Journals can serve many purposes.
They can be a personal historical record, something you can look back on throughout the years to remember what happened to you and when. They can be a place to process emotions and discover what exactly you think about a particular person, relationship, event, or situation. They can give you “free” space to be creative, maybe jotting down favorite words, writing a few lines of poetry, or doodling pictures.
At its heart, journaling helps you get to know–and be good friends with–the most important person in your life: you.
Well that sounds self-centered, doesn’t it? Better to spend your time building something or cleaning something! What’s all this naval-gazing for? If your internal grumpy uncle (or aunt) is saying things like this, just ignore them. They would probably be a lot nicer if they did some journaling now and then.
Let’s take a look at some ways journaling can work for you:
First, a note of accommodation. Not everyone enjoys or has the capacity to write with a pen and paper. Don’t let that stop you. You can type your journal entries on an old-fashioned typewriter; you can key them into a computer file or your smartphone; you can record your voice via a tool on your phone or on a voice recorder. You can ask a loved one to help you transfer these recordings to print, if you so desire.
Some Pro-Journaling Evidence
Research shows that writing helps you think. It takes time to figure out how to put your abstract ideas into words, but in the process, you gain clarity. You’re able to see, on paper (or screen), connections between the thoughts you’ve had. Let’s say that you’ve been stuck in an ethical quandary. You know the horrors of the meat industry, but you aren’t ready to give up eating meat. Writing might help you better understand the nuances of the issue and come to some clarity about how you want to respond.
In the same way, writing also helps you feel. When we’re having a strong emotional reaction, positive or negative, we don’t always understand why we’re feeling it so intensely. Writing about what you’re feeling helps you gain some distance from the emotion so you can better respond to it. At the least, you have to “slow down” your feeling process long enough to find words that describe it.
As you write, your emotional intensity may lower enough to help you better understand what triggered the reaction. Maybe seeing a dirty dish in the sink (instead of in the dishwasher where it belongs!) fills you with rage. You’re aware that you’re overreacting, but your anger is so powerful that you want to lash out at the person who left the dish there. Through writing about this anger, you might realize that the dish was just a symbol for how you’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately and that it seems like you can’t count on anyone for help. Having this emotional awareness may not take away the anger, but it may give you the ability to more calmly communicate your needs to your housemates.
It may seem obvious, but writing improves memory. When you write about an event in your life, you’re much more likely to remember it many years later. And if you forget, you can always go back and read your journal! If you’re trying to learn something new, like how an internal combustion engine works, writing down the process will help cement it in your memory. Some studies show that writing by hand has an even greater effect on memory than typing on a keyboard.
Finally (for this blog post, at least), writing makes you happier. Studies show that a particular kind of writing called expressive writing can improve overall emotional well-being. Expressive writing is what journals are made for. When you write expressively, you write in a very detailed, very personal way, focusing on expressing your feelings without worrying about writing conventions like grammar or structure. According to the Harvard Business Review, expressive writing can lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, and increase well-being. It “can result in a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression; improve our sleep and performance; and bring us greater focus and clarity.”
A Note of Caution
If you’re struggling with a mental health issue, don’t rely on journaling alone to heal yourself. A mental health diagnosis requires a holistic approach with therapy and perhaps medication being the primary treatments. When that level of support is in place, a tool like journaling can enhance the treatment process and provide a foundation for continued healing after treatment ends.
If you’re struggling with mental health concerns, Raleigh Oaks Behavioral Health can help. Our current focus is on adults with depression, anxiety, or complicated grief issues, but we plan to expand our services to support children, teens, women with complex trauma, and military families. Reach out to our team in Garner, North Carolina, to learn more.