The idea of journaling is often dismissed as a childish narrative of yourself, something along the lines of “dear diary, today I…’ However, like other forms of expressive therapy such as music, art or poetry, journaling can be a way for adults to explore ideas and reflect on emotions. This form of writing is sometimes referred to as ‘expressive writing’, or ‘writing therapy’ because the active participation in writing and reflecting can bring about greater self-awareness and personal growth.
We’ve all had periods when it feels like life isn’t going as planned; when life circumstances leave us with feelings of melancholy, disappointment, failure or a combination of emotions which feel too overwhelming to fully process. Personally, bottling up such emotions is akin to carrying a load which gets heavier the longer I leave it to fester. While many of us may benefit from the cathartic experience of ‘letting it all out’ by talking to someone- whether a close friend or a therapist- the idea of sharing very personal emotions with another person may not always be appealing. Around two-thirds of those who could benefit from counselling never seek professional help- especially men and young adults. Often people are reluctant to see their doctor during times of distress in the hopes that their feelings will slowly dissipate and things will go back to normal… eventually.
Writing therapy may be a more accessible alternative to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a form of talking therapy. CBT works primarily by identifying deleterious thinking and behaviour patterns, and gradually making changes to address them. In a similar way ‘habitual ways of thinking and acting; preconceptions about reality, prejudices, and defensiveness about our past’ may be addressed through reflective journaling.
In other words, expressing the way we feel about a thing on paper can help us to dig deeper and uncover the roots of a particular feeling or behaviour. By integrating our thoughts, feelings and actions, writing can help us deliberate the foundations of a belief or emotion about ourselves, others or the world. Journaling becomes therapeutic when the writing is ‘introspective and intentional’. This private reflection allows us to learn more about ourselves and may incite a need for change in a particular aspect of our lives.
Getting started is as simple as picking up a pen and paper and writing down whatever comes to mind. Using a journal with prompts or various online prompts may help to ease you into the idea of writing and reflecting on various personal topics. More formally, a trained therapist (available on the NHS) can guide you through a workbook or course.
In theory, journaling can benefit everyone by alleviating stress, stabilising emotions and teaching us more about ourselves. For more severe and long-term mental health conditions, it may serve as a useful adjunct to enhance the effects of medication and other forms of professional mental health intervention. For those who do not enjoy writing, there are many other forms of expressive arts that can help you relieve stress and express your pent up feelings.