13 Dec 2021

As humans, we tend to be creatures of habit that resort to repetitive behaviours in our everyday lives. In some ways, this means that much of what we do is automatic, but it also means that our inner thoughts are often left to our subconscious. Being disconnected from ourselves and our feelings can seem like a minor issue, but in the long run, this disconnection can profoundly affect our mental, social, and even physical health. The simple act of journaling allows us to reconnect with ourselves by giving us the opportunity to construct new meaning out of our experiences so that we can not only improve our Whole Person Health but also lead more fulfilling lives.

The benefits of journaling: Mental health

During a journaling session, the act of writing helps us to be able to identify our emotions more clearly, which in turn allows us to better process and acknowledge traumatic events from our past. In doing so, it paves the way for us to heal from those experiences. Studies have shown that individuals who actively partake in journaling experience a greater decrease in psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and burnout than those who did not1. In fact, this effect was found to be especially prominent in the individuals who started out with a higher baseline level of distress, showing the usefulness of journaling even in severe cases. This is because taking up journaling inherently means that we spend more time and bandwidth processing our emotions rationally, which in turn reduces the frequency of us having negative, intrusive thoughts that cause us distress.

Besides reducing negative thoughts, journaling can also help to reinforce positive emotions that are beneficial for our mental health. One common alternative, for instance, is gratitude journaling. When we express gratitude, our brain releases two hormones - dopamine and serotonin, which are known as the feel-good and happiness hormones respectively. Taking the time to be intentional about positive emotions also concurrently blocks out the negative ones that may be hogging our headspace unknowingly. And when we continue to reinforce positive thinking, we are taking the steps to prioritise our mental wellbeing - which, incidentally, also has positive spillover effects on our relationship satisfaction and social connections.

The benefits of journaling: Social and workplace health

As it turns out, gratitude journaling can affect the way we interact with others and how we work towards our goals. Research has found that participants who felt grateful were often also more patient, resilient and persevering. In specific studies, this increase in willpower meant that they were able to cash in on delayed gratification and the achievement of more rewarding, long-term objectives rather than comparatively short-lived ones2. In other studies, gratitude also proved to be beneficial for the participants’ social and workplace health through its association with prosocial behaviours, such as being more compassionate and willing to offer assistance to others3.

Even if we refer to a more general sense of journaling, just the act of writing down our thoughts can have profound benefits ranging from our brain health to our social health. Writing fundamentally enhances how our brain takes in, process, retain and retrieve information. This, in turn, goes on to promote our attentive focus, boost our long-term memory and provide our brain with the necessary pause for reflection4. In the long run, these benefits have been found to improve our mood and self-confidence due to greater memory and communication skills.

The benefits of journaling: Physical health

The benefits of journaling do not just end with our mental and social health. Our belief of Whole Person Health means that each aspect of health is interdependent and intrinsically tied to the other. In this context, putting our thoughts into words helps to improve our physical health by clearing our minds for a better night’s sleep and for a stronger immune system. According to studies that examined blood tests, participants who journaled about stress and upsetting experiences were found to have higher antibodies - which is a sign of an improved immune system5. In the same vein, research has found that suppressing negative, trauma-related thoughts compromises immune functioning, whereas those who did the opposite by engaging in expressive, self-reflective writing made less frequent trips to the clinic6.

Finding what works for you

As mentioned, journaling can take many forms since it is ultimately a personal practice that differs from person to person. If you are interested in tapping into the potential Whole Person Health benefits that it has to offer, here are 3 main considerations to get you started on finding the right journaling guidelines that will work for you and your schedule.

1. What should I write about?

There are no strict guidelines regarding what should be written. Rather, think of journaling as an opportunity to clear your mind and organise rampant thoughts by letting them flow onto the page. If you find it tough to do so from the get-go, it can help to start by looking up some journaling prompts to get you more comfortable with expressing yourself in your journal.

2. How do I want to express my thoughts?

There are pros and cons for each medium that exists. For instance, experts say that handwriting can be more beneficial for our focus as it increases our brain activity in the motor cortex and induces a meditative state of mind. And while it can also give us a much-needed break away from our digital devices, writing is often much slower and less convenient than typing or dictating. The main takeaway here is to understand what is important to you and to simply go with the medium that appeals most to you.

3. When is a suitable time to journal?

Depending on the direction of the journal, some find it useful to start the day with gratitude and affirmations, while others prefer to end the day reflecting on their thoughts and emotions. Likewise, some people look forward to journaling every day, while others may find it tedious to do so. No matter what it may be, remember that the timing and frequency should fit your personal needs, so feel free to change it as you go along.

Over to you

The good news is that we do not have to be professional writers in order to use it to help ourselves. What makes writing and journaling so great is that it is ultimately accessible to everyone, with no right or wrong way to go about doing so. It helps us to understand the nuances of our thoughts, experiences, and emotions so that we can not only reflect and heal but also flourish. We simply have to ready our journals to begin.

 

 

Sources:

1. Chan, K., & Horneffer, K. (2006). Emotional expression and psychological symptoms: A comparison of writing and drawing.

2. DeSteno, D., Li, Y., Dickens, L., & Lerner, J. (2014). Gratitude: A Tool for Reducing Economic Impatience.

3. Bartlett, M., & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and Prosocial Behavior.

4. Willis, J. (2011). The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning.

5. Newman, K. (2020). How Journaling Can Help You in Hard Times.

6. Hammond, C. (2017). The puzzling way that writing heals the body. BBC.

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