By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
Many of us enjoy seeing progress. Whether it is progress in projects, progress in physical stamina, or even progress in our jobs, progress is clear information that we are obviously doing something right. What about your mental health ? Are you able to easily track the progress you make towards mental wealth? Many people struggle to see changes in their mental health. Changes happen over time, not instantly.
Journaling is such a powerful tool. Over the last couple of posts, we have discovered how mental health journaling is a skill that plays many roles. In today’s post, I want to talk more about one of those roles: tracking our progress and identifying patterns.
Throughout my blog, I have made note of the importance of setting weekly goals. Just like we talked the post, Depression and All That Jazz, goals assist us in getting motivated to create change in our life, release the feel-good neurotransmitters to help us improve our self-esteem and allow our brain to have structure to reduce symptoms of anxiety. What’s really cool about journaling is that it helps accomplish all three. Let me explain more.
With journaling, you are slowly writing down things that have happened in your day–to-day life. Depending on the style of journaling you use, you are activating your prefrontal cortex to pull all sorts of memories of the day from your hippocampus. As we actively engage in reflection, we’re giving our brain a second chance to release some of those feel-good neurotransmitters. When we do this, we are providing that darn amygdala with evidence to either validate our experience from the day, or to use that information to grow and react in a different way in the future.
Tracking our mental health with journaling doesn’t stop just at the daily reflection. Journaling offers our brain a dopamine release every time we go back and read through it. How does it do that? I’m happy you asked! Let’s use the example of gratitude journaling for a minute. When you consistently practice gratitude journaling, you are creating a list of things that you can use as a resource in the future. For example, let’s say you are just having “one of those days.” One of those days when nothing goes right, nothing is working the way it should, and you knew it was going to be a bad day from the moment you opened your eyes. When you read back through your gratitude journal, you are priming your brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine. Remember what happens when we release dopamine? You got it! Those stress neurotransmitters, adrenaline and norepinephrine, are slowly put to rest. This means our stress levels decrease the more we reflect on our gratitudes.
Now, let’s say you use journaling prompts like Journaling with a Purpose! use. You are still tracking your mental health as it is giving you crucial information on healthy coping skills and the times that you have used them effectively. As we reflect on how you answered those guided journaling prompts, your hippocampus and hypothalamus start to pull the memory in which you used that coping skill. What does that do? It helps your prefrontal cortex create a new pathway to talk to that darn amygdala and remind it to stop being a drama queen. This same tracking also helps our brain rewire itself as we are reusing the information you have learned. Practice (there I go again, sneaking in that dirty little word) is what is needed for your brain to learn a new way to react.
This reflection and tracking help us with our mental health in another way: identifying patterns in our behaviors. If we use a journaling style, like bullet journaling, it can help us clearly outline certain behaviors, feelings, or even situations that trigger us to react in a certain way. As we are able to recognize these patterns, we are able to help that tournament the and prefrontal cortex to look at what healthy coping skills we need to use. Learn more about these coping skills in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Why it Works or in Distress Tolerance and how Wise Mind Helps us Accept What is Going on) to help create a change that makes life easier for us.
When we identify patterns in our behaviors or actions, it supplies our brain with some pretty crucial information. For our prefrontal cortex, it helps us identify things we are able to control and change. In our hippocampus, it helps connect the emotion with the memory that we will experience in the future. For the hypothalamus, it can communicate with the prefrontal cortex on identifying how to respond to strong emotions. Lastly, the information used in identifying patterns allows that danrn amygdala to slow its butt down and take a que from of the rest of the limbic system.
The other benefit to identifying patterns is an unfortunate but crucial one. Identifying patterns can help us improve our mental health by changing behaviors in our control and can show us if our mental health is backsliding. When we journal, we can look for those little nuances that could predict a relapse to anxious symptoms, debilitating depression, and an overall sense of being out of control. By identifying these patterns, we can have the control in our fingertips to create a positive change so those symptoms do not plague us for nearly as long as they would’ve previously.
Who would have thought that a simple coping skill, like journaling, could provide so much more than just an outlet for emotions? Science did! I want to thank you for taking time to read this post and gather more information for your prefrontal cortex to decide if journaling is a coping skill you need to have in your life. Do you want help making journaling part of your life? Come check out Journaling with a Purpose! to learn more about our program designed to do just that.