Written by. Kevin Jiang
In his book On Writing, legendary horror novelist Stephen King described the act of writing as “telepathy.” According to King, writing offers the purest distillation of one’s thoughts. I would have to agree (although I’m a little biased).
As a species, we rely on communication to survive. I’d argue the need to speak our minds, to understand and be understood, is ingrained in our DNA. Look to our many millennia of paintings, poems and other arts for proof. And at the crux of everything is language, the act of packaging pure thought into scribbled lines or airborne vibrations. When we receive these signals, we’re able to unpack them in our own minds and hear, almost as clear as when they thought it themselves, the opinions, memories and knowledge of almost any human on this planet, living or dead (given we know their language).
But there’s a catch. Rarely are our minds as clear as we’d like them to be, and our messages often become distorted in our own currents of thought. When we speak, we rarely say what we mean. Our words are muddied with the emotions of the moment.
That isn’t to say writing is a purely unbiased, objective look into our lives. But it comes a great deal closer than speaking. The act of writing allows the time and space to think ideas through to the end. And it requires sustained thought, which acts as a filter for the small, flickering thoughts that threaten to sweep us off topic.
Importantly, written words are as permanent as we want them to be. Unlike spoken thoughts, we are able to look back at our old works and relive the memories and personalities we’ve shed, like trying on old clothes only to realize the cuffs are too short; we have outgrown them.
The Benefits of Journaling
You must be wondering when I’d get to the point. I hope you’ll bear with me, because I believe it’s vitally important to first grasp the value of written communication before delving into what this article is really about: journaling. Hopefully then I can better convince you to pick up the pen yourself.
Journaling is, in a way, self-therapy. If we do it correctly, writing out the events and moods of our days is much like seeing a shrink; both serve to unravel the tangled mess we call our brains, and to hopefully organize its cluttered souvenirs into something that resembles clarity.
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Health Encyclopedia, regular journaling helps manage anxiety, reduce stress and cope with depression. They go on to write how journaling “helps control your symptoms and improve your mood” by allowing us to prioritize our problems, fears and concerns; track day-to-day symptoms and identify potential triggers; and provide an opportunity for positive self-talk while “identifying negative thoughts and behaviours” (1).
This isn’t just us writing this – numerous research studies back up the therapeutic benefits of regular writing.
A 1991 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology compared four days of daily journaling on participants’ lived traumas to four days of psychotherapy. They found that, while those who journaled found fewer improvements in mood than those in therapy, they reported more cognitive, self-esteem and adaptive behaviour changes than people who did neither. The researchers postulate, however, that “with more sessions, written expression might be as effective as psychotherapy.” (2)
Another study, published in 2002 in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, looked closer at the content of the writing. They compared those that wrote on only their emotions concerning a traumatic event to those that described how they processed the event in addition to their emotions (3).
Surprisingly, their results found that those who wrote only on their emotions experienced no positive growth and actually experienced more physical illness during the study. Meanwhile, those that wrote on both the emotional impacts as well as how they processed the event reported greater “positive growth from trauma over time.” From these results, the researchers concluded that simply exploring the emotional impacts of trauma is not enough – one would need to explore their own responses to trauma as well (3).
One last example. In a wholesome turn, a 2003 study into the benefits of practiced gratefulness had young adults record daily things they were grateful for. In comparison to other groups assigned to write on things that annoyed them or reasons they were better off than others, the grateful journal-keepers found greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy (4).
Etcetera. These are just a few examples from the great pool of research concerning the health benefits of journaling. If these have piqued your interest, I highly recommend you read into it yourself – the results are fascinating (I suggest Writing to Heal by Dr. James Pennebaker).
But if you’re anything like me, you might be thinking “Gee, Kevin, that sounds good and all, but how does any of this apply to me?” Well fear not, fellow impatient human, because in this next section we’re covering
Healthy Journaling Techniques
Journaling is like the Force. It can be used for good… or evil.
As evidenced by the studies above, the benefits rely a good deal on the content of our writing. it’s paramount we focus not only on the emotions surrounding an experience, but also on the ways we process and learn from that experience.
In his excellent article for Psychology Today, Dr. Steven Stosny wrote that improper journaling can result in us: living too much in our heads, being reduced to a passive passenger in our lives, making us self-obsessed or allowing us to wallow in negativity. Through this, a journal may become a “vehicle of blame instead of solutions” – falling to the dark side (5).
To prevent this from happening, Stosny suggests a method of interpreting our emotions and our response to these emotions. First, write on a “problem or negative feeling that you believe need expressing.” Then look objectively at what you wrote: would a comfortable person feel the same way? Examine the problem in the context of your deepest values. Finally, think of how you can grow and benefit from the experience. The objective is not to ruminate (though it will be tempting), but to actively seek improvement or solutions to the issue. (5)
Then there’s the importance of practiced gratefulness. It’s critical to see the positives in our own situations. This doesn’t involve comparing our situations to those of others – “You actually have to show appreciation for what you have, for it to have an effect,” reads an article on gratefulness in Psychology Today (6).
So next time you pick up a pen, try writing just one thing you’re grateful for. It can be anything from appreciating the weather on this hot and wonderful Vancouver afternoon; to being grateful we live in a country wealthy enough to afford windows, so we can enjoy the sun from the cool comfort of our own homes. Whatever it is, make sure your appreciation is true. It’s hard, but like all things, it gets easier with practice.
In the end, journaling is what you make of it. There is no formula or structure, you are the master of your pen. Write what makes you happy, write down your worries and woes. Write your greatest joys and most sorrowful defeats. Write it all down, and if you get lost, write until you are found.
Trust me, you won’t regret it.
- Watson, R., MSN, RN, Fraser, M., MSN, RN, & Ballas, P., MD. (n.d.). Journaling for Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentID=4552&ContentTypeID=1
- Donnelly, D. A., & Murray, E. J. (1991). Cognitive and Emotional Changes in Written Essays and Therapy Interviews. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 10(3), 334-350.
- Ullrich, P. M., & Lutgendorf, S. K. (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24(3), 244-250.
- Emmons, R. A., & Mccullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.
- Stosny, S., PhD. (2013, September 06). The Good and the Bad of Journaling. Retrieved June/July, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201309/the-good-and-the-bad-journaling
- Korb, A., PhD. (2012, October/November). The Grateful Brain. Retrieved June/July, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201211/the-grateful-brain