Your guide to journaling

What is journaling?

Journaling, a practice that also goes by the name of journal therapy, involves the written word as a means of helping people psychologically. In short, it is a form of reflective writing that anyone with basic literacy skills can take part in to help them deal with the stresses they might feel from daily life, a condition they might be suffering from or even from a situation they have found themselves in. By expressing one's inner thoughts and emotional states in words in a journal, the idea is to allow some of the pent up emotion to be released. Unlike a talking therapy, which necessarily involves a listener, a journal entry is not necessarily meant to be read by anyone else other than the writer. That said, some are shared if the person making the journal feels that is an appropriate thing to do. Journal therapy should not be confused with journaling in computing which is a system for retaining records and preventing data corruption.

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 Where did journaling come from?

People have been recording their thoughts and feelings in the written word for almost as long as writing systems have existed. Certainly, people have been keeping diaries of their emotions in large numbers since the Romantic period, when recording individuals' reactions to their lives was considered to be a standard practice. Bear in mind that a daily diary entry is much more akin to modern journal therapy than, say, a memoir that necessarily involves some backwards-looking reflection. Journaling tries to capture, in words, what people feel in the moment. Modern journal therapy was developed in the 1960s, led by pioneers such as Ira Progoff, who promoted journaling among patients to help promote spiritual and emotional growth. Since then, journal therapy has developed into a self-discovery process championed by social psychologists and psychotherapists such as Kathleen Adams and James Pennebaker. Both are advocates of journal therapy from the standpoint of achieving beneficial mental health outcomes.

Where is journaling used?

Today, journal therapy is used all over the world. However, its pioneers were American psychotherapists and psychologists in the main, and this means that it is probably more used in North America than anywhere else. Certainly, the Center for Journal Therapy – which advocates for this form of therapy in numerous areas - is an American institution based in Colorado. According to that institution, the practice of journal therapy is based on the purposeful and intentional use of the reflective written word in five specific areas. These are the furtherance of beneficial mental, physical, emotional, wellness and spiritual health outcomes. Nowadays, numerous psychologists use journal therapy as a part of their offering to patients. It is rarely the sole therapeutic offering and may be used alongside talking therapies, group discussions and even art therapy. One of the benefits of this therapeutic model is that patients can use it to help them between one-on-one sessions with their therapist.

What's the difference between journaling and keeping a journal?

For some, there is not much difference between journal therapy and writing a diary. However, this very much depends on the sort of diary entries that might be made in a journal. One that simply keeps a record of the day's events but which does not reflect on them would not be considered a form of journaling, for example. For a journal to be therapeutic, it really needs to be purposeful, in other words, a form of reflective writing that is actively engaged with attempting to express one's emotive state, experiences, thoughts and feelings. In some cases, a therapist will prompt what goes into each journal entry with a series of thought-provoking questions, which the journal writer will attempt to answer honestly. In other situations, a journal may be written more freely. It really depends on the context and how good the writer in question feels they are at expressing themselves.

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Why does journaling work?

Like other forms of reflective and creative therapy, such as music therapy or art therapy, the basic idea of journaling is to open up the mind to forms of expression that might otherwise be sealed off. If someone has been internalising their anger, for example, following some event or trauma that happened years ago, then they might seem calm on the surface but could be prone to bursts of temper seemingly at nothing. By using this therapeutic technique to prompt reflection on the emotions a person feels, some of the tension they might be under is theoretically released. Like talking therapies, the basic idea is to express oneself in a non-judgemental arena where trust with oneself can be built. Unlike a talking therapy, however, journal therapy is often a guided solo effort that is largely about helping people to gain insights into themselves by writing down what they might often be too fearful of saying out loud.

What problems with journaling do people encounter?

To answer the question of what problems people encounter with journaling, it's important to note that studies are ongoing with the use of journal therapy. In the main, it should be said that many people gain a great deal from intensive journal therapy and that it helps them in all sorts of ways. That said, like other forms of psychological therapy, there are limitations that some people feel. For example, the practice relies on the ability to write. This is something that rules out some people who do not possess the necessary cognitive ability to put pen to paper. Equally, some people who have attempted this form of therapy to overcome a severe trauma find that writing about it can lead to their symptoms worsening – even if that is only in the short term – rather than getting better. Equally, where people are obsessed or fixated with an event, a situation or an emotional state, writing about it in a journal can sometimes feed their problems rather than help them to overcome them.

Can journaling help with stress?

Journaling is often recommended as a means of helping people to deal with stress, especially if the stress they feel is associated with anxiety. The basic idea is that by writing about what might be causing the stress in the first place, the writer begins to take control of their emotive state, perhaps identifying what might trigger them into feeling stressed out. In turn, this can lead to the development of techniques to avoid such trigger signals, something that leave people feeling more empowered about themselves and, consequently, less likely to feel stressed. For this reason, many psychologists who deal with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder are likely to use journal therapy as a way to better get to know what their patient is thinking and feeling, especially if they are encouraged to share their journal entries. Indeed, helping to lower feelings of stress is also known to have physiological wellness benefits, such as boosting the immune system.

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Does journaling help with alcoholism?

Many recovering alcoholics are encouraged to keep a journal of their journey towards sobriety. Some people use cathartic writing exercises whereby they will spend five or ten minutes writing everything they think and feel about their relationship with alcohol on a given day in an attempt to release them from their current emotional state. Others will write lengthier and more reflective journal entries, often in the format of a publicly available blog, to help them. Both methods are designed to achieve the same outcome. Where alcoholics have used drink in the past as an emotional prop to help them deal with stress or sadness, for example, the basic idea is to use writing as a non-addictive alternative. The method is often found to be particularly beneficial if the recovering alcoholic does not have access to a talking therapy group for whatever reason and needs another activity as a backup.

Can journaling help with memory?

Many people report that journaling helps with their memory function. Indeed, some will make the claim that the practice is good for the all-around cognitive function of the brain, not just the ability to recall things. Crucially, writing something down about yourself is not really an aid to memory in itself. The idea is not to make a record that you can then refer back to, like an appointment in a calendar. Rather, the act of writing, especially reflective writing that is focussed on emotional states, seems to make the brain function in a way that improves its neural connections. In 2012, some students were asked to keep a journal for a period of just 20 minutes over the course of three days. In this study, it was found that the students who took part had a better autobiographical memory of the days in question six months later than those of a sample group.

Which journaling techniques are there?

Psychologists recommend a number of different techniques with journaling. In some cases, a time limit is set whereby the writer tries to pour out as much emotional writing as possible in a rush. The result of this form of journal therapy is thought to be cathartic. In other cases, a therapist may begin a sentence and leave it open-ended. This is designed to prompt the writer into reflecting in certain ways so that they gain a more rounded set of insights into themselves. The dialogue technique involves the writer reflecting on themselves from two standpoints, something that tends to boost empathy or self-compassion. Letter writing consists of writing a letter to anyone – dead or alive – about how they feel. It can be a good way of helping to cope with loss. Finally, some psychologists suggest organising written thoughts into a list format. This makes people think about things from multiple perspectives.

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What is journaling with photographs?

This is another journal therapy technique that asks people to write down their emotional reactions after being exposed to images. Usually, photographs are selected by the therapist and shown to the patient. The therapist will then ask questions about the photos, such as how they make the patient feel or what they meant to them. The idea is to use the images to promote an emotional response which the patient then reflects on. It is sometimes more accessible for people to start writing about themselves by doing so with pictures. In other words, by writing about their reflections on the photos, people who might feel too self-conscious to start writing about themselves directly gain a way into this therapy that otherwise they might feel closed off to them.

What is the best setting for journaling to take place?

When it comes to what is the best setting for journaling, it is very much the choice of the individual. What will suit one person will not necessarily be good for another. Nevertheless, choosing somewhere that is private is important to many people. If you are overlooked when you are writing, then it can prevent you from putting all of your most intimate thoughts into words. Even the possibility of someone reading or commenting on your writing as it is being done is likely to be detrimental to the therapeutic outcomes you are seeking. Choose a time when you can allow your thoughts to roam freely. For this reason, it is often best to write away from distractions, such as the TV or social media. Typing or handwriting your words are equally as good as one another.

Which books on journaling are worth reading?

Written by the aforementioned Kathleen Adams, 'The Way of the Journal: A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing' is considered by many to be something of a classic among self-care & self-help books based on any therapeutic model. It first came out in 1998 and is still widely available. If you are a therapist and looking for something academic that will give you further insights into journaling as a technique, then 'Therapeutic Journal Writing: An Introduction for Professionals' by Kate Thompson is a great place to start. First published in 2020, 'My Therapist Told Me to Journal: A Creative Mental Health Workbook' is an interactive self-help book that focuses on the sort of mental health benefits that are often derived from journal therapy. It was written by Holly Chisholm.

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Journaling in summary

Overall, journaling is a therapeutic method that was first developed to help people deal with their various mental and emotional states without necessarily needing to rely on face-to-face encounters with therapists. Although the method is often used under the supervision of a professional therapist, journal therapy is now just as commonly carried out by people who are seeking self-help. After all, people have been writing down how they feel about themselves and their lives in diaries, novels and autobiographies for years. All that the pioneers of this form have therapy have done is, basically, to formalise the practice so that anyone can do it.

Journal therapy is now seen as a distinct form of therapy, although it shares much in common with both art therapy and music therapy. At its most fundamental, the technique attempts to allow for greater self-expression among participants in the hope that this will lead them to gain more significant insights into themselves, thereby leaving them feeling more empowered about the stresses and emotional states they might be exposed to. Journal therapy is used by numerous different therapists, but those who specialise in it will often have gained a specific qualification, such as a degree in psychology or counselling. Primarily focussed on mental well-being, journaling has been shown - in some studies, at least – to have physiological benefits, including the improved performance of immune systems. Another benefit that is noted cited so frequently is the development of a more spiritual outlook on life alongside the psychologically beneficial outcomes.

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