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Journaling

The Proven Benefits of Journaling for Mental Health

journaling-for-mental-health

Wellness has become even more of a hot-button topic in recent years, largely thanks to COVID and all the related masking, social distancing, and quarantining requirements that affected a countless number of people around the world. According to the American Psychiatric Association, remote work arrangements have only made things worse, with the majority of remote workers claiming they’ve experienced isolation, loneliness, and blurred lines between their work and personal life.

Although there are plenty of wellness apps available that can enhance a person’s overall wellness through exercises like meditation, yoga, and the like, you don’t need to go “high tech” to improve your mental health and overall well-being. That’s because journaling for mental health can help people in some significant and lasting ways.

What Is Journaling?

Too often, the mere mention of journaling conjures up images of tweens writing about their feelings of teenage angst, desire for a seemingly unattainable love interest, or observations about everything that’s ironic about their school or classmates. While movies and television shows have portrayed similar scenes for years, journaling is far from an activity that is or should be relegated to young adults working through the oft-complex emotions that accompany growing up.

As it relates to mental health and even your physical health and behavioral health, journaling is an active, involved, and thoughtful approach to managing and ideally improving your overall well-being. Even if you start journaling for mental health exclusively, the benefits of journaling can positively impact nearly every aspect of your life.

For many, journaling is an exercise of self-discovery and increased self-awareness. While journaling typically involves a person writing about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences by hand, many people prefer to maintain a journal online or on their hard drive or smartphone so they can type instead.

In a traditional sense, journaling involves the written word, but writing isn’t the only way to keep a journal or diary. If you’re artistic, you may prefer to express yourself through pictures or sketches. Do you love being in front of the camera or engaging in self-talk? You might want to keep a video or audio journal.

How to Journal

Just like there are several mediums you can use to journal, there are a lot of ways you can go about the exercise. While some journaling practices may be more common or popular than others, you need to remember that there’s no wrong way to journal. If you want to enjoy the benefits of journaling, however, research shows that people must journal regularly for an extended period of time rather than sporadically for a week or so.

If you’re new to journaling, you might be wondering how you can get started. There isn’t a shortage of advice about journaling, but it all starts with choosing the medium you’ll use. Whether you plan to record your thoughts, emotions, aspirations, and experiences using a bound journal, space stored in the “cloud,” or on random bits of paper you’ll stow in a drawer, you’ve made the right choice as long as you’re happy with the medium and it works for you. You can always switch things up down the line.

Advice from Baikie and Wilhelm

Once you’ve chosen your medium, it’ll be time to put pen to paper in either a literal or figurative sense. Research conducted by Professor Kay Wilhelm and Clinical Psychologist and Certified Hakomi Therapist Karen Baikie, PhD. in the field of expressive writing revealed that people who want to adopt a journaling practice that will yield benefits should find a private, personalized space that has no distractions whenever they’re preparing a journal entry.

Here are some additional tips from Wilhelm and Baikie:

  • Prepare a journal entry at least three or four times per week
  • Write without interruption
  • Take time to reflect and recapture your balance after you prepare each entry
  • Structure your entries any way you want as long as they feel right to you at that time
  • Keep your journal private without feeling like you need to share your entries with a loved one or even your therapist
  • If you’re journaling to overcome trauma that was the result of a stressful event, know that you don’t have to write about that experience as you’re free to journal about anything that feels appropriate in the moment, including things unrelated to the traumatic occurrence

Tips from Mental Health America

Established by Clifford Beers back in 1909, Mental Health America is a leading non-profit operating in the U.S. that’s committed to serving people with mental health conditions and promoting the mental health of the populace at large. With such a lofty mission, it’s not surprising that the non-profit has some tips for anyone who’s going to pick up the practice of journaling.

For starters, the MHA advises people who are new to journaling to schedule a time that’s dedicated to the exercise every day. You should consider that daily appointment to be just as crucial as all your other time commitments, and you should prioritize it as such.

Newbies should start with a short time period that’s reserved for journaling so they don’t feel overwhelmed right from the get-go. The MHA advises people to use a timer and to write through the moment the timer goes off and signals the end of the session at least. If you don’t know what to write while your session is in full swing, it’s okay to write sentences like:

  • “I have nothing to say right now.”
  • “This is stupid and an utter waste of time.”
  • “Why am I doing this when I have so many other things to do?”
  • “My dog has started to eat deer poop, which I find distasteful in both literal and figurative contexts.”
  • “I wish I had better handwriting.”

Mental Health America advises people to write freely without worrying about their grammar or spelling. If mistakes are a pet peeve of yours, you can go back and correct them after your journaling session, but you don’t have to. Remember, your journal is for you and no one else, so there’s no need to treat it like a term paper that’s going to be graded by a scrutinizing teacher who’s armed with a dreaded red pen.

Popularized by authors like James Joyce, stream-of-consciousness is a type of narrative that aims to be the equivalent of capturing your thoughts and interior monologue as they relate to your actions. The MHA advises people who are unsure about their feelings to use this form of expression to identify their emotions.

To use stream-of-consciousness, jot down any words or phrases that come to mind. Don’t worry about grammar or making sentences that are complete or even coherent. As you continue to write, a theme will eventually emerge.

Refrain from judging yourself for what you express in your journal. You have the right to feel and think the way you do. By admitting your negative thoughts and owning them, you can work through them and make them as healthy as possible. That transition can’t happen, however, until you recognize your negative thoughts without policing or feeling guilty about them.

Tracking your moods can help journaling be more effective at improving your daily life and addressing mental health issues like anxiety or depression. The MHA suggests that you create a numerical scale to rate your mood daily, with the number one being mild and the number five being severe. Possible moods include happy, sad, overwhelmed, frustrated, and pissed off.

Reviewing your journal entries is important for anyone who wants to get the most out of journaling, according to the MHA. If you’re dealing with a stressful event, you might want to review your entries immediately after you script them or later the same day. People who want to improve their mental health over the long haul are advised to review their entries every three or four months.

Whenever you review your entries, the MHA recommends paying attention to your mood record as much as you focus on your words or images. By zeroing in on your mood from day to day, you may recognize things that trigger a low mood and the ones that elevate your spirits.

Suggestions from the Center for Journal Therapy

Given the name of the organization, it’s not shocking that the Center for Journal Therapy has some recommendations for people who want to do some journal writing. The center uses the acronym WRITE! to help people remember the following suggestions:

  • W: Figure out what you want to write about and get to it. If you don’t know what you want to discuss in an entry, think about your current life events, thoughts, and feelings. Are you working toward a goal or trying to avoid something? No matter what it is, name it and start writing about the “what” that’s on your mind.
  • R: Whether you do it before, during, or after your journaling session, take time to review or reflect on whatever is on your mind. You may want to meditate in this phase so you can focus and regulate your breathing. As you reflect, keep your thoughts in the present tense and use sentences that start with words like “I,” “At this time,” “Right now,” or “Today.”
  • I: According to the Center for Journal Therapy, you should investigate your thoughts and feelings as you prepare your entries. Are there specific stressors that cause you to think or feel certain ways? Do some daily events cause your blood pressure to reach a near fever pitch? If you have no idea why you think or feel a particular way, engage in some meditative self-reflection and then continue writing.
  • T: Like Mental Health America, the Center for Journal Therapy recommends that you time your journaling sessions. The center also suggests that each session be at least five minutes long. Before you start a session, write down your start and end time. Then, use a timer so you’ll know when your session is over. Just because the timer goes off, you don’t have to stop writing if you don’t want to. The timer’s alarm is simply a sign that you met your daily journaling goal in terms of time.
  • E: It’s wise to exit or end each journaling session strategically and with at least a modicum of self-reflection. Review your entry, take it in, and think about it introspectively. Summarize your takeaway in a few sentences and make note of them while they’re fresh in your mind especially if you recognize areas where you can take action to address a mental or physical health problem or improve your daily life.

Types of Journaling

Considering the purpose of journaling for mental health, it’s easy to understand why there are so many types of journaling. While you may start off with one kind of journaling, you’re not sentencing yourself to a lifetime of preparing journal entries the same way. One type of journaling may work today, but another sort may suit your purposes better down the line.

You may find that you’ll try several types of journaling before you settle on the one you prefer right now, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Regardless of the kind of journal you keep, making thoughtful entries on a regular basis still has the potential to pay off big time in some significant and possibly life-changing ways.

Gratitude Journal

Being genuinely grateful for even the little things in life is a time-tested “tool” for achieving all sorts of goals and improving the quality of a person’s life. While it’s possible to cultivate gratitude in other ways, writing about the gratitude you feel is a highly effective way to make the benefits of being grateful a collective reality.

Keeping a gratitude journal can yield impressive results, which can include:

  • Improving your well-being in both the short and long term
  • Inspiring physical exercise
  • Reducing physical pain and symptoms
  • Increasing the length and quality of your sleep
  • Enhancing your optimism, happiness, and overall health
  • Enabling you to reach and surpass your goals
  • Increasing the likelihood that you’ll adopt prosocial behaviors that allow you to increase the size of your network of contacts

Research shows that maintaining a gratitude journal with frequent entries can also reduce the symptoms of depression. The key to keeping those symptoms at bay is to continue writing in your journal as the positive effects of keeping a gratitude journal as they relate to depression may wane if you stop your journaling practice.

If you choose this sort of journal, your goal should be to write down at least three things you’re grateful for every day and explain why you appreciate them so much. You don’t have to win the lottery to be grateful for a given occurrence. Although you might be grateful for something big like earning a promotion at work, you may find that you’re equally appreciative of that warm cup of coffee you got at the local gas station this morning.

Writing about the things you truly appreciate will gradually shift your concentration away from your negative emotions and thoughts and onto the positive aspects of your life. Over time, that shift will allow you to build resilience that will help you soar through trying times that would have negatively influenced your mood, attitude, or behavior on previous occasions.

Guided Journal

Whereas other kinds of journals allow people to freestyle their entries, a guided journal is different in this respect. A guided journal is pre-filled with themes and specific questions that are intended to increase your self-awareness and motivate you to examine certain aspects of your life, mental state, physical health, and day-to-day routine.

Using a guided journal is a great way for people who are new to the exercise to start journaling. When you’re new to journaling, it can be overwhelming to stare at the blank pages you’re supposed to fill with your innermost secrets and private thoughts. Since it’s pre-filled with journal prompts, a guided journal removes any pressure or stress you might feel about the practice.

Here are some additional benefits that might accompany your use of a guided journal:

  • Deeper reflection: This kind of journal may enable you to reflect on mental health issues and other areas of your life by providing prompts that force you to think about things in a way you might not have thought of on your own. For example, if you have an eating disorder, your journal may inspire or challenge you to think about the root cause(s) that drives your behavior rather than serving as a log of the calories or foodstuffs you consume every day.
  • Improved clarity: Given the prompts it includes, a guided journal can help you gain greater clarity about specific issues that are plaguing your mental health and/or wellness. Some of these journals target specific mental health conditions, behaviors, and habits, so you may want to find one that’s directly relevant to your life or a certain goal or problem.
  • Increased Accountability: These journals have a pre-determined timeline that dictates the frequency with which users should add entries, such as daily weekly, or monthly. That timeline increases the sense of urgency for regular journaling, which can help you build consistency and keep you on track to achieve the goals you’ve set for your journaling experience.

Bullet Journal

Oprah Daily describes a bullet journal as a “next-level diary for not only writing but also drawing.” This kind of journal can be difficult to use at first, but once you get the hang of it, the journal can pay you back many times over. A bullet journal is a notebook that includes sections for you to list your to-dos, maintain a monthly or weekly calendar, jot down your thoughts, make note of your goals, and keep track of your physical and mental health.

Using this kind of journal can yield some meaningful benefits, such as:

  • Improved time management
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Kinder self-talk
  • Enhanced coping skills
  • Greater creativity
  • Augmented inspiration and motivation
  • Increased number of accomplished goals

A bullet journal is so successful for many people because it has tools built right into its pages. As far as self-care and mental health are concerned, this type of journal often has positive quotes you can rewrite to help elevate your mood and outlook. One quote that’s popular reads, “You have to know in your heart that no one can outshine you. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?”

Users may also discover lists of things they can do to help them feel better in their journals, such as stretch, take a shower, or listen to new music. You might come across The Stop Method as well. That method instructs people to do the following things when they’re upset or in distress:

  • S: Physically stop what you’re doing and freeze in the space and moment. Take a step back from what you were doing until you feel comfortable resuming the activity or walking away from it altogether for the time being at least.
  • T: Take a deep breath or as many of them as you need. Inhale for five seconds and hold your breath briefly before you slowly exhale over seven seconds. Do this exercise for however long it takes for you to recoup your peace of mind and wellbeing.
  • O: The “O” in “STOP” stands for observe. At this point, you should take stock of the parts of your body that are reacting to any uneasiness you might feel. Name the feelings that are causing your heart to race or your blood pressure to rise palpably. Take note of what’s going on around you and the way you’re responding to any stressors that are present on both physical and mental levels.
  • P: This step requires you to identify what’s in your best interest in the moment and to commit to doing it. Just “doing it” isn’t enough, however. You should proceed ahead with purpose with the goal of immediately improving your circumstances, mental or physical health, or general wellness.

Travel Journal

Although entries in a travel journal may not ultimately be as cathartic as entries in other types of journals, this type of diary can still help improve your physical and mental health. Travel journaling isn’t “just” about keeping a record of the things you eat and the places you visit in a foreign location. The exercise is more about describing how those experiences made you feel, the way they engaged your senses, and how they changed your perspectives.

Your final impression of a destination rests heavily on your experiences and your emotional and physical reactions to them. Sometimes, a location may make such a powerful impression on you that writing about it simply isn’t enough. In instances like that, you can augment your journal entries with pictures, hand-drawn sketches, and mementos from your trip, such as ticket stubs, receipts, or electronic key cards with branded imagery from the hotels where you stayed.

Let’s Roam has app-led scavenger hunts in more than 400 cities scattered throughout the world. During a given city hunt, you may visit cultural epicenters, evolving hotspots, and all points and places in between. And you can document your fun- and adventure-filled experience in a travel journal from Let’s Roam. Pick the city you want to explore now!

City scavenger hunts aren’t the only activities we’ve organized for you to enjoy and document in your travel journal. Let’s Roam has also organized bar crawls, art walks, and ghost hunts in hundreds of cities all over the globe. (If you’re going on a bar crawl and plan to take full advantage of the beverages, you may want to bring your journal with you so you can document your experiences as they occur and before that last martini wipes your memory clean!)

Having a travel journal is known to help reduce anxiety, particularly for people who use their journals to keep track of important information, such as addresses and phone numbers. Travel journaling is also a wonderful way to preserve memories you can revisit when you’re feeling blue or just nostalgic.

Even if you don’t travel often or visit exotic locations, travel journaling can still be a healthy and helpful practice. You can document the camping experience you share with a loved one at a local park or in your backyard, for instance. Think of the memories that will come flooding back when you pick up your journal twenty years from now and read the scary story your then eight-year-old child shared around the campfire two decades earlier during a backyard camping excursion.

How Journal Writing Can Positively Influence Certain Kinds of Mental Illness

Now that we’ve taken a look at the specific benefits certain kinds of journals can produce, it’s time to look at the way journaling, in general, can positively impact a few mental illnesses. The disclaimer here is that the benefits we’ll point out are all possible benefits, not definite or guaranteed outcomes. As we mentioned earlier, the benefits journaling can yield tend to last as long as you keep up with your journal entries. If you stop journaling, the benefits you once enjoyed may lessen or disappear over time.

Depression

Studies show that journaling can be an effective complementary tool used in conjunction with others to manage the symptoms of severe depression. The exercise can also be used as a complementary or stand-alone tool to manage cases of mild depression.

For people with depression, expressive writing can:

  • Reduce depressive symptoms in women having difficulty during the aftermath that follows domestic violence involving an intimate partner
  • Moderate the negative influence intrusive thoughts have on depressive symptoms
  • Lower depression scores in people with a major depressive disorder after just three days of writing for 20 minutes per day

Anxiety

Psychologist Barbara Markway claims that the best way to learn about your thought processes is to write them down. By doing so, you can identify patterns that are problematic and cause anxiety.

If you suffer from anxiety, journaling can:

  • Calm your mind and clear your thoughts
  • Relieve stress
  • Provide an outlet for pent-up feelings like anger and resentment
  • Enhance your understanding of your triggers
  • Make you more self-aware
  • Enable you to monitor your progress with treatment and how you handle the rigors of the day-to-day

Stress

People who suffer from stress can quickly get pushed into the realms of anxiety and depression if their stress goes unchecked for too long. You can prevent that from happening by, you guessed it, journaling.

For people who experience stress daily, journaling has the proven potential to:

  • Decrease the symptoms of an array of health conditions
  • Improve your cognitive function
  • Fortify your immune system
  • Inspire action rather than rumination and inaction

While journaling is highly effective at combatting stress in general, it’s also a smart practice for people grappling with specific sources of stress. Journalizing can help combat localized or periodic stress, too.

Recovery

Whether you’re overcoming an eating disorder, the death of a loved one, or an addiction of some sort, journaling can help in some remarkable ways. As you recover, journaling may:

  • Prevent bouts of negative rumination
  • Provide relief
  • Promote healing and self-forgiveness
  • Reduce the impact of obsessive thought processes
  • Alleviate grief
  • Enable you to maintain your sense of self and identity

Frequently Asked Questions

How does journaling help mental health?

Journaling is fantastic for mental health because it can help you clear your mind. During the moments you’re engaged in the exercise, it gives you something to exclusively focus on.

Why is journaling therapeutic?

Journaling is often advised for mental health. The practice is therapeutic because it enables people to self-reflect and sort through the events and problems that they’re having difficulty with.

What are some positive mental effects of journaling?

Some of the positive mental effects of journaling include decreased stress and anxiety, improved coping skills, reduction in obsessive thoughts, increased confidence, and a greater sense of self.

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