By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
Ah yes, journaling! I interrupt our post series on emotional regulation to bring you journaling. This humble, but effective coping skill is often overlooked, but why? I decided in honor of my new program, Journaling with a Purpose, I should take some time to talk more about the marvelous skill.
How many of you have ever tried to keep a journal? Better question, how many of you cannot shake the image of a tween girl writing her deepest secrets in a notebook and stuffing it between the mattresses (or in the sock drawer, or any other place in her room)? Journaling has gotten a bad rap and suffered a stigma it doesn’t deserve. This post will show you how journaling can be one of the most effective coping skills out there for rewiring the brain.
To start off, I think it would be wise to go over the definition of journaling. According to the Mirriam Webster dictionary, journaling is “the periodical dealing especially with matters of current interest” (Mirriam Webster, 2021). When you break it down, keeping track of things that interest us and/or matter to us is journaling. That grocery list you add to on a daily basis on the counter? That is journaling! Keeping your finances and check? Also journaling. Keeping a detailed account of the plants in your home (thank you Plants and Mental Health: Why They Pair Together)? You got it! These are all examples of daily journaling we do.
How does it work in the brain? What a fantastic question! Journaling our experiences during the day have been clinically proven to:
- Reduce stress levels
- Lower our blood pressure and heart rate
- Help us explore complex situations
- Assist us in maintaining a healthy routine
- Promote our immune system to fight off more illnesses
- Keep our hippocampus and hypothalamus sharp so they can store memories
- Promote the use of other healthy coping skills
- Improve our mental health
That is a lot for one little skill! Journaling is an effective way for that darn amygdala to put what it is experiencing into words. According to a study done by UCLA, when we write down what we are experiencing, that darn amygdala decreases in its activity rate. This also means that it is not triggering the release of the neurotransmitters adrenaline, norepinephrine, and the stress hormone cortisol. What makes us awesome, is that this proves that journaling can effectively decrease our symptoms of the triple F response and lower our anxiety levels!
The brain benefits do not stop there. A study completed by Michigan State University showed that by journaling we increase the control that our prefrontal cortex has on filtering the information the brain is processing. As the prefrontal cortex is doing this, it is releasing the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA. If you recall from my post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, these neurotransmitters, along with small doses of norepinephrine, improve our focus. A nice side effect of this is also improved motivation.
Baylor University conducted a study in 2018 that proved that journaling can also improve the quality of sleep we get, as well as the length of REM sleep. REM sleep is crucial for our brain to help establish new memories, heal the hippocampus, and reset our neurotransmitters. This study also showed that people who regularly journaled were able to fall asleep faster. Why? That darn amygdala had the words on the paper and could slow down the speeding bullet known as anxiety. I don’t know about you, but as someone who struggles with insomnia, this is a game changer!
A lot of these facts cover how journaling helps with anxiety, but what about depression? Don’t worry, I didn’t forget to think about the millions of us (literally millions) struggling with depression. Just like in my post, Depression and all that Jazz, journaling helps us by identifying behavioral habits that could lead to depression. It also helps us set SMART goals, which improves our prefrontal cortex’s ability to motivate the rest of the brain. Journaling has also been effective in helping people struggling with depression to see the full spectrum of what is happening in their life, not just the negative things that fuel the depression. You know what that means? That’s right, it helps us challenge those cognitive distortions that filter out all the good information. When we are able to see those small good things happen, we are able to give our prefrontal cortex the voice it needs to tell that darn amygdala to “shut the hell up!”
Now, how do I journal to reap all of these benefits? I should stress here, there is no right way to do journaling, as everyone responds differently to different skills. With that said, there are definitely things you can do to boost the effectiveness of journaling.
First, try to journal at the same time each day. According to the Arack University of Medical Science, journaling daily at the same time (and in the same place in your home/office), can show significant improvement in anxiety and depressive symptoms in four weeks. Four weeks!
Second, setting at least five minutes aside each day to practice journaling has shown significant changes in how active that darn amygdala is. True story. So for those of you thinking your journaling has to be a nightly novel in excess of 2,000 words in each entry, that just isn’t true. For the sake of our mental health, can we set aside five minutes each day to practice journaling? Umm…yeah!
Thank you guys for taking time to learn more about why journaling is more than just a fad, but a bonafide and legitimate way to reduce your anxiety and depression symptoms. I hope you take the time to incorporate skill this into your routine, and perhaps join me in my new program, Journaling with a Purpose!
- Ballas, Paul, et al (2021). Journaling for Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentID=4552&ContentTypeID=1
- Hasanzadeh P, Fallahi Khoshknab M, Norozi K. Impacts of Journaling on Anxiety and stress in Multiple Sclerosis patients. cmja. 2012; 2 (2) :183-193. Retrieved from Impacts of Journaling on Anxiety and stress in Multiple Sclerosis patients – Complementary Medicine Journal (arakmu.ac.ir)
- Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Journal. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved August 2, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/journal
- Schroeder, Hans, et al (2017). The effect of expressive writing on the error-related negativity among individuals with chronic worry. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/psyp.12990
- Scullen, Michael, et al (2018). The Effects of Bedtime Writing. Retrieved from https://www.baylor.edu/business/kellercenter/doc.php/312126.pdf
- Weingus, Leigh (2019). Struggling With Depression? Here’s How Journaling Can Help. Retrieved from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/how-journaling-can-help-with-depression