Why is Journaling Therapeutic? (especially around the new year)

Do you remember morning work in elementary school? You’d have to complete vocabulary worksheets, maybe a math review worksheet. My favorite part of morning work was always having to write in a journal. The entries weren’t graded; only checked to see whether they were completed with a modicum of effort. Sometimes there was a topic. Sometimes we could “free write.” This was always my favorite. I think it’s possible that being assigned to jot down my thoughts or feelings or whatever-I-wanted in such an important setting (school) was validating. I was always writing, though. I usually had a few journals or diaries going simultaneously at home. Were they well written? Of course not. (As well written as these entries!) But they contained the content of my eight year old mind and that had inherent restorative value.


Why are we journaling as adults?


There have been numerous studies that suggest journaling over a period of time increases subjective well-being and even physiological benefits. Psychotherapy, at least in its earliest incarnation, is providing the “talking cure.” When you write, you’re getting words out of your body, as you would when you speak. Theoretically, it’s easier to write the truths of your life than to tell another person. You’re alone; nobody has to know. Being uninhibited is relief, both physically and emotionally (Pennebaker, 1997). In fact, long term benefits of journaling include:

improved immune system functioning

lower blood pressure

improved lung function

improved working memory on top of

stress reduction and

mitigation of depressive or PTSD symptoms

(Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).


This may happen for a variety of reasons. One of which is “the development of a coherent narrative” (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005). Our brains like a story with cause and effect, and as long as it’s not wholly self-blaming, it can be helpful. Baikie & Wilhelm (2015) report that especially in navigating trauma or anxiety symptoms, journaling can provide a kind of exposure “therapy” (the more you are exposed to something that’s frightening, the less frightening it becomes). This is true for expressive journaling, but there are lots of kinds of journaling that you can try!

Looking for some inspiration? Types of Journaling:


Expressive


Expressing yourself is talking about "it". (Talking about it, painting about it, dancing about it, cooking about it, and here, writing about it). Write about your day, write about anxiety, write about that thing that happened when you were twelve. Write about your break up. Write about insecurities. Reflect on the positives as well as the negatives. According to some of those studies mentioned earlier, using words like “because” with phrases that make sense before and after it indicates beneficial outcomes (meaning making). Expressive journaling is a time for you to do you. Describe, validate, free associate, laugh, cry, whatever works.


Mindful (sensory & gratitude)


It seems like the public is aware of gratitude journals. Write five things for which you are grateful. Gratitude is linked to mood-boosting. I would assert using a mindfulness journal to note sensations. Using your senses to notice the world around you moves you away from racing thoughts and into the present moment. Exploring your environment in detail can ground you in a time of crisis.


Creative


No matter the content of the writing, journaling in itself is creation which is a place where humans tend to find fulfillment. However, it may be especially fulfilling to use a journal to write or create visual art about your thoughts, feelings, environment, or even fiction. Often themes of our personal lives come out in fictional art. Set yourself up with some writing prompts. Write without judgement.


Dreams


As soon as you wake up. Before they’re lost. It doesn’t matter that you’re half asleep and that they’re disjointed. If you’re in therapy, having some dreams to bring into sessions may be useful. You can begin to notice patterns. Writing your dreams may help you with creative pursuits. Maybe you want to try lucid dreaming. You have to bring your dreams into your awareness first.


Monitoring


There are templates now that allow you to monitor your moods in a written or digital journal. This could be completed in some of those CBT apps we learned about a couple weeks ago. Tracking your moods graphically allows you to see patterns. Writing daily events and thoughts next to the moods that you have tracked is even more helpful as you move to having the ability to modulate your emotions. Conversely, noticing patterns as you track your moods, or even physical symptoms, may help you become more mindful; i.e., “I see this is how I could feel in a few days and I will most likely feel better by the end of the week.” This tracking may make it easier for you to sit with your feelings.


Activity


If you want to start exercising three times per week for twenty minutes, it is often useful to write these things out on paper (or digitally). Somehow, writing this out is almost like a contract with yourself which makes it more likely for you to keep yourself accountable.


Planning


Getting yourself organized can feel pretty good. It may depend on your personality, but even if it doesn’t feel good for you to be organized, it would most likely be beneficial to complete the tasks you need to complete. Write the tasks for the day, for the week, for the months, for the year. Use broad strokes. Give yourself room to make mistakes. Speaking of which...

This is all timely as we are coming up on the New Year. If it’s important to you to make resolutions, journaling could be a great way to both reflect on this nutty little year, where you stand with yourself, maybe some positive reinforcement for your achievements in 2020, and set some light goals for 2021. AND you can keep that journal for 2021. You framed your goals with positive self-statements, and that can carry you through the upcoming year. We’re all fairly aware now that things don’t go as planned, so if you don’t follow through on these goals, you still have a place to express yourself and explore your inherent self worth.




Sources:

Baikie, K., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346. doi:10.1192/apt.11.5.338


Pennebaker, J. (1997). Writing about Emotional Experience as a Therapeutic Process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from http://www.gruberpeplab.com/teaching/psych3131_summer2015/documents/14.2_Pennebaker1997_Writingemotionalexperiences.pdf


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