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 Is Journaling?
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.
Benefits of Journaling
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:
1. Improves Mindfulness to Reduce Stress
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.
2. Supports a Healthy Immune System
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.
3. Boosts Self-Awareness and Helps Identify Negative Thoughts Patterns
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.
4. Clarifies Your Purpose and Meaning in life
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.
5. Can Help Improve Your Relationships and Communication Skills
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 to Journal
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:
- Expressive Writing — Write continuously for 20 minutes about your deepest thoughts and emotions. Feel free to touch upon memories of childhood, past relationships, your career or whatever else comes to mind. Try to do this for at least four days in a row at first to begin gaining insight, then at least a couple times a week.
- “Morning Pages” — This is a daily journaling practice that originated in the popular self-help book “The Artist’s Way.” You do this type of writing first thing in the morning by completing three, single-sided, 8.5-x-11 pages of paper with whatever thoughts come to mind, in any order. This should take about 30 minutes or potentially even less the more you do it.
- Bullet Journaling — This type of writing has been described as equal parts day planner, diary, and written meditation. It was created by a designer named Ryder Carroll and is intended to help organize your life. You create sections to log your daily to-do’s, monthly calendar, notes, long-term wants and goals. Entries are tagged with bullet points, dashes and other graphics to help keep you accountable.
- Gratitude Journaling — This method involves writing down things that you are grateful for, ideally every day. You can choose how many to write depending on your level of commitment, such as five to 10 things daily. It’s best to switch up the things you jot down and write in detail, which helps it to be more impactful. To stay consistent, choose a time of day to complete your entries, such as before bed or first thing in the morning.
- Bible Journaling — This type of journaling involves lettering, drawing, painting and crafting to help bring God’s word to life. To start, find a verse that you are familiar with, and then reread the verse multiple times, considering what the words on this page mean to you. Then express the meaning with art and words however you see fit.
Other ways to use a journal include writing:
- angry letters that you don’t intend to send but help you vent
- letters of gratitude that you do intend to share
- to-do lists that describe steps you can take to reach your goals
- lists of meaningful quotes or passages
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