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What is the psychology behind journaling?

December 16, 2022 12 min read

What is the psychology behind journaling?

The therapeutic benefits of writing about terrible experiences are well established.

In fact, writing down our innermost thoughts and emotions has been shown to lessen the number of sick days we take each year (Sohal, Singh, Dhillon & Gill, 2022).

According to studies, keeping a notebook can teach us to accept rather than condemn our thoughts and feelings, leading to a more positive emotional response to stressful situations (Ford, Lam, John, & Mauss, 2018; Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).

In this article, we'll look at the many ways in which journaling can help your clients, and we'll offer some guidelines and practices for assisting them as they try to put their thoughts and feelings into words.

What are the rules of journaling?

We've included a free PDF of our three stress and burnout prevention exercises if you'd like to try them out before continuing. These scientifically-based drills will provide you and your coworkers the resources you need to handle stress more effectively and strike a better work-life balance.

The Benefits of Journaling for Your Health are Discussed.
Journaling's 5 Unexpected Perks
The Benefits of Journaling for Your Emotional Well-Being
Starting Out - Ideas for Your Journal
Information From PositivePsychology.com
References to the Take-Away Message

The benefits of keeping a journal are many, so why do it?

Keeping a journal is a popular non-pharmaceutical technique for coaching, counseling, and the treatment of mental illness. The two most popular types of journaling used in psychotherapy are:

Imaginative writing

Three or four sessions are required for this method, which focuses more on the client's emotional experience than on events, people, or objects, to reveal the depths of the client's ideas and feelings.
The practice of keeping a gratitude diary is meant to help us appreciate the good things in our lives by reminding us to reflect on those moments when we were truly thankful.
When it comes to maintaining mental health, keeping a journal can be especially beneficial (WebMD.com, 2021).

Anxiety reduction

getting out of a rut of constant self-reflection and ruminating
Raising one's level of consciousness and insight into the world
The Art of Keeping Your Feelings in Check
raising consciousness, Bettering one's physical condition
Even if it's not done every day, journaling can still improve a person's health and self-awareness by letting them reflect on and articulate their experiences and feelings (Tartakovsky, 2022).

woman lying in bed, practicing stress relief challenge with journal

According to studies on the topic of journaling, "participants generally reveal a substantial breadth and depth of emotional trauma" when they put their inner thoughts and feelings down on paper (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005, p. 339).

While writing can be an emotionally taxing exercise, many clients have said they have found it to be an important and helpful part of their journey toward acceptance.

As a matter of fact, client self-reports reveal a wide range of physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits from expressive writing (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005):

decreased arterial pressure
Higher levels of lung and liver health
Patients spend less time in the hospital and feel better as a result.
Enhancement of emotional health
Reduced signs of depression and anxiety
Stress-related doctor visits and job absences are cut down.
Job loss leads to shorter periods of unemployment
Grade point averages that are higher among students

Not only that, but it has been shown that "study participants who consistently brought their attention to areas of their life that made them feel blessed improved their happiness" when keeping a gratitude diary (Fredrickson, 2010, p. 187). The caveat, though, is that. Keeping a gratitude journal may seem like a good idea at first, but after a while, it may start to feel like a chore and drain us of our good spirits. The frequency can be as little as a couple times per week.

Keeping a Journal: The Science Behind It

The constant inclination to accept one's mental experiences has been linked with better mental health, according to studies (Ford et al., 2018, p. 2). Accepting our emotions has been linked to enhanced mental health and therapeutic results such as elevated mood and decreased anxiety, according to a recent review of the literature.

Here's where a journal comes in handy. It can encourage acceptance, and conscious acceptance in particular, which is an important and effective means of becoming unstuck, enabling us to go forward (Forsyth & Eifert, 2016).

Even if the precise psychological processes involved in journaling that provide physical and mental health advantages are not apparent, the following ones may be engaged, to varying degrees (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005):

Purification of the soul
Venting unpleasant emotions is a healthy way to resolve inner problems that have been building up for a long time.
Better mental processing
Putting together reasonable explanations for what has transpired.
Over time, repeated contact
The possibility of a decrease in negative emotions and thoughts after extended and increased exposure to stressful events exists.
Restricting one's emotions
It takes a lot of work to suppress negative feelings, which adds stress to the body and the mind. Facing them head-on could help with information processing and comprehension.
There are pieces of evidence both in favor of and against each hypothesis. Although it's obvious that journaling has positive effects, the underlying mechanisms are still being explored (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Tartakovsky, 2022).

Journaling Has These 5 Unexpected Benefits

journal with a blue pencil that keeps the sheet open and an antique clock

Across many fields and schools of thought, journaling has proven to be an effective therapeutic tool.

Benefiting clients with a wide range of mental health concerns, it is simple to adopt and launch (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Ford et al., 2018):

Anxiety Relief Through Writing

A more positive emotional response to stress and greater acceptance of negative emotions may contribute to journaling's success in treating clients with anxiety (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Ford et al., 2018).

Journaling may be more successful in treating anxiety in women than in men, according to one meta-analysis of research papers, though the practice helps people of both sexes (Sohal et al., 2022).

How to Use a Journal to Treat Depression

Expressive writing and gratitude journals have been shown to be helpful interventions for reducing depressive symptoms in clients undergoing therapy.

Interventions of this type appeared more helpful when they lasted for longer than 30 days, as was the case with anxiety. Even though journaling may not be as effective as treatments for anxiety and PTSD, it still looks to be a useful intervention for these conditions (Sohal et al., 2022).

Writing in a journal to relieve stress

business concept top view journal writing

Writing in a journal has been shown to help in coping and lessen the effect of stressful experiences, which can be useful in warding off burnout and persistent anxiety. Writing in secret about stressful experiences and recording one's thoughts and feelings on paper has been shown to reduce psychological suffering.

Writing down our feelings can help us deal with stress and may even encourage us to seek out social connections. Emotional health and stress resistance are both boosted as a result (WebMD.com, 2021).

Writing in a Journal to Meditate

It's hard to see things clearly when we're stressed out or preoccupied with bad ideas. Keeping a journal can give us the mental separation from our experiences, circumstances, and future goals that we need to gain perspective.

Cognitive defusion, or seeing one's thoughts rather than being caught up in them, may be achieved to the extent that writing in a journal helps us accept our emotions and make the changes we know must be made (Tartakovsky, 2022).

Healing via Writing

Expressive writing in a journal has been shown to be helpful for persons suffering from or overcoming the emotional trauma that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Sohal et al., 2022).

Similarly, a novel method that incorporated journaling and visualization seemed to provide lasting assistance to war veterans (Mims, 2015).

Journaling has been shown to be a helpful and efficient intervention for people in their fight against addiction, as evidenced by other studies.

Keeping a journal has been shown to help women in residential treatment for substance use disorders, according to a study published in 2022. "participants to realize what was great about rehabilitation, to attain significant short-term goals, and to experience a sense of optimism and pleasure in their efforts," as stated in the study's findings (Krentzman, Hoeppner, Hoeppner, & Barnett, 2022, p. 1).

The Benefits of Journaling for Your Emotional Well-Being

The benefits of journaling for relieving stress are well-established, yet when we're really struggling, we're often the last ones to put pen to paper and record our thoughts and feelings.

Closeup of gratitude journal on white table with pen, peonies and cup of tea

It's not always a bed of roses, after all. We are forced to face feelings and ideas we may have been trying to suppress. Indeed, we may experience negative emotions like sadness, anger, guilt, or anxiety right after we put pen to paper. To counter this, journaling has been shown to improve our mental and physical health in the long run (Newman, 2020).

The following suggestions should make the process more manageable for the first-timer (Newman, 2020; WebMD.com, 2021; Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005):

Practitioners of mental health services should follow this advice while working with clients:

Homework, in-between sessions, or even right before or after sessions are all good times to assign free-flowing writing.
Get the client out of the house and to a place where they can relax and concentrate without interruptions.
Make it a point to put pen to paper at least once, preferably four times, per week.
Schedule in 30 minutes, even on a hectic day; use 20 of them to write, and the other 10 to think about what you've written and come up with some original ideas.
Let the client decide on the topic, which could be anything from a terrible experience to a stressful occurrence.
Let them decide on their own format rather than imposing one on their writing.
Make it clear to the customer that their written communications will remain confidential until they specifically request otherwise.
Keep your criticism to a minimum and don't pass judgment on the things they record and share with you.

Direction for the Customer:

Determine when you are most productive when writing in your journal; a defined schedule is useful but being adaptable is okay too.
Get in touch with your emotions first, and take your time identifying them. Next, take note of your internal monologue and any recurring thought patterns that may define you.
Take baby steps. Take a few minutes to jot down your thoughts about anything you like, whether it's the events of the day or something that's been bothering you.
Make something that reflects your feelings and the things you hope to accomplish in life. There is no right or wrong method to go about this, and no rules to follow.
Spelling and punctuation errors aren't going to get you judged, so relax.
Select the medium that best serves your needs. Use a journaling app, a notebook, a computer, or a voice recorder to jot down your thoughts and ideas.
Recognize that you will have upsetting feelings as you write. That's fine with me. If you feel the urge, pause for a bit. This method may not solve all of your issues, but it will teach you valuable lessons about who you are as a person.
We owe it to the patient to lay out the risks and benefits of expressive writing, including the possibility that it can cause temporary pain. If a client is not benefiting from journaling or if the activity is causing them distress, they should be urged to stop (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).

How to Start a Journal: Introduction to Journal Writing Prompts

The following is an adaptation of instructions for expressive writing by Baikie and Wilhelm (2005, p. 338) that might be used with a wide variety of students.

For the next four days, I want you to record your thoughts and feelings regarding the most horrific experience you've ever had or an emotionally significant issue that has profoundly affected you.

Let go as much as you can and write down everything you're feeling and thinking—about yourself and the people closest to you, about your history and future and about who you were and who you want to be. You can talk about the same thing for several days if you like, or switch things up every day.

Don't fret over whether or not your spelling, grammar, or writing style is perfect; your message will remain anonymous. No one is going to read this, so don't worry about being too open and honest.

When clients are either new to journaling or struggle to get started, it might be beneficial to provide them with personalized prompts. Start by addressing at least one of these issues (Tartakovsky, 2022; Newman, 2020):

How do you feel about all the recent changes in your life? And how are you adapting to shifts in your professional, personal, and interpersonal life?
Where do you feel the most worry or doubt? Exactly where is that coming from, and how are you handling it?
Tell me about the three best parts of your day.
Tell me about some of the most meaningful experiences you've had or witnessed with your kids.
Explain what it is that you're scared of and give examples.
In what ways do you take pleasure in your free time?
How would a close friend or family member characterize you?
Describe the ideal day in detail and explain why it would be the finest day ever.
To what extent would your best self respond to a challenging situation?
Just imagine that you woke up tomorrow to a world where your every wish has been granted.

Information From PositivePsychology.com

To further assist therapists in assisting their clients in addressing mental health difficulties, we have compiled a wide variety of journaling tools for their use.

Journaling frequently includes lengthy expressions of appreciation. Check out the helpful resources in our free Gratitude Pack, which you can download and use right away:

Experiencing Awe

Feelings of awe can emerge in reaction to events that appear immense (including landscapes, such as the sea, mountains, and night sky) and can strongly impact our thankfulness. Invite the customer to think back on a time when they were truly amazed and to describe that moment in writing.
Create a more admiring environment for couples.
Keeping the love between partners strong requires constant attention and appreciation. By focusing on the good in the relationship, this activity strengthens the emotional connection between partners.
Some further open-source tools are:

Thankfulness Diary

Help your clients see the blessings in their lives by providing them with this Gratitude Journal worksheet.
Adult's Journal on Building Confidence and Self-Esteem
Take advantage of this form to record your client's relevant daily activities and encourage introspection as a means of increasing their self-awareness.
An Online Journal Devoted to Loving Oneself
The ten exercises in self-care listed below are designed to help the client open up emotionally, feel better, and relax.
More full versions of the following tools are accessible with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, although they are summarized briefly below:

A 40-Day Journaling Exercise for Coping with Loss

One of life's most devastating events is losing someone important to us. Keeping a journal during a time of loss provides an opportunity for introspection and fresh insight.
The 40 days of journaling also give a lasting record of their journey for later reflection.

Strength journaling

Personal strengths can be reinforced and strengthened via attending to them and studying the ways in which one has used them in real, everyday life.
You get seven days worth of writing prompts to reflect on what went well and what qualities might have contributed to the positive outcome.

This collection of 17 validated stress management tools for practitioners can save you hours of research and session preparation time while providing you with more evidence-based techniques to assist people in managing stress. Make use of them to teach others how to see the warning signs of burnout and restore equilibrium to their own lives.

Key Points to Remember

Journaling as a therapeutic intervention has been shown to improve health and well-being on many levels, including increased resiliency and insight into one's emotions.

Clients may initially be hesitant to rehash painful experiences or feelings. However, with reassurance and encouragement that their most intimate thoughts and feelings would be kept confidential, they will gain the self-assurance to record their most private thoughts and feelings and become better equipped to deal with worry and stressful situations.

By giving the client some distance from their negative or self-critical thoughts, journaling might help them realize that their emotions and thoughts do not define them.

By keeping a journal, the client can learn to separate themselves from their thoughts and feelings and view them for what they are: temporary states of being. A client is given the opportunity to step back and recognize their critical or negative thoughts for what they are: thoughts.

With practice, writing can help process emotions–even ones that have been ignored or kept back–and lead to a better understanding of how to proceed.

If your clients are not already doing so, task them with recording how they think and feel in written form through either expressive writing or gratitude journaling. Even if the customer only spends 20 minutes on it three or four times a week, it will have a significant and long-lasting impact.

Get them to write down how they're feeling and give them time to dwell on it so they may learn that it's not the circumstance or the pressures themselves that are to blame for their emotional distress, but rather how they're seeing it.



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