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Does journaling really work?...

If you go into any book shop with a self help section, you will find an abundance of journals for you to buy. It has felt like a trend for the past couple of years with many high profile celebs and wellbeing figures highlighting they journal for their own mental health. I was a journaling skeptic many years ago. How can writing in a notebook make any difference to how I am feeling or the never ending whirling thoughts going around in my head? on because this will tell you how. But if you are in a hurry and in the TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read) camp then basically, provide the right kind of structure and prompts for when you write your thoughts and feeling down and actually makes a difference. For me, it's the process of making jumbled thoughts and whirling ideas a bit more organised and linear. But does journaling really work?...and if you are still with me, how can you make journaling work for you.

When a lot of people hear the word journal or journaling, there may be an image of just a blank page and writing reems and reems, or making a to do list, or imagining a teenage 'Dear Diary' of sorts. There are in fact a whole load of different types and methods of journaling which also includes a heap of variety in topic and content. I’m going to go through a few for you in a second, but firstly...

What is journaling?

Journaling is the practice of regularly writing down your thoughts, feelings, experiences, and reflections. It’s taking a small amount of time each day by yourself to write entries in a book or on paper. It can take various forms and serves multiple purposes, including personal reflection, goal setting and planning, personal growth, creative expression, and gratitude development. Plus, anyone can learn how to write a journal and start at any time. Getting started is the hardest bit but we will get to that a little later on.

Journaling is one of the most powerful and accessible mental wellbeing activities. It doesn’t require any special knowledge and it is incredibly cheap (a piece of paper and a pen). You can do it at any time of day that suits you and it is a private therapeutic method with no fear of judgement because you will be the only the person who will see it. Counsellors, therapists, and psychologists recommend it as a tool to help individuals come to terms with fears, thoughts, and negative feelings but at the same time aid them in appreciating all the good things they have in their life.  

How do you do journaling?

As I said before, there are many different types of journaling and ways to journal. There is...

Gratitude journaling: So this is the practice of writing, listing, expressing but above all reflecting on the things we are grateful for. These can be small things (glimmers as we call them) so seeing a beautiful flower, or having a particularly lovely cup of coffee, all the way to having a home, friends or family or community. It sounds simple but writing about the things we are thankful for can help us cultivate a positive outlook and improve our mental health.

Bullet journaling: This is a popular method for organizing and planning one's day-to-day activities, while also allowing for creative expression and reflection. It’s basically a way of making to do lists, plans, track habits, and tapping into your mental as well as physical wellbeing.  I have seen some gorgeous bullet journals that people have put together and it is something you have to design yourself. It’s more complex and perhaps busy than the nature of other journal methods.

Dream journaling: So this is a way of recording our dreams which can help us better understand our psychological state and gain insights into our subconscious (i.e. what's worrying us, what we are maybe forgetting, if we have recurring themes or dreams, if dreams are more negative or positive and so on). This is quite niche and does appeal to those who may feel dreams can indicate what is happening to them if they are having highly emotional experiences. There is a bit of research in this area that is interesting if this is the kind of journal or topic you would like to include in your entries.

Stream-of-consciousness journaling: This type of journaling involves writing continuously for a set period without stopping or editing, allowing us to tap into our inner thoughts and emotions. With stream-of-consciousness journaling, you write down thoughts as they flow through your mind. Its quick pace may make it difficult for your fingers to keep up, so don’t worry about your handwriting or spelling errors. 

You can start this kind of journal with an intention in mind or just jump in and see where it takes you. The main goal is to get the bulk of your conscious thoughts out so that you can unearth your deeper ideas and perspectives. 

Visual journaling: This method simply uses drawings to tell a story, represent your thoughts or feelings. These can be simple line drawings, storyboards, comic strips, or stylized sketches. This type of journaling is good if you don’t enjoy writing or have difficulty expressing yourself with words. You can also use something like a vision board as well, by finding pictures or imagery as representing your feelings, goals, or thoughts and sticking them onto the pages

Daily journaling: This is journaling every day and can be helpful if you’re going through changes or want to keep track of everyday life. Having a daily journal is a great resource for looking back to see how much you’ve grown. It can also serve as a reference if you feel like life is moving too quickly. This can be a few words, bullet points, paragraphs, pages of writing, but is one you complete everyday by marking achievements, feeling, thoughts and goals.

But, what are the benefits?

How can writing your fears, worries, thoughts, feelings, the positives, the gratititudes and everything in between help us? It helps in

  • Reducing anxiety – we are exploring our fears and worries and seeing it on a page can help us view it in a different way or take its power away.

  • Breaking away from a nonstop cycle of obsessive thinking and brooding – because we have released it, explored it, analysed it and maybe come up with our own conclusions or exhausted its hold on us.

  • Improving the awareness and perception of events – by writing it out, it is allowing a more thorough reflection of events and issues

  • Regulating emotions

  • Encouraging awareness

  • Boosting physical health – this isn’t just about keeping track of movement or exercise, this is about positive mental health and its natural connection to moving more. Happy mind, happy body.

Writing down and having the time to think, whilst releasing it through writing can really make a difference. In addition, you don’t need to do it every single day for it to have an impact or for you to see the results. The positive effects of journaling can even be felt when not performed daily – by doing the journal 3 or 4 times a week it can still help you  better understand your needs and boost your wellbeing.  Research also shows that you need to journal for 30 days to see and feel a big difference (Tartakovsky, 2022).

I'm still a skeptic...what's the evidence?

If you still need a bit of convicing, look at these research findings.

  • One meta-review of research studies suggests that journaling may be a more effective treatment for anxiety in women than men (yet both groups have a positive effect) and that doing so for longer than 30 days may maximize mental wellbeing benefits (Sohal et al., 2022).

  • Studies show that time spent journaling about our deepest thoughts and feelings can reduce the number of sick days we take off work (Sohal, Singh, Dhillon & Gill, 2022).

  • Journaling can help us accept rather than judge our mental experiences, resulting in fewer negative emotions in response to stressors (Ford, Lam, John, & Mauss, 2018; Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005). So we go easier on ourselves and as a result handle situations better. There is an improved acceptance of negative emotions and a more helpful emotional response to stress

  • So in addition to its support in helping us to cope and reduce the impact of stressful events – it helps with potentially avoiding burnout and chronic anxiety. Studies link writing privately about stressful events and capturing thoughts and emotions on paper with decreased mental distress.

  • Journalling in a gratitude diary has shown to reduce depression and anxiety, while increasing optimism among suicidal inpatients. Some researchers argue that gratitude is a low-cost, high-impact mental health tool with protective benefits against suicide.

So that’s a lot of evidence to show how massive an impact journaling can have. Hopefully this might inspire anyone who wasn’t sure about journaling or would like to begin to give it a go. If so here are some useful pointers:

  • Firstly, there is no wrong way of doing a journal – if it works for you, its perfect.

  • You don't have to use pen and paper - you can use your laptop, a journaling app, notes on your phone....there's no strict method for this!

  • Don't fret about the spelling mistakes or how it looks.

  • Be realistic - don't expect to write a novel or pages and pages on your first journal entry

  • Create a routine so journaling becomes a habit

  • A few things to think about when you are journalling is to ask yourself what you want from it (is it a practical tool as well as mental health self care method you want or just a place to write your stream of thoughts?).

  • What will keep you motivated to carry on journalling? How can you make it interesting? Do you need different prompts everyday? Do you want to shake it up by drawing as well as writing? Is it easier to type it out? How are you going to make the process consistent.

  • And the key thing here is that this is for you and you only. Your journal only matters to you.

So if I see you in Waterstones picking up a shiny new journal just know you have a fellow journal writer cheering you on!

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