Mind

Why Journaling Is Good For You

To some people, keeping a journal might sound hokey. But experts say it's an effective and accessible form of self care.

By Carina WoudenbergMay 4, 2021 4:00 PM
(Credit: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock)

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After battling anxiety since childhood, author and blogger Christianna Johnson decided to pick up journaling as a way to cope.

“I found refuge in journaling,” the Gautier, Mississippi resident says. “Writing out my thoughts and understanding my feelings through pen and paper medium has done so much for my growth and personal development.”

Johnson credits journaling for allowing her to identify her anxiety and the ways it leads to physical ailments such as racing thoughts, migraines and bad stomach cramps.

She also confronted some personal demons.

“Because of how I spoke to myself and through my journaling, I realized that I didn’t like myself very much at all,” she says. “It’s a difficult thing to be around someone you don’t like. Even harder when that person is yourself.”

Over time, Johnson says she was able to shift her thinking and improve her mental health. Aside from simply chronicling her life, Johnson also penned gratitude lists, affirmations and “future casts” where she would write out a script for her life to follow. She wrote and spoke to herself with the same support she would provide a friend.

“Our brains are designed to focus on what we tell it to focus on,” she says. “It believes whatever story we tell it. By focusing it on good, I find more good in my day-to-day. By telling myself that I believe in myself and my success, then my mind must focus on this story.”

Mark Scholl, associate professor in the counseling department at Wake Forest University, follows a similar philosophy.

He teaches a class at the North Carolina campus called Quantum Change where students undergo a 14-week personal improvement project. Whether the change involves fostering stronger friendships with peers or developing better time management skills, journaling is a key component to the project, Scholl says.

Journaling to Find a Job

“My students use journaling to track their progress and to reflect on strategies that they have found particularly effective for supporting their change efforts,” the professor says. “Most importantly, journaling promotes continual self-reflection which is a boon to incorporating change into students’ emerging adult identities.”

In addition to teaching, Scholl also counsels clients with criminal records who are unemployed or underemployed. He says the journaling process has allowed his clients to track the time and energy they put into their job search and document which strategies are most effective.

“I encourage my clients to use journaling to record their positive and not-so-positive experiences as a form of self-care,” Scholl says. “Journaling can be an effective way to cope with stress during the job search process.”

Given how simple and low-cost journaling is, the benefits can be surprising. Research has shown that the act of jotting down our thoughts improves memory, makes us more mindful, promotes better sleep and even supports our immune system — making this period during the pandemic and vaccine rollout a perfect time to start.

By documenting our hopes, worries and ideas, we can start to see patterns emerge and find productive ways to address the issues, experts say. In the process we're cutting out stress — a known sleep and immune system inhibitor.

“The most striking benefit of journaling is its ability to bring the avoided thoughts, beliefs, and feelings from the background to the foreground,” says Eric Patterson, a counselor who works with patients struggling with a variety of mental health conditions in Western Pennsylvania and writes for the online therapy platform Choosing Therapy. “Once in the foreground, a person can acknowledge the source of stress and decide to take action to resolve. Without journaling, people will continue avoiding and struggling with the effects of built-up stress."

Sometimes journaling isn't always so much about self-reflection, however, but more aimed at keeping organized, productive and avoiding burnout.

Bullet Journal Journey

“Keeping a journal, a log, a planner, heck... even just a couple sticky notes around my desk space is the only way I significantly function now a days,” says Jennifer Ornelas, an electrical hardware design engineer whose work is largely applied to National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other government agency space satellite missions in the United States.

“One would probably jump to the conclusion that such a complicated-sounding job would require someone with their life together in a pretty, perfectly tied bow,” she adds. “However, that is most definitely not the case.”

Ornelas says she was an overachiever in college. Loading up to 19 credits in her final semester and tacking on a couple minors to her already ambitious bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. It was then that she found a good “method to her madness,” that she has carried with her into her professional career.

Among the tools in her tool chest is bullet journaling, a trending technique that combines to-do lists, scheduling reminders, brainstorming sessions and the like into an indexed logbook.  

“Bullet it all in a small, pocket-size notebook you religiously carry around with you like a bible,” Ornelas says.

If you're interested in starting a journal but aren't sure where to start, Scholl recommends first identifying a goal you'd like to achieve and dedicating 20 minutes per day to documenting your thoughts and behaviors surrounding this goal. Scholl also advises journalers to write freely and not let concerns about spelling and grammar interrupt the flow of their thoughts.

“I personally believe that journaling is a powerful therapeutic tool because it is a form of self-expression,” Scholl says. “It is something that individuals can do for themselves with only a pen and notebook.”

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