By Ana Snyder, M.S., Exercise Physiology; CPT, FNS
Have you ever had so much anxiety that it consumed your every thought? Or perhaps you’ve struggled to understand distressing experiences from your past. We’re fortunate to live in a time with well-researched coping techniques at our disposal. One of the simplest and most effective stress reducers is journaling for mental health.
When you were younger, you may have kept a diary to write your innermost feelings. More often than not, it probably lifted a huge weight off your shoulders because you were able to freely express yourself.
Most people stop keeping a diary as they get older, but the act of writing down your thoughts can help you think clearer at any age. It reduces stress and anxiety and can help you make sense of troubling situations. So choose from among the best fitness journals, or just grab a notebook. Then, pick up your pen and get ready to experience the benefits of journaling.
Expressive writing, the technical term for mental health journaling, can be a very powerful tool. If you feel trapped in your life, it can help you release your frustrations, view yourself more objectively, and begin the healing process. Like anything else, it may not be the answer for everyone. For example, studies have mixed results on participants with more serious mental conditions such as post-traumatic stress or chronic depression. Where some research has shown little improvements in symptoms, others have shown positive results.
Positive results seem to occur because journaling can help you pinpoint the culprits causing your anxiety. When you identify these, you can come up with a solution for your anxiety. Not only will you reduce your stress, but you will also gain more power and purpose in your life.
Aside from its psychological benefits, many studies have also found expressive writing to ease physical ailments. Patients with asthma, migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, and cancer have all found relief through journaling. Initially, as people face their emotions for the first time, they may become more upset, which often raises their blood pressure and heart rate. As time passes and they begin to heal and become more calm, though, these numbers will drop.
Expressive writing has also been shown to increase immune function. One study examined the health differences between people who wrote expressively and those who wrote about trivial things for four days. After checking up on the participants six months later, the researchers found the expressive journalers had fewer doctor visits and better immune function than the other writers. The exact workings of expressive writing are still a mystery, but it seems to increase health by reducing the effects of stress.
Emotional health is often very closely related to physical health. Stress is one of the biggest causes of inflammation in the body and can lead to several diseases. It makes your body think that it’s being threatened and triggers it to put up defense mechanisms. This immune response results in inflammation that occurs when a virus, bacteria, or psychological stressor is present. Unfortunately, if you stay in a chronic state of stress, you will also have chronic inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and cancer have all been linked to inflammation.
Most of the recent studies on journaling have focused on its influence on emotion. For example, it’s been found to reduce the anxieties of test-takers and even help the unemployed cope with their anger to get hired faster. By giving you an outlet to speak your mind, journaling helps you confront your problems head-on, handle future bumps in the road more calmly, and ignore negative self-talk.
To work optimally, expressive writing should be used as a time to truly relax. You can sit in your comfiest chair, shut out the world, and take time for yourself. If used properly, it can be an amazing self-care tool.
Besides taking time to truly rest and focus on yourself, you should also follow these tips to get the most out of your writing. First, you have to set aside a specific time where you can write about a particular challenge or past trauma. Penciling your expressive writing into your daily planner or your to-do list will help you stay consistent. To get the greatest benefit, you should try to write for twenty minutes each day. However, the most important thing is that you remain consistent. If you can only set aside a few minutes, you can still see improvements, as long as you do it every day.
As you write, it’s also very important to be completely honest with yourself. Make sure you are open as you express your thoughts and feelings. Be as descriptive as possible and retrace your emotional response during the event. After you examine your feelings, it’s also important to think about how your feelings continue to impact your life. Are they holding you back in some way? Do they cause you to respond poorly to certain situations? Ideally, the goal of expressive writing is to gain a greater understanding of yourself so that you can heal. It’s very important, then, that you analyze your stressors and don’t just unload your feelings.
The simplest way to gain this understanding is to organize your journaling session into three different parts of equal time. For example, if you spent 15 minutes writing each day, you would spend 5 minutes on each part. The first portion should be spent on the situation that bothered you and the emotions you felt. After you finish, you would read it and note the specific issues that led to your distress. This would lead you to the second part—analyzing those stressors. Finally, you would conclude by writing about what your study revealed.
In general, journaling is a very powerful mental health tool. But can it ever cause harm? According to some studies, yes. If people are not yet ready to confront their emotions, because the trauma happened too recently, they may experience adverse effects. As a result, it’s suggested that people wait about two months before they try expressive writing.
Although timing seems to be an important factor, researchers don’t know who else should or shouldn’t journal. The exact mechanisms behind it are also unclear. However, it’s believed that its greatest benefit is helping people make sense of their trauma. When you don’t understand something, you can become plagued by it. Understanding helps you let go and focus on better things like building friendships and taking care of yourself.
Writing also seems to encourage people to be more comfortable opening up to others about their stressors. Since support from friends and family is one of the most effective ways to heal, journaling may cause a domino effect, opening people up to healthier habits.
From going on mindfulness retreats to using exercise to reduce anxiety, there are countless methods for you to handle stress. Expressive writing is a very attractive option because it’s very cost-effective and can be done almost anywhere. It may not be the best tool for those with mental health disorders, but there is a lot of research on its benefits. Because it allows you to open up about your feelings, it helps you work through and solve your problems.
Did you find value in the ideas expressed in this article? If so, then take it a step further! Download and share the below mental health writing prompts to heal emotional wounds, and use them the next time you write in your journal. Or if you prefer, print out this graphic and stick it to your refrigerator. That’s the #1AND1Way.