Typically, journaling is thought of in two ways: old people scrapbooking or teen girls doodling hearts in a diary. It is rare that the word “journaling” is associated with someone improving their mental health and assisting with past trauma and mental illness, but that is becoming more and more common every day. As mental health and ways to handle it are becoming more common topics of conversation in everyday life, many people have started opening up about their preferred forms of therapy. One very accessible and often overlooked form of therapy is expressive or reflective writing. As described in a research study, ““Expressive writing-writing about traumatic, stressful, or emotional events-often leads to improvements in physical and psychological health in non-clinical and clinical populations” (Baikie et al. 310). Expressive journaling can help with depression, anxiety, ptsd, and even just a bad day.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US. As someone who struggles with anxiety, I understand how confusing and draining it is. Some days you feel horrible and can’t figure out why, which is where expressive journaling comes in. Sometimes, sitting down and writing about your day, your feelings, your thoughts, can help you to map out your emotions and what is causing them. By laying your mind out onto the table, you can have an easier time pinpointing what is causing the discomfort and figure out a plan to move past it. And if you can’t figure out what is triggering your anxiety, you can at least vent and get all of the bad vibes out of your head. “According to cognitive theories, writing about traumatic or stressful experiences and associated feelings helps to make sense of the event, to organize and to integrate it into self and world schemata, which in turn facilitates the cognitive assimilation of the event.” (Vrielynck et al. 1118). This is also extremely relevant for people with ptsd. By writing about and picking apart stressful and traumatic memories, those thoughts become less daunting and easier to think about and handle.
Another common mental illness is depression. Depression comes in many forms, be it postpartum, manic, bipolar; over 300 million people worldwide are diagnosed. With a large population of undiagnosed people as well, depression affects many more people than is often thought. Luckily, expressive writing has been found to help here, too! Postpartum depression is often overlooked by the public; there are arguments that it isn’t a legitimate form of depression, that it isn’t real, so treatments and therapy are hard to come by. There have been studies that have shown that expressive writing is especially helpful in cases of postpartum depression. “Expressive Writing can be a helpful early and low-cost universal intervention to prevent postpartum distress for women.” (Di Blasio et al., 856). By implementing expressive writing, new mothers are given a low-cost, very accessible form of therapy, as giving birth is outrageously expensive in the US. They are also given the opportunity to take a step back and assess what they just went through, gather their emotions and feelings in such a stressful time, and associate positive memories instead of traumatic ones with possibly one of the most important days of their lives. Even if you don’t suffer from depression, writing about your thoughts and emotions after a hard mental day can be so beneficial. By being truthful with yourself about your mental health, you can understand it better and use that knowledge in the future.
Speaking of having hard days, college. College campuses probably have the densest population of anxious people. A bunch of students being thrown into new situations left and right, having to make grown up decisions and also pass their classes seems like the perfect equation for anxiety and stress. An easy, free (college kids love that word) way to combat the flurry of stress and emotions is, you guessed it, journaling! Many campuses have amazing mental health facilities, but that may be even more stress-inducing for some people. By promoting journaling and expressive writing, students can at least be aware of this option. Speaking from personal experience, journaling has been extremely helpful in my mental health journey, especially in my first semester of college as a Psychology major. So, go ahead and open a word doc, or if you’re a bit more traditional grab a pen, and just write about what you’re feeling. I (and many researchers) promise it’ll help.
Baikie, K., Geerligs, L., & Wilhelm, K. (2012). Expressive writing and positive writing for participants with mood disorders: An online randomized controlled trial. Journal of Affective Disorders, 136(3), 310-319.
Vrielynck, N., Philippot, P., & Rimé, B. (2010). Level of processing modulates benefits of writing about stressful events: Comparing generic and specific recall. Cognition and Emotion, 24(7), 1117-1132.
Di Blasio, P., Camisasca, E., Caravita, S., Ionio, C., Milani, L., & Valtolina, G. (2015). The Effects of Expressive Writing on Postpartum Depression and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms. Psychological Reports, 117(3), 856-882
Suhr, M., Risch, A., & Wilz, G. (2017). Maintaining Mental Health Through Positive Writing: Effects of a Resource Diary on Depression and Emotion Regulation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73(12), 1586-1598.
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