It’s not uncommon for teenagers to keep diaries that they use for self-reflection and help blowing off some steam. Far fewer adults seem to engage in a regular journaling practice, and research suggests this may be a big missed opportunity.
If you’re looking for ways to boost positivity in your life and relieve stress — perhaps by practicing more gratitude or gaining more self-awareness about your thought patterns — look no further than the power of journaling.
The New York Times described journaling as “one of the more effective acts of self-care,” while also pointing out that it’s happily one of the cheapest. So what’s all the fuss about? How does journaling work to improve your mental health?
Let’s look closer at how keeping a journal can help you to think more clearly, make better decisions, sleep more soundly and much more.
What exactly is meant by “journaling”? As the name implies, the definition of journaling is simply “to write in a journal or diary.”
Some therapists describe journaling as the healthy act of expressing your deepest thoughts and feelings by putting them into words. This allows you to make better sense of your inner life and can therefore be used to support your mental and emotional health.
Research overall suggests that to tap in to writing’s healing potential, it’s important to use journaling as a means of better understanding and learning from past experiences and emotions.
What are the benefits of journaling? According to the latest research, journaling may contribute to you feeling happier overall in some of the following ways:
PositivePsychology.com relates journaling to “having a relationship with your mind.” If you sometimes feel like your “mind is racing” and you’re having a hard time making sense of your feelings, journaling is an excellent tool for gaining clarity, decreasing denial and avoidance, and boosting your well-being.
Clearly identifying how you feel helps reduce stress since it provides some space between your thoughts and reality, similarly to how mindfulness meditation works. You can use a journal to better recognize that every thought you have is not a fact and that your thoughts are always changing and are sometimes unrealistic.
Did you know that suppressing negative, trauma-related thoughts can actually compromise immune functioning by provoking stress?
According to the American Psychological Association, “for years, practitioners have used logs, questionnaires, journals and other writing forms to help people heal from stresses and traumas.” Since a writing practice can help turn down chronic stress, it’s been shown to support a stronger immune system, better sleep, protect against inflammation and certain chronic diseases (like asthma and arthritis), reduce pain, and more.
One researcher also explained to Greater Good Magazine that “expression of emotions concerning stressful or traumatic events can produce measurable effects on human immune responses,” potentially making treatments and vaccines more effective.
Once you become aware of repetitive thoughts that are not doing you any good, you can learn to replace them with more realistic and affirming ones. This helps you cultivate more positivity and self-esteem, which is another way to reduce stress that can exacerbate disease symptoms.
In one 2006 study, young adults who spent 15 minutes journaling per day saw the biggest reductions in symptoms like depression, anxiety and hostility, more so than others who drew or wrote to-do lists. Journaling as a form of emotional expression seemed to be especially helpful for those who reported being distressed before the study and was helpful for people brand new to writing down their feelings.
Some studies have found that keeping a journal can boost one’s ability to learn from mistakes and negative experiences, while also giving more structure to ambiguous, anxious feelings. Journaling has also been shown to be effective in helping people manage symptoms of depression and support those dealing with PTSD by decreasing brooding and rumination, two contributing factors of depressive symptoms.
Writing can be an effective way to organize our experiences into a sequence, allowing us to see causes and effects that help us find meaning. This tends to lead to improved self-confidence, a greater sense of purpose and control, and potentially even a higher IQ and improved memory, according to some studies.
Stuffing down feelings such as anger and disappointment can often lead to troubles in relationships, which is why disclosing them in a journal can be a good strategy for improving your communication skills. By letting go of pent-up feelings, you’re more likely to be patient and understanding when confronting others about issues you’re experiencing.
Gratitude journaling has been shown to make people generally friendlier, more open and more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors, which can enhance and expand their social support networks.
If you feel uncomfortable bringing up deep topics with others, sharing your journal entries is another option for expressing your emotions, which can be a very cathartic and a great way to gain support.
How do you start journaling? There have been lots of different methods put forward by various authors, therapists and self-help gurus. You can also find plenty of writing prompts in books, apps and online to help you begin exploring your experiences and emotions.
Some people prefer to write in a paper journal/book, while others find that keeping a document on the computer is easier. Choose whichever option appeals to you most and helps you stay consistent, whether that means journaling daily, weekly or somewhere in between.
One way make journaling a part of your daily life is to “anchor it” to another habit you already have, such as drinking coffee in the morning or getting into bed at night.
Here are some of the most popular types of journaling practices, each with its own unique twist:
Other ways to use a journal include writing:
The Center for Journal Therapy website recommends keeping the acronym WRITE in mind when journaling:
Here are other tips and prompts from journaling experts:
Why might journaling be bad in some cases? This type of self-help tool seems to work better for some people than others.
For those who have a history of trauma, writing about past events may initially trigger distress and anxiety. Oftentimes this will get easier with practice, but it might be best to begin with help from a therapist if you’re worried about your reaction.
If you find that you’re not getting much benefit from journaling, try trouble-shooting to figure out what’s not working before giving up.
Are you committing to a practice that is too frequent or intense? Are you being very regimented but might enjoy free-form, expressive writing more?
Picking up a journaling book can be helpful if you feel stuck, so explore your options before calling it quits.
The post Benefits of Journaling + How to Start (Tips, Prompts, Methods & More) appeared first on Dr. Axe.