The Power of Journal Writing

Do you keep a journal? Writing down our thoughts and feelings can improve our health and wellbeing so why not super-charge your journaling practice.

Do you keep a journal? People have shared their thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears with ‘dear diary’ for hundreds of years. Perhaps as long as people have had the skill of writing and access to the materials to do so. From Samuel Pepys to Anne Frank, journals have provided an outlet, not simply for people to record experiences, but to reflect on them, make sense of it and to examine themselves.

Although keeping a journal is already a practice that has stood the test of time, clinical research has been undertaken in recent decades which appears to demonstrate physical, as well as psychological, health benefits to journal writing.  This appears to be as a result of reducing stress and its negative physical impacts through the practice of setting down one’s innermost thoughts and feelings on paper. Journal writing is a powerful way to express our emotions; explore and clarify our thinking; and to learn about ourselves, for example through noticing themes or patterns in our behaviour that we may repeat over time.

Are there any disadvantages to consider in relation to the practice of journal writing? I believe there are three in particular, but addressing them can super-charge your journaling practice to maximise its positive impact.

  1. Privacy

A joke for people who were teenagers before the invention of the internet: back then, a teenager’s greatest fear would be that someone would find their secret journal and spread its contents around the whole school. In 2020, the equivalent disaster would be sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings online and nobody commenting or clicking ‘like’ within 5 minutes.

Journal-writing is a private activity. A journal’s contents are not intended for consumption by another person; part of what makes journal-writing a helpful practice is that a journal provides a safe space in which to freely explore and reflect. If you keep a journal, it is important that you store it in such a way that you feel confident it is safe and secure and can decide if and when you wish to share any of its contents with someone else.

The possibility of someone else reading your journal may be slight, but the theoretical risk to your privacy can have a positive side: taking the time to keep your journal safe and to write in it privately is a way of showing yourself care – of taking your needs, boundaries and growth seriously. Although it may feel old fashioned to write with paper and pen and to take some time, even a small amount, to sit in privacy to write, it is also a way of developing a regular practice of reflection and tending to your own needs. Journal-writing is choosing to give yourself your whole-hearted attention and to show yourself that your needs and experience are worthy of your compassionate interest.

  • Connection

Journaling can provide a powerful outlet for our emotions and our journal may come to feel like a cherished confidant – even a friend. If we write in privacy and safety and let our feelings flow freely, it can be a powerful experience – we can express ourselves with no possibility of a confused, hostile or indifferent response.

What could be the downside of this? If our journal becomes our main outlet for our emotions, we may lessen our need for intimacy and connection with another person, or fail to notice its absence in our lives. There is a profound difference between using our journal to explore, reflect and gain perspective in a way that enriches our life beyond the journal, and it becoming our principle means of expressing ourselves authentically.

What to do? Firstly, notice if you have people in your life that you feel you can share yourself with fully. If this is currently lacking, begin to push yourself to share a little more of yourself with people you like and trust. Maintain your journal practice, but increase the time you spend connecting with your partner, children, other family members and friends – offer them the kind of acceptance and empathic interest that you would like to receive and see how your relationships develop and grow as a result. If you don’t have many (or any) people you like and trust in your life at the moment, gently begin to explore ways you can start to connect with like-minded people or can begin to work through any practical or emotional barriers to developing friendships and relationships.

  • Action

Part of the power of journal-writing results from the release of emotion and consequent benefits on our stress levels. It can be a way to let off steam after a hard day or week; work through a problem to gain clarity; or give free rein to our hopes and dreams. The risk to manage is that, especially for keen journal-writers, the expression and release of emotion in this way can divert us from taking action.

There is huge value in the expression of emotion and increasing our skills as compassionate self-observers. But we super-charge our journaling practice when we use journaling to prompt us to take action in the world. Journaling can be a tool not just to discharge stress but to change our lives for the better. We sell ourselves short if we return regularly to particular themes – perhaps frustrations in a relationship or problems at work – but simply use our journal as a way to vent these feelings so they remain just about tolerable, and we get on with our lives without heeding the message of our emotions.

What to do?

It’s simple: spend a few minutes at the end of each journal writing session reading back on what you’ve written that day. How would you summarise the entry in just a few sentences? Perhaps “I’ve had another difficult phone call with my sister; I feel awful when calls go like this, it shakes up my whole day; I feel like she misunderstands me so much”. Or, “I’m still in shock after the team meeting at work today; I had no idea our group was going to be restructured; I had thought I could relax in a secure job but now I’m terrified of being made redundant”.  

Then identify one action you can take that would assist you with the issue you identify and commit to taking it, by a specified time and date. For the examples above, this could be committing to email your sister the next day to explain how difficult you find phone calls with her and sharing how much this pains you – and asking how she feels about them before suggesting how you might both communicate more happily in future. Or, in the work example, scheduling time to refresh your CV and update your LinkedIn profile so that you can start to take steps to manage the potential impact of restructuring at work. This will help you increase your sense of control of the situation, which should begin to help you calm your most intense and uncomfortable feelings.

So, go on give it a go….