The Positive Benefits of Journaling
When it comes to dealing with the stressors of everyday life that can lead to depression or anxiety, there are multiple tools that therapists implement when working with patients. Journaling is one tool that has been known to have documented benefits and has proven to be extremely useful for people. It can help you identify what you are feeling, get a better grasp on what you are experiencing, and gain a sense of control through the writing process.
Additionally, journaling can help people prioritize their concerns, fears, and problems. It can also help you keep track of symptoms and offer a way for you to isolate triggers. By being aware of the larger issues that stem from your mental health diagnosis, you are better prepared to develop strategies to help you overcome them.
Indra Cidambi, MD, Ph.D. and Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, LMFT, ATR have spoken about the ways they incorporate journaling into their mental health practice. Cidambi is based in New Jersey and has worked with a wide range of clients and completed a fellowship in Addiction Medicine and is board-certified in Gender Psychiatry and Addiction Psychiatry.
Scott-Hudson is a psychotherapist and a registered art therapist in Santa Barbara, California. She has come to use expressive writing and journaling often with clients. Scott-Hudson also runs expressive writing therapy groups for women. Although Cidambi and Scott-Hudson use journaling with clients, they both engage different methods to help people tap into its healing benefits. Unsure about how to get started? Check out these five tips to learn more:
1. Organizing your journaling
Different therapists implement a variety of journaling approaches when working with clients. Some of these include writing prompts, weekly questions, expressive writing, etc. to help you organize it based on your needs and diagnosis. If you’re working with a therapist, find the way that is most effective for you.
When it comes to Cidambi’s practice, one tactic she uses is to break journaling down into four user-friendly categories:
- What Bothers Me? Identify the issue that is bothering you and write it down in one brief sentence, or less. Sometimes it is as easy as recognizing the primary issue at hand.
- How Are You Feeling? Examine your feelings associated with this problem—are you angry, sad, happy, disappointed, guilty or resentful? Write this down in one sentence or less. Also, write down any feelings that come up for you during this process.
- What Action Did You Take? Did you take any action to address the problem? If so, write it down in one sentence or less. If not, also record this.
- What Action(s) Do You Plan To Take? If you didn’t already take action, what do you plan on doing? Jot this action plan down in one sentence or less.
Being able to pinpoint the main issues that are affecting you and trigger your symptoms can help you better manage them. This larger sense of self-awareness that can come from journaling helps people to stay on top of their stress levels, identify stressors, and develop useful coping skills in tandem with regular therapy sessions.
2. Expressive writing
Scott-Hudson uses expressive writing with her clients. This approach helps people tap into different aspects of how people think and process emotions and situations.
“Expressive Writing engages both hemispheres of the brain. This is called bilateralization in psychotherapy. Bilateralization has been studied to be effective in decreasing somatic symptoms of anxiety,” she explained.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can begin expressive writing for creative wellness, Scott-Hudson recommends the following books: "Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg, "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron, and Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird.”
3. Be consistent
Being consistent with your journaling is of the biggest things you can do to help yourself when using this practice. This means having a routine and journaling with the same frequency and around the same time each day.
“The best part about writing a journal during or after every episode of depression or anxiety is that it lets the patient identify a pattern themselves. In the case of anxiety patients are able to become less fearful of their daily life situations as they now can see that they can cope with the worst outcome,” Cidambi said.
In regards to depression, she noted that journaling allows for positive self-talk and may assist you in noticing certain times of the day when you’re likely to feel depressed and the stressors that might have caused it. “Being more aware of patterns and triggers helps patients to have more control of their emotions and avoid situations that act as a trigger,” she said.
4. Keep track of your thoughts
Keeping a log of thoughts and being able to note your triggers is important so that you turn off an anxious loop of negative thinking, which prevents you from going on a downward spiral. “We don’t always react the way we wanted to when a certain situation pops up. But writing this down will help you replay the situation in your mind, gauge how you reacted and/or how you would react the next time you’re in the same situation. What’s important is moving forward,” Cidambi said.
In other words, logging your thoughts will allow you to spot patterns; once you know your patterns, you can learn to cope with them in more productive and healthy ways that support your mental health.
5. Find your voice
Through journaling, Scott-Hudson noted, “I have seen clients find their lost voice. Childhood trauma often robs clients of their own voice. Under a life-threat or a serious trauma, human bodies go into fight, flight, or freeze mode...They cannot find their voice. Expressive Writing Therapy helps them find it.”
Journaling allows you space and time to reflect back on instances where you’ve been stretched thin, stressed out, or have had positive experiences, and it helps you come up with solutions to problems. Doing it under the supervision of a therapist can help you better tailor to your diagnosis and have a plan to help you tackle it, but you can also use journaling by yourself, too. Overall, journaling gives you greater insight into your situation and help you learn to manage the symptoms of your anxiety and depression.
Anni Irish is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in various publications including Salon, Broadly, Vice, Men’s Health, and The Village Voice among others.
Writing to Heal. American Psychological Association website. https://www.apa.org/monitor/jun02/writing