Journaling can improve mental health. The chaos and sunkenness that come with mental health disorders are nearly impossible to interpret and understand on the fly. Unfortunately, when struggling with mental health, we can’t effectively “figure everything out” simply by ruminating for a day or two. Negative thoughts, emotional pain, fears, issues, triggers, and potential solutions can create a complicated web of mental disarray where it’s all too easy to get trapped. That’s where journaling comes in. There is significant scientific literature demonstrating how journaling can improve mental health and unravel the complicated web of mental disarray over time.
Let’s start with depression and anxiety. A study evaluating the impact of daily journaling on individuals with major depressive disorder (clinical depression) found “people diagnosed with MDD in the expressive writing condition showed significant decreases in depression scores” (1).
Similarly, a 12-week study evaluating the impact of daily “positive affect” journaling found, “Journaling was associated with decreased mental distress and increased well-being relative to baseline. Journaling was also associated with less depressive symptoms and anxiety after one month and greater resilience after the first and second month, relative to usual care.” (2).
Both of these studies demonstrate improvement in mental health through expressive journaling, but what is expressive journaling, and how does it differ from the plain old journaling we are used to?
Expressive journaling is deep and meaningful writing about events in your life. It’s important to distinguish this type of deep and meaningful writing with non-expressive journaling, which is more of a “here’s what I did today” kind of writing. For the purpose of improving mental health, plain old non-expressive journaling is not sufficient; instead, you have to focus on meaningful events and dive into your feelings around those meaningful events. Now we know what expressive journaling entails and the benefits it can bring, but how and why does expressive journaling improve mental health?
The key to journaling’s positive impact lies in understanding events in your life, the feelings associated with those events, and planning your life based on your newfound understanding. For example, a friend of mine only realized how unhealthy her relationship was when she was able to journal about it. There was constant subtle emotional abuse she wasn’t aware of until she wrote about the repetitive negative actions of her significant other over time. Only when she went back over her journal entries did she really prove to herself there was a problem. Armed with that understanding, she knew she couldn’t both go on with the relationship and save her mental health at the same time.
Variations of these kinds of realizations are extremely common with expressive journaling and are the key to improving mental health for the long term. It’s also important to realize, expressive journaling is not just about feeling good after letting all your thoughts and feelings out. It’s about understanding how and why you’re feeling the way you are and then doing something about it.
Doing something about it means setting achievable goals. “Achievable” is an important point to call out here. A hallmark of depression is contending with low motivation, which makes overly ambitious goals dangerous. If you set a goal you’re unlikely to achieve, you might be setting yourself up to feel like a failure when the goal is inevitably discarded. With that in mind, setting achievable goals will increase the likelihood of completion and your mental health improving. Goal-setting and journaling go hand-in-hand: journaling uncovers the truth, and goal-setting puts a plan in motion to address that truth.
To conclude, studies have shown the positive effects of expressive journaling on mental health are substantial. Meaningful writing can reduce your anxiety and depression over time. However, journaling is not just about feeling good after letting negative thoughts out of your system. Journaling in a mental health context is largely about the meaningful discovery of actionable truths in your life and the subsequent plan you can set in motion to address these truths.
About the Author: Syed Adel Ali is the founder of Project Camus (https://www.projectcamus.com), an online mental health solution platform geared towards providing easy access to cognitive behavioral therapy tools for everyday use.
If you’re looking for a good online journal and goal-setting platform, Project Camus offers a free mental-health platform with some pretty cool features. Alternatively, if an online solution isn’t your speed, all you need is a notebook and a pencil to get started!
- Krpan, Katherine M et al. “An everyday activity as a treatment for depression: the benefits of expressive writing for people diagnosed with major depressive disorder.” Journal of affective disorders vol. 150,3 (2013): 1148-51. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2013.05.065
- Smyth, Joshua M et al. “Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial.” JMIR mental health vol. 5,4 e11290. 10 Dec. 2018, doi:10.2196/11290
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