Is journaling good for mental health?
Transcript: Some of the world’s most celebrated writers have employed the written word to deal with their battles. These writings are often shared with us in the form of beautiful and descriptive storytelling. The bookworm in me is eager to remind you that there is magic in the written word. But don’t just take my word for it. Science too backs this up. Over the last two decades, numerous studies have proven the undeniable therapeutic benefits to writing. And today, we’ll look into how it all started.
My name is Ann Thomas, and you’re here with me on writing to heal. If this is your first time here, hello! We started an episode ago, where we had an introduction to the wondrously positive effects of writing. We talked about journalers and their expensive stationery. We discussed how the low-cost alternative is a simple paper & pen combo. On a more serious note, we spoke about suppressing painful feelings. We explored why we deny ourselves opportunities to process these negative feelings that affect our health. And then we walked into writing to heal. I shared a simple and easily understandable scientific explanation of how our brain works with us in the process of healing when we write.
And here’s a gentle reminder. If you are getting started on journaling for health, please be kind to yourself. Be understanding. If you are working through trauma, please spend sufficient time understanding each week’s takeaway before applying it to your life. Also always reflect. Ask yourself why you feel the way to do. Please write it down. It might seem like a waste of time, ink, paper, effort, but with time, you’ll soon notice that this process helps you gain a better insight into your emotions. There is no time limit to personal growth, so if you feel you need to take a break, that’s perfectly fine too.
Please feel free to contact me anytime with your questions, concerns or suggestions. You can reach me via email email@example.com, and you’ll also find me on Instagram. My handle’s @annmthomas
I hope you enjoy this series, and I wish you every success in your journey through to heal.
In the early 80s, the American social psychologist James Pennebaker, together with his graduate student Sandra Beall started carrying out work and research to test the psychological impact of writing. They first began with a desire to establish similarities between ‘talk therapy’ and ‘journal therapy’. Their findings went to inspire a large body of studies by other researchers.
To date, I still surprise people when I state that writing to heal has positive effects on one’s physical wellbeing. It was a claim which I too, initially found hard to believe. Of course, a little thinking, a little rationalising helps you realise that it makes sense. A healthy mind would lead to a healthier lifestyle, resulting in a healthier physical form. Studies have shown that journaling results in significant benefits for people living with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, arthritis, liver disease and even cancer.
I’m going to back up a little here, and bring you back to Pennebaker and one of his research projects. Here’s what they did. They got several people to write for 15 minutes over four consecutive days about the most traumatising or upsetting experiences of their entire lives. They also got the same number of people to write on everyday topics about their shoes, rooms, etc. What transpired was that the participants who wrote about their upsetting/traumatising events and their feelings linked to these events reported health benefits in their self-reported assessments. The research also showed that they visited health centres less often than they used to.
Further research went onto prove that journaling for health has helped them strengthen their immune system. On the other hand, suppressing negative emotions weakens the immune system. Armed with this conclusion, journaling has been encouraged to be used as a tool by individuals suffering from chronic conditions. In a more recent study conducted in 2013 in New Zealand, we learnt that journaling also speeds up wound healing.
Journaling for Health
Yet one other researcher inspired me to dig deeper into this. Joshua Smyth took Pennebaker’s findings and discovered that on top of strengthening the immune system and protecting our physical bodies from diseases, writing expressively could also help regulate emotions. And that’s what we’ll be exploring a little more on today. We’ll look into people who are overwhelmed by negative emotions and behaviours, and how they can and should use journaling as a tool to manage and even master their feelings.
Which brings us to the question… does this mean every time you have an anxiety attack or are feeling challenged, you need to whip out some paper and jot down your feelings? Nop. Not necessarily so. There is no right or wrong way to journaling for health, but there are different methods you can employ depending on your lifestyle and comfort level. We’ll discuss these methods and explore ways that best meet your needs a little later in this series.
And if you are still viewing writing to heal as being similar to keeping a diary, here are some key differences.
- Writing a diary is a free form of jotting down details of your day and thoughts. There is usually no structure to a diary. You can open your book, perhaps write the date and get started. Writing to heal, on the other hand, should be more organised and directed. You start with a specific prompt or exercise.
- A diary is often a record detail of events and feelings. While this bears a similarity with writing to heal, you also explore the events. You explore your emotions and feelings – either with a professional or alone.
And 3. journaling for health is based around development milestones, which you will identify before you start on your journaling path. A diary rarely has growth milestones. To summarise, writing to heal is like the more purposeful cousin of keeping a diary.
Aside from the physical benefits mentioned earlier, here are some profound emotional benefits when you commit to journaling for health.
Firstly, when you express your internal anxieties on paper, you are venting, therefore making it less likely for worries to take root and fester within you.
Also, if you are wonder if journaling good for mental health, research has proven that when you journal regularly, the area of our brain where it is responsible for controlling the intensity of our emotions reduces. This enables you to calm yourself down and gain more control over strong emotions.
Is journaling good for mental health?
Research has also shown that journaling improves your memory and sharpens comprehension. This is because traumatic events are usually stored as fragments of thoughts, and they can interfere with and influence other memories. However, when we are writing to heal, these fragments develop and become more permanent as a memory which is part of our life’s overall narrative, rather than being bits and pieces of overwhelming thoughts.
Furthermore, experts have agreed that consistent journaling for health helps you excel in overall wellbeing. When you develop emotional intelligence, you develop empathy towards others. As we’ve learnt today, journaling also facilitates physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. This is primarily because you are less likely to apply physical effort to suppress adverse events when you express your feelings regularly through journaling.
And perhaps my most favourite emotional benefit is that journaling helps you up your personal empowerment game. By using your journal honestly and expressively to confront issues which you may have been avoiding or suppressing, you are taking control over your emotions. You face experiences that hurt you or upset you, and when you discover your capacity to handle them, you also attain control over your life.
Now that we’ve understood journaling for health works, join me next week where we started on the tools and structure that define writing to heal.