“In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent.” — Susan Sontag, essayist, filmmaker and activist
Would you believe that spending a few minutes each day with a pen and paper can be highly beneficial for your mental health?
Journaling, which you might also call keeping a diary, is the practice of regularly recording your thoughts, feelings and life events. It’s a great way to get difficult thoughts and emotions “out of your head” and into a private, judgment-free space. In fact, psychologists have known for many years that journaling can work wonders for mental health.
In one influential paper on the topic, psychologist James Pennebaker found that people who participated in journaling exercises later reported less distress, depression and negative emotions. Amazingly, some people even experienced improvements in their physical health and behavior. In a few studies, people who journaled went on to earn higher grades in school or find a new job more quickly after being laid off from work.
So, how does journaling work in a clinical setting, and how does the exercise translate to mental health benefits? We spoke with therapist Melinda (“Mindy”) Frazee to find out.
Mindy Frazee on Journaling for Mental Health
Mindy Frazee is an outpatient therapist at our Crawfordsville office, where she finds journaling to be an invaluable tool in her work with clients. “It can aid in emotion regulation and increasing awareness. I do a lot of mindfulness-based work with clients, and it can help them become more aware, more present, more tuned-in to what’s happening to them internally instead of reacting to what’s happening externally,” she says.
According to Mindy, journaling can be an effective therapeutic exercise for just about anyone. However, she finds it particularly useful for people who have experienced trauma. In her therapy sessions, Mindy often asks clients to read aloud portions of what they have written in their journals, and then they discuss topics that either person thinks is important.
Mindy says that journaling forces us to confront our thoughts and feelings head-on rather than avoid them. Although this process can be uncomfortable at first, it’s often a crucial step on the journey toward self-discovery or psychological healing:
“When people first come to work with me, especially when they’ve experienced trauma, I compare it to looking down a very long hallway with a lot of doors shut. It’s scary and dark, and we don’t like to go down there. But in my office, we go down there. It’s very disorganized in that area of our minds, and journaling can help us start to organize it. We revisit the traumatic event, we look at it in a safe way, and we make a different sense of it.”
How to Start Your Own Journaling Routine
Keeping a journal is one of the easiest things you can do to improve your mental health. All you need to do is pick up a pen and start writing. You can write about anything you want, from the events of your day to something that has made you happy, sad, excited or nervous. If you keep up the routine long enough, you’ll start to know yourself better and work your way through problems that once seemed too difficult to approach.
Your journaling exercise will be most effective if you can make it a regular part of your day. “My recommendation is to be very intentional about when you’re going to journal,” Mindy says. “Sit down and walk through your schedule. When do you have 20 minutes where no one is interrupting you, you’re relaxed, and you’re able to just sit, think and write?”
Here are some other tips and suggestions to consider:
- If at all possible, try to write in your journal every day. Be strict with yourself about maintaining your schedule.
- Write whatever comes to mind. Don’t worry about things like sentence structure, grammar and spelling.
- Don’t censor yourself or worry about what other people might think. Your journal is for your eyes only.
- If you don’t know what to write about, try choosing weekly or monthly themes. Examples could include “joy,” “anger,” “memories” or “aspirations.”
- Instead of keeping a written journal, you could also record audio or video logs. Any format that feels right to you is fine.
Journaling is one of the many client-specific behavioral treatments used by our therapists at Cummins BHS. While journaling is useful in clinical care settings, it can also be practiced outside of therapy for your general mental and emotional well-being.
We hope this post inspires you to start journaling for your own mental health!
For more on wellness and simple exercises for improving mental health, give these other posts a read!