A Journaling Habit

Dr. Brett HowardMental Health

As I start listing recommendations and ideas to incorporate into a new client’s treatment plan, I usually get some sort of non-verbal cue that they and I are on the same page. That is until I get to the part where I say that I want them to start journaling on a regular basis. At this point the client’s eyes widen, our discussion grinds to a halt, and the previous run of approving nods has transformed into a dead stare. The resulting silence lasts just long enough for me to feel a tremendous amount of empathy for middle-school English teachers everywhere.

The truth is, I don’t blame you. I also didn’t journal for pretty much my entire adult life, and it didn’t stop me from recommending it as a practice to my clients [insert embarrassment emoji here]. Therapeutic hypocrisy at its worse (if that is in fact a thing).

But I do now, and I’m kicking myself for not following my own advice. Journaling has now become a truly valued habit of mine, and I have witnessed many of the tremendous benefits journaling has to offer first hand.

Science!

When I say “journaling” I am not strictly referring to the acquisition of a rustic, leather-bound notebook into which you pour your deepest and darkest secrets. More precisely, I am talking about “expressive writing” which is about processing and externalizing your thoughts and emotions…and you don’t have to keep it in a leather notebook. In fact, you don’t have to keep your writing at all.

As the theory goes, our brains are kept busy constantly processing the abundance of thoughts, memories, images and emotions that are swimming through our mind. Many of these mental “bits” contain negative feelings, hurtful pictures, and harmful ideas. The more of these damaging bits that you have, the worse their collective effect on your mood, anxiety, and stress levels.

The “processing” of these mental bits might be similar to stringing them together in a variety of related and purposeful ways to find the best fit. If they are strung together to form a meaningful narrative, they are more likely to be linked to the concepts, values and stories you already have. The more thoroughly and efficiently they are linked and integrated, the more easily they can be “held” in your mind. You know how the best way to learn something is to teach another person about it? Pretty much the same concept.

So it doesn’t matter if your journaling is in a fancy Moleskine or on a Post-It note, just the act of spending time with your thoughts and actively selecting an order to put them in can be enough to gain mental health benefits from writing.

You said there were benefits?

Yes. And according to Susan Borkin in The Healing Power of Writing there are several:

  • confronting and regulating emotion
  • cognitive processing
  • personal empowerment
  • efficient use of therapy session times
  • self-development

With other research connecting expressive writing to lower blood pressure, greater pain management, working memory improvements and higher stress tolerance.

Getting Started with Journaling

Step 1: get something to write with
Step 2: get something to write on
Step 3: use any of the hundreds of techniques out there to write out your thoughts and emotions
– write out a dialogue between you and somebody you are angry at
– re-write the ending to a reoccurring nightmare so that you win (this time)
– give that jack-a$$ boss of yours a piece of your mind (and then reply to his email with one your HR Director would approve of)
– write a letter to somebody you miss
– weigh the pros & cons of an important decision
Step 4: keep what you wrote OR throw it away…it doesn’t matter…most of the benefits have been probably already acquired.Man sitting at his work desk about to make a note in his notepad