I, like many people, used to think that keeping a journal was an outdated pastime, reserved for pretentious Victorian writers. After two months of daily journaling, I can happily say that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Journaling brings with it a multitude of benefits for your mental health, and can even enhance your physical health.
An accessible activity, anyone can journal. You don’t have to be a granola-munching cross fitter or a literary scholar to write about your emotions. If you can write and have a pen and a piece of paper at your disposal, you can journal.
Helping to process your thoughts
Life, especially in this post-pandemic era, is frenetic and can often leave us feeling overwhelmed, unable to make sense of our thoughts and feelings. Transcribing your emotions into words can help you understand them; cathartically clearing away the fog of uncertainty that you may be experiencing. In his book, Opening Up by Writing it Down, social psychologist James W. Pennebaker explains: “By writing, you put some structure and organisation to those anxious feelings.”
Journaling provides you with a healthy outlet for your stress. Writing freely, without editing, occupies the rational left brain, thereby allowing the creative right brain to operate without inhibition. Writing in a journal acts as a stress drain. This is especially beneficial for creatives who find themselves stymied by mental blocks. If you find yourself unable to make progress on your latest masterpiece, perhaps regular journaling sessions could be the answer to your problems. Before I started journaling, I was prone to suffer from writer’s block. It was common practice for me to ponder over a single sentence for an hour before closing Word and calling it a day. I haven’t suddenly mastered the art of prose writing, but scrawling down my thoughts in a diary has significantly enhanced my productivity.
Journaling forces you to confront trauma
Keeping a journal can even help you to overcome trauma. In Pennebaker’s 1988 research study, he asked 50 healthy students to write about either traumatic experiences or trivial topics for four consecutive days. Six weeks later, the students who wrote about traumatic experiences reported higher levels of overall positivity and fewer illnesses. Writing about traumatic experiences forces us to confront our trauma and to take an active role in overcoming it, similar to how therapy operates. Writing about the same topic each day becomes monotonous so journaling about trauma makes you more inclined to confront it, rather than wallow in your own self-pity. While I’m not propounding that you should cancel your counselling sessions, journaling is a great supplement to therapy. I can also attest to its efficacy; writing about my grief after suffering parental loss has helped me to navigate the trauma.
It was no coincidence that the students who wrote about traumatic experiences reported fewer illnesses. Journaling reduces stress levels, resulting in an increase in t-lymphocyte immune cells and improved sleep. Further research has shown that regular diary writing can palliate asthma and rheumatoid arthritis and can even result in injuries healing at a faster rate.
A journal can be used to cultivate gratitude. In addition to enhancing our experiences, being grateful increases our levels of optimism and encourages prosocial behaviour, an idea supported by the University of Kentucky’s 2012 study on this topic. Gratitude journaling, a current trend within the journaling community, can help us to gain these benefits. This simple yet effective practice involves writing about, or listing, experiences and resources that you are thankful for.
Reddit r/journaling user u/Steampunk_nerd opened up to me about how gratitude journaling has helped them: “I’ve been journaling consistently for about two years now. My life is pretty good overall, however, I’ve always had problems with allowing the negative in my life to override the positive.
“Once the global problems happened, it got worse. I started writing a positivity log where I have to write down at least two things that made me happy each day. Overall, the negative doesn’t seem as bad anymore.”
Starting a journal can be difficult, a counterproductively stressful ordeal for some. After all, a diary doesn’t come equipped with an instruction manual. Try to leave your inner critic at the front cover and remember that there are no rules when it comes to journaling. The best advice I can give you is to start and not look back, except, of course, when you want to read your fabulous entries. As Oscar Wilde once wrote: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
Words by Julius Lawless-Master