California in L.A., is among the psychologists who pioneered the term “the Bridget Jones effect.” The term was devised in memory of the Bridget Jones novels, in which Jones religiously used her diary to help outline her thoughts and feelings. The books show how this can be a useful tool in psychotherapy. The group of psychologists who coined the term have dedicated time and research to studying the effects of journaling on mental-emotional health.
By doing brain scans on study subjects, these researchers identified the way the brain processes emotion differently during the act of writing. The amygdala is a part of our brain that’s responsible for regulating our emotions and determining their intensity and, thus, the way that we respond to them. This area shows similar activity when people are writing about their feelings as it does when people are consciously making an effort to reduce the intensity of their emotions.
In my practice, I call this strategically releasing the charge.
The constant, and likely a beneficial contributing factor to the coining of the term “the Bridget Jones effect,” is that the individual needs to be writing about their feelings. The type of prose involved is irrelevant – they could be journaling, scratching down poetry, or even writing down song lyrics that reflect their current mental state.
The right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is another area that responds to emotional writing. In the original study, 20 participants were asked to do 20 minutes of writing a day. 10 of them wrote about emotionally involved topics; the other 10 wrote about things that didn’t require an emotional investment.
In addition to more controlled activity in the amygdala, the group writing about their emotions showed a ‘damping’ effect that resulted from the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which thus decreased the individual’s emotional response.
- The study observed that writing by hand had significantly more of an impact than writing on a computer.
- The study suggests that describing an emotional situation in an abstract manner may prove more effective than accurately describing the feelings that were felt. This may be counterproductive by causing the individual to relive feelings that they’re trying to overcome. [I personally think there is a better way than both described, see Let Go & Grow]
- The study suggests that men benefit more from this experience than women. Men seemed to have to put more time and effort into expressing their feelings on paper.
Journaling and Personal Growth
Writing doesn’t just help you overcome emotional turmoil. It’s also a great way for a person to enhance their overall liveliness for a number of reasons.
Writing is a fantastic way for a person to bridge the gap into mindfulness. Writing, particularly about emotionally involved topics, allows a person to transcend the immediate response to these emotions and reflect upon them.
This allows individuals to observe, explore and accept feelings as they are and as they come and go, without needing to respond on them. This is, in essence, mindfulness: being aware of yourself and the feelings that arise without risking reflexive irrationality by immediately letting the emotions determine your actions.
A study conducted at the Arkansa State University included forty-seven students using mindfulness sessions with journaling and biofeedback devices to measure the physiological response while participating in the study. As for benefits of the sessions, qualitative analysis of verbal responses revealed that all participants evaluated both journaling and mindfulness as positive experiences. All participants found them enjoyable and helpful for relaxation, peace of mind, better focusing and concentration, getting rid of negative thoughts and for increasing positive thoughts and emotions (Khramtsova, 2010).
Supporting Personal Achievements
Research has suggested that writing about topics that are important to you is a great way to help you actually turn thoughts, ideas, and goals into a reality. Writing tends to remind the brain that whatever you’re writing about is important, which, in turn, keeps the idea fresh and active in your subconscious (Dominican.edu, 2018).
Doing this regularly will help you and your brain recognize opportunities or ideas that are relevant to your intended goals. Naturally, this will make it easier for you to seize these opportunities and bring your own ideas into fruition!
Writing also helps an individual develop the skill of discipline. If you set aside a block of time to write everyday, and do so without fail regardless of how tired or anxious you are, you’ll develop your own sort of routine. This discipline will spill over into other areas of your life and you’ll probably find yourself more willing to dedicate time and energy to things that you might otherwise have discarded.
Even though you’re only communicating with yourself when you’re writing, you’re still building your communication skills. Writing on a regular basis can help a person better express their own thoughts and ideas, which allows them to do so with ease when they’re with other people. This helps to deepen relationships as well.
Writing can help enhance verbal fluidity and allow you to express complicated emotional thoughts that many people have difficulty expressing. When trying to express anger, sadness, or jealousy, many people find themselves quickly overcome by the intensity of the emotion and quickly acting out the feeling of the emotion instead of rationalizing and trying to better understand themselves.
Enhance Creativity and Confidence
A lot of people don’t realize that creativity and confidence can both build on each other, but writing can be one of the best ways for people to experience the synergy between these seemingly unrelated concepts.
The Morning Pages is a technique outlined in The Artist’s Way that was developed to inspire creativity by routine writing. This technique is so powerful and reliable that it’s considered the ideal solution for people who are interested in exploring their creative potential, going so far as indicating that everyone is inherently creative, many just lack an outlet.
The Morning Pages are simple exercise – all you have to do is write every morning, three pages, double sided. It’s a bit of a task to complete this first thing in the morning when you’re new to the experience, but it really helps to clear out a lot of stress and improve mental clarity for the rest of the day. Writing all your thoughts out in the morning, whatever they are, helps set a precedent for the day that allows you to engage in activities without your internal monologue cutting in.
The ability to create is unique to humans in the sense that we can create music, art, sculpture, and many other things through the pure act of our will alone. Seeing the physical manifestations of our own creativity is a great way to inspire a deep level of self-confidence that can’t be shook by mere social conventions or typical insecurities. Creative confidence comes from deep within the psyche, and once it’s activated, it tends to remain.
A study in the Journal of Neuroscience has suggested that writing in a journal can actually improve the speed with which one recovers after a breakup. The study actually goes so far as to suggest that doing anything with the intent of recovering quickly will help to speed up the process.
To figure this out, they gathered a group of people who had been broken up with within the last six months. They applied pressure and heat to subject’s arms to stimulate mild to moderate pain and compared the results to brain scans done when they were shown pictures of their ex-partners. The brain scans showed strong similarities, solidifying the idea of emotional pain.
The first experiment involved giving the subjects a nasal spray. Half of the subjects were told it was an emotional analgesic and would reduce their symptoms of emotional and physical pain. The other half were simply told the truth – that it was a saline spray.
Steven Meyers, professor and associate chair at Roosevelt University, wasn’t directly involved with the research but added some comments.
He believes that writing in a journal is one of the best ways to express these feelings and manage them effectively. “Writing out feelings and thoughts allows people to purge distress from their system, and has been shown to be a powerful intervention,” he says.
Gratitude is a way of looking at what is abundant and good in our lives, despite current situations. A good way to get started with a daily writing practice with a gratitude journal is to do a short meditation to settle your mind and get into stillness. Then you can set a timer for a few minutes, and simply write about what you are grateful for. You can even go further if you want and answer of the question of: why are you grateful for these things? Your warm bed at night, access to clean drinking water, having a roof over your head, etc.
Gratitude is a wonderful habit to practice consistently, and though sometimes we have to work extra hard to find the good in ourselves and in the world around us, there is always something to be grateful for. Here are some gratitude ideas that can help you get started:
- What is one thing that you’re looking forward to?
- What is something about your body or health that you’re grateful for?
- What is something or someone that/who makes you feel safe?
- What artist, author, musician, or public figure are you grateful for?
- What is one of your personality traits that you are grateful for?
- Look around where you are right now. Write about everything you see that you are grateful for.
Studies have indicated that journaling about gratitude can be particularly effective in helping people develop a healthier state of mental health. They showed improved scores on personal attributes like focus, enthusiasm, and motivation, as well as being better able to deal with anxiety and stress (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Not only did they show reduced symptoms of negative mental issues, they also improved in other areas of their life. They became better at exercising, had improved overall energy, and were more willing to embrace opportunities.
Have fun, be creative, be consistent, and remember that there is no wrong way to do this. I hope these ideas can help you start your gratitude practice!
One Page and One Breath at a Time
- Set aside time to write and make sure you are not feeling rushed
- Find somewhere private and relaxing to write
- Don’t worry about grammar when writing
- Consistency is key with your writing
- Go there, express your deepest fears and emotions and release them onto the page
- After journaling, take time to reflect on what you wrote
Journaling Topic Ideas
Some days you may be unsure what to write about. Here are some topics that can help you ease into the flow of journaling:
- Write out your goals
- Set daily, weekly or monthly intentions
- What do you love most about yourself?
- Make a list of what you are grateful for
- Write a letter to someone
- Practice affirmations
- Write about things you want to let go of
Journaling has proven, time and again, to be a very effective tool for helping people overcome emotional problems. The positive results that emerge from writing about emotions has been observed in many clinical studies in many universities across the world, and all studies suggest the same thing: writing has far-reaching benefits on a person’s mental health. One of the best parts is that it is basically free and there are no rules. All you need is a pen and paper to get started.
For more information, support and a tried and true springboard that can help you address the fundamentals and put these principles into practice, you can check out the new Let Go & Grow Mind Body Reset program. We would love to have you in there! This is the exact process I teach my patients and apply in my own life, and have seen time and time again become a catalyst for radiant health, freedom and a life lived true to you.
Emmons, R. & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf.
Dominican.edu. (2018). [online] Available at: https://www.dominican.edu/academics/lae/undergraduate-programs/psych/faculty/assets-gail-matthews/researchsummary2.pdf.
Khramtsova, I. & Glascock, P. (2010). Outcomes of an Integrated Journaling and Mindfulness Program On a Us University Campus. Retreived from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Irina_Khramtsova/publication/278784987.pdf.