Whether you’re keeping a journal or writing as a meditation, it’s the same thing. What’s important is you’re having a relationship with your mind - Natalie Goldberg
You might be wondering how writing in a journal can have a significant impact on mental health. After all, it’s just putting some words on a page—how much can that really do for you? It turns out that this simple practice can do a lot, especially for those struggling with mental illness or striving towards more positive mental health.
Journaling requires the application of the analytical, rational left side of the brain; while your left hemisphere is occupied, your right hemisphere (the creative, touchy-feely side) is given the freedom to wander and play (Grothaus, 2015)!
Allowing creativity to flourish and expand can be cathartic and make a big difference in your daily well-being. Journaling/expressive writing has been found to:
Boost your mood/affect;
Enhance your sense of well-being;
Reduce symptoms of depression before an important event (like an exam);
Reduce intrusion and avoidance symptoms post-trauma;
Improve your working memory (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).
Journaling can be especially helpful for those with PTSD or a history of trauma. It is said that writing works to enhance mental health by guiding us towards confronting previously inhibited emotions (reducing the stress from inhibition), helping us process difficult events and compose a coherent narrative about our experiences, and possibly even through repeated exposure to the negative emotions associated with traumatic memories (i.e., “extinction” of these negative emotions; Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).
Even for those without a traumatic experience to work through, we have a good idea of how writing can enhance mental health. Writing invites us to be more aware (and self-aware!) and help us detect sneaky, unhealthy patterns in our thoughts and behaviors. We have more power and agency over our lives and puts things in perspective. Writing also helps us shift from a negative mindset to a more positive one, especially about ourselves (Robinson, 2017).
However, to have a positive impact on mental health, we need to be sure that we have an appropriate method. Simply doing a “brain dump” of words on the page may feel good, but there’s little evidence that it will increase well-being or decrease the symptoms of depression.
Baikie and Wilhelm (2005) offer the following tips to ensure that journaling is constructive:
Write in a private and personalized space that is free from distractions;
Write at least three or four times, and aim for writing consecutively (i.e., at least once each day);
Give yourself some time to reflect after writing;
If you’re writing to overcome trauma, don’t feel obligated to write about a specific traumatic event—journal about what feels right in the moment;
Structure the writing however it feels right to you;
Keep your journal private; it’s for your eyes only—not your spouse, not your family, not your friends, not even your therapist (although you can discuss your experience with your therapist, of course!).
Another good set of guidelines on effective journaling can be found on the Center for Journal Therapy website.
When you journal, remember the simple acronym: WRITE!
W – What do you want to write about? Think about what is going on in your life, your current thoughts and feelings, what you’re striving towards or trying to avoid right now. Give it a name and put it all on paper.
R – Review or reflect on it. Take a few moments to be still, calm your breath, and focus. A little mindfulness or meditation could help in this step. Try to start sentences with “I” statements like “I feel…”, “I want…”, and, “I think…” Also, try to keep them in the present tense, with sentence stems like “Today…”, “Right now…”, or “In this moment…”.
I – Investigate your thoughts and feelings through your writing. Just keep going! If you feel you have run out of things to write or your mind starts to wander, take a moment to re-focus (another opportunity for mindfulness meditation!), read over what you have just written, and continue on.
T – Time yourself to ensure that you write for at least 5 minutes (or whatever your current goal is). Write down your start time and the projected end time based on your goal at the top of your page. Set a timer or alarm to go off when the time period you have set is up.
E – Exit strategically and with introspection. Read what you have written and take a moment to reflect on it. Sum up your takeaway in one or two sentences, starting with statements like “As I read this, I notice…”, “I’m aware of…”, or “I feel…” If you have any action items or steps you would like to take next, write them down now (Adams, n.d.).
Now you have an idea of how to get started with your journal.