Keeping a Journal Can Be Good for Your Emotional Health
Research explains why journaling can make you feel, think, and even act better.
Posted May 04, 2018
Are you feeling sad? Angry? Happy? Excited? Bored? Writing down what’s going on in your life right now can change your mood and even improve your health.
Did you ever keep a diary as a child? Have you ever written a chatty letter to a relative or a friend? Research suggests that both of these activities can have a positive effect on your psyche. Not only can they help you feel better, but recording the small details of your daily life can help you feel more grounded, more connected, and ultimately even improve your memory! Some research even suggests that journaling can increase your physical health. It may boost your immune system, and it can certainly help manage stressful events and experiences, thus decreasing the damage that stress can do to your body. As Julia Cameron writes in her book The Artist’s Way, opening ourselves to this process leads to “gentle but powerful change.”
I have written down my own experiences for as long as I can remember. Letters to my grandmother, a diary, and early efforts at novel-writing all involved chatty sharing of the insignificant details of my life to a real or imagined audience. When I read The Diary of Ann Frank, I was grandiose enough to think that someone might someday look back at what I had written with the same awe and admiration and sadness that I felt when I read about her life. Later, as a psychotherapist, I learned that journaling could be therapeutic and I hoped that her diary-writing provided some solace in a horrific life situation.
I learned early on that writing my ideas out helped me clarify what I was thinking about, whether it had to do with understanding something about myself or finding the best tools for dealing with a client. My colleague Judith Ruskay Rabinor told me that she had been using journaling as a tool for helping some of her eating disorder clients who could not access their feelings in the early days of therapy. In an article called “The Process of Recovery: The use of Journal writing in Treating the Eating Disordered Patient,” she explains that telling your life story can help you develop a clearer sense of yourself and your identity. If you don’t have an opportunity to tell your story to another person, writing it down can also be a powerful tool for such clarification.
Writing your memoirs can help you think about and understand your own history, put your past into context, and make sense of experiences that might not have always made sense to you when you were younger. It can also help your memory. A woman who is taking a memoir-writing course told me recently that she thought she couldn’t remember certain things about her life, but when she began writing about different times in her life, memories began to emerge with unexpected clarity. “I could picture places I had not thought about for years, and as I began to see the pictures in my mind, I also began to remember people and activities…it was kind of amazing,” she said.
Researchers from Harvard University Business School found that writing down small, insignificant facts – even some that seem boring – about your life at a given moment can have a powerful impact later. After asking subjects, who were undergraduate students, to write about a range of current experiences, including things like their most recent social activity, an inside joke, music they had recently listened to, and a Facebook status they had recently posted, the researchers asked the students to rate their level of interest in the things they had written about. On a scale from one to seven, the average level of interest was three. But three months later the students were shown their “time capsules” and asked to rate their level of interest again. This time the interest level was 4.34.
The researchers suggest that their findings show that even insignificant moments from our past have meaning in the future. As I have noted a number of times in other posts, this was the thinking of psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan, who encouraged therapists to conduct what he called a “detailed inquiry” into small, insignificant moments in life, which he believed often contained the most important information about clients in psychotherapy.
Atlantic Magazine blogger Cody Delistraty writes that not only are these written memories part of our identity, but that “relying on the brain’s mechanisms alone can be a fool’s game. Humans have a tendency to misremember and to forget even the recent past. Memories can be swayed by future events, by the memories of others, and the details that seem so certain turn out to be entirely misguided.”
Still, writing isn’t easy for all of us. If you have difficulty getting yourself to take the time to write, here are a few suggestions I have culled from a variety of sites:
1) Don’t worry about saying anything earth shattering or memorable. Simply put down a small detail about something you did or thought or heard or saw that day. The Harvard study found that most people they asked would prefer to watch television over writing for five minutes, and most did not believe that they would be interested in what they had written later. Yet most of those who had written for five minutes found that they were more interested in what they had written three months later than when they wrote it. And most who chose to watch television regretted having done so three months later.
2) Find a regular time to write, and make it a habit. It doesn’t have to happen every day, but you should find some sort of structure. Maybe write for five minutes at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, for example.
3) Keep it manageable. Five minutes three times a week is manageable. Four hours daily is not, unless you’re making your living as a writer.
4) Know that you will probably judge yourself for what you are writing, and remember that you need to stop. After three months of regular journaling, go back and look at the first notes. You might find that you enjoy it so much that you’re inspired to keep going.
5) But even if you don’t like what you’ve written, keep doing it. The extra benefits of mind clearing and self-defining are important enough to keep you motivated, even if you never look at what you wrote again.
Cody Delistraty The Atlantic “The Value of Remembering Ordinary Moments.”https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/the-value-of-remembering-ordinary-moments/384510/
Maud Purcell, LCSW, CEAP, “The Health Benefits of Journaling”https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-health-benefits-of-journaling/
Judith Ruskay Rabinor, PhD, “The Process of Recovery: The use of Journal writing in Treating the Eating Disordered Patient.” In Psychotherapy and Private Practice, Volume 9, No. 1. New York: Haworth Press, 1991.
Ting Zhang, Tami Kim, Alison Wood Brooks, Francesca Gino, Michael I. Norton A “Present” for the Future:The Unexpected Value of Rediscovery. Psychological Science (2014)Volume: 25 issue: 10, page(s): 1851-1860
Harvard Business School, Harvard University