Journal writing may bring back memories of scribbling 'Dear Diary' into a notebook as a kid, but with research uncovering the mental health benefits of journaling, you may want to pick up the exercise again – over-decorated notebook optional.
Journaling is often recommended by psychologists and therapists to help treat those with mental health and emotional disorders like depression, says Dr. Steve Joordens, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. It's a tool commonly used in cognitive behaviour therapy, which helps people become aware of their mental and emotional state and how to control it through different strategies.
"Sometimes in therapy we ask depressed people to journal but they're not allowed to write about anything negative, they can only write about positive things that happen, how it made them feel, and that's a way to get them to attack the negative bias and make them think about the positive things more," Joordens said.
"This sort of therapy to help somebody that's having extreme issues would just as easily help all of us."
If you introduce a positive bias, journaling with a positive and motivated mindset, you create positive affirmations, Joordens said.
"There used to be these computer programs and every now and then it would throw out something like 'You are fantastic,' where you would try and say it to yourself, but that feels so artificial," he said. "Whereas journaling about the good things that happen in your life feels more real."
It's one of the many reasons behind the creation of The Five Minute Journal by Alex Ikonn and UJ Ramdas. Created in 2013 and ushered into the spotlight by author and public speaker Tim Ferris, it condenses long writing practices into five questions centred around gratitude and reflection, in which the person writes for a few minutes first thing in the morning and last thing right before bed.
"The Five Minute Journal is the toothbrush for your mind," said Ikonn in an introductory video to the journal.
"All these things prime your brain to see life in a more positive way, most importantly because with that you can then create the reality you want. As you write these things, these lines become your thoughts and these thoughts generate into your external reality."
Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has written several research papers and books on the ways writing, specifically expressive writing, can help heal and improve one's mental and physical health.
In the 2016 book, Opening Up by Writing it Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain (Third Edition), Pennebaker and co-author Joshua M. Smith summarized a study where groups of students were split into two groups, one assigned to write about their deepest thoughts, emotions and traumas, and the other to write on superficial topics. Blood was drawn from the participants before and after the study, which led researchers to find that those who wrote about their traumas and emotions had "enhanced immune function" compared to those who wrote about superficial topics.
"All these things prime your brain to see life in a more positive way, most importantly because with that you can then create the reality you want."
Journaling also improves speech and memory, something Dr. Joordens has seen personally, with a mother-in-law who Joordens estimates has kept a daily journal for more than 35 years.
"If you end every day by literally going through and thinking about the events of the day and journaling them you are going through what I would call structured practice of retrieval...That's going to do two things: One, whatever you write about you will subsequently remember better, reinforcing the details of those events, but on the more general level you're exercising those cognitive processes that we use to retrieve information from memory," he said.
"My mother-in-law has done this every day; she has books and books and books. As an 80-year-old-plus... my mother-in-law is cognitively sharp, she's just there, no memory issues whatsoever and I think that's one of the benefits."
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