Can Journaling Help My Mental Health?

You might hear the words “personal journal” and immediately conjure an image of an angsty teen sitting in their room, scribbling away in a diary, lamenting about an unrequited crush or a failed test. However, if you're like me and you’ve carried on with the practice of journaling into adulthood, you know that sitting down to write in your journal can provide a much needed moment of clarity. Journaling allows me to organize my thoughts in the good times and can help me release some anxiety in the bad times.  I know that no matter what's going on, nothing helps me more than a few minutes spent laying my thoughts and feelings down on paper. During my own experiences with depression and anxiety, journaling has played a big role in managing my symptoms and helping me stay focused on my goals. That said, my personal positive experience with journaling has always been mixed with uncertainty.  I’ve always questioned if what I'm writing down is worthwhile or if it’s having an impact on my life.

Recently I decided to seek out some answers to my questions. I wanted to answer if journaling is a proven method for managing mental health, and if it can benefit people other than writing nerds like myself? More importantly, what’s the proper way to journal, if there is such a thing? As it turns out, there are answers to these questions, and a lot of research exists showing the efficacy and benefits of journaling.

Over the past several decades, psychologists and researchers have found that journaling can help improve mood, boost cognition, and generally improve both physical and psychological health. For example, a 2004 research study from the University of Cambridge looked at a study the effects of expressive writing that asked participants to write expressively for just 15-20 minutes a day for 3-5 days. That may seem like a rather short time spent writing, after all that's not even 2 hours a week. Yet the researchers found that expressive writing, that is writing about your emotions and thoughts, resulted in both objectively assessed and self reported benefits to physical and mental health. They found that immediate and long-term effects of expressive writing range from reducing stress-related health issues like blood pressure, to improved memory, and even improved GPA.

How Journaling Affects the Brain?

So, journaling can help improve our mental health and even our physical health, but how exactly is that effect achieved? The answer lies in our brains, and in the amygdala to be specific. For those like me who aren’t exactly neuroscientists, the amygdala can best be described as the “fear-processing center” of the brain. It plays an important role in the intensity of our emotions and our behavior. It’s the part of our brain that is the first to process feelings of fear and will then subsequently send “fight or flight” signals to other parts of our brain. Think of how our heart rate and respiration increase when we feel anxiety or fear. The amygdala plays a part in that reaction. Scientists have even found that the amygdala can be activated by fear-stimuli before conscious recognition, meaning the amygdala starts working before we even realize it.

So where does journaling come in? Well, in 2009 psychologists investigated how writing affects the brain and discovered that putting feelings down on paper reduced neural activity in the amygdala, thus reducing feelings of stress or fear, which are often the main contributors to feelings of depression or anxiety. One of the psychologists who conducted the study, Dr. Matthew Leiberman of UCLA, told The Guardian, “Writing seems to help the brain regulate emotion unintentionally”. According to him, doing something as simple as writing down a song lyric that relates to your current feelings or penning a few lines of bad poetry can have a real positive effect on your emotional state.  That’s good news for all of us living in this fast paced world. In the study cited above, participants only wrote for about 20 minutes a day, over only 4 days, which means that keeping a journal doesn't mean you have to set aside another hour out of your schedule. Simply jot down some of your thoughts and feelings, or write down that line from the song you're playing on repeat.

Tips for Effective Journaling

If you’ve never owned a diary or journal before and this article has piqued your interest, check out these three research-backed tips that can help guide your journaling experience. Remember though, everyone will have a style or method all their own, so if these tips don't do the trick for you, fear not. As long as you're taking the time to put your thoughts into words, you're doing something worthwhile.

Tip 1 - Go Oldschool!

As someone who has kept both physical and digital journals I can’t stress this point enough. Find yourself a physical journal, whether it be a fancier moleskin or a simple composition notebook, and write in it by hand. You may be thinking to yourself, “Well can’t I write more and faster on the computer?”. While you may be correct that writing digitally can be faster and more efficient, if you're looking to effectively journal, writing by hand is the way to go. The physical act of writing increases neural activity in the parts of your brain responsible for memory, learning, and critical thinking. It’s also integral to reducing activity in the amygdala and thus reducing feelings of anxiety or fear, so it's key to a beneficial journaling experience.

Tip 2 - Keep it Simple

If you’ve always dreaded writing essays or academic writing of any kind, don't worry, because that's not what journaling is supposed to be. You can forget the format, the grammar, and the proper syntax that your high school English teacher cared about so much. Just start writing and try to let your thoughts flow freely. Don’t let your poor grammar or illegible handwriting discourage you from writing. At the end of the day, your personal journal is for your eyes only and while you may want to share some things with others, as long as you can read it, it’s an A+.

Tip 3 - Make it a Routine

As is the case with any self-care practice, consistency is key. Journaling is no different, and research suggests that journaling is most beneficial to our mental and physical health when we do it consistently. That research also suggests that you only need to journal a few minutes a day to benefit, so starting a journaling routine can be as simple as setting aside 15-20 minutes to write before bed. Keeping it simple and short is the best way to get in the journaling habit. Don’t make it a burdensome chore, but rather look to it as a daily opportunity to let out your feelings and clear out your thoughts.

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