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Journaling and Mental Health

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Case:

“You have been through a difficult and traumatizing divorce. When all was over, you felt a sense of relief in addition to exhaustion and some depression. Several months have passed and you continue to feel the lingering effects of having been through something very stressful. A friend of yours suggests you write about the experience of the divorce as a way feeling better and putting the episode behind you. You do some investigating and discover that there is solid evidence to support your friends suggestion.”

Were you among the many young people who kept a diary when you were growing up? It’s probably something that more females did as compared to males. Research shows that it’s something all of us can benefit from in our adulthood. Rather than a diary, it’s called a journal and writing one in a specific way can have therapeutic benefits and, perhaps, be a way to change one’s life story or narrative. Clinical Psychologist, James Pennebaker, University of Texas, is the leading researcher in the area of using journaling for physical and mental health. He has completed many controlled research studies that document the benefits derived from writing on a daily basis. Many other researchers such as Joshua Smyth, PhD and Lauren Smith, PhD, have further documented the benefits of writing.

Pam Hale Trachta, owner of Through a Different Lens, a consulting business, reports that, “When I journal, or when I teach others to, I strive not to be intellectual and logical and articulate,  but to feel the wave, the energy behind an event and to summon images of what that wave feels like, acts like, what it’s saying to me and what I would say to it.” In other words, do not worry about grammar, spelling or sounding literate. Just write.

According to Pennebaker, developing a deeper understanding of an event and the emotions it generates helps the brain digest the information. Pennebaker thinks that when you analyze a traumatic event your brain turns it into a story that’s stored more easily. “Storytelling simplifies a complex experience,” he says. Turning the memory into a story can be painful at first and both Smyth and Pennebaker report that patients often feel worse when they first begin journaling. It can take weeks or months to notice an improvement. 

Here are some suggestions for how to journal:

1. Write for yourself
2. Write about all the emotions associated with the event.
3. Set aside 30 minutes at a regular time for three or four days in a row when you won’t be disturbed.
4. Explore how the topic relates to other aspects of your life, such as your childhood and relationships.
5. Write continuously and don’t think about spelling or grammar.

Journal writing about traumatic events can be difficult and time consuming and should be done very carefully.  Writing about the worst events of your life can dredge up strong emotions and healing doesn’t necessarily follow.  For example, journaling therapy doesn’t seem to work by itself with people who are severely depressed or who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Smyth suggests notifying either your health care professional or someone close to you before you attempt this exercise. Let them judge if it’s helping or hurting you.

Also, keep your healing journal private. It’s okay to tear up the pages or burn them once you’ve written about the event. Showing them to anyone who isn’t a therapist or health-care professional could make matters worse–it could be very dangerous for a battered woman to show the pages to her spouse, for example.

There are therapists who integrate journaling into their therapeutic practice and this is something you can look for in a therapist if interested. This is certainly something you can do while in therapy to dscuss with your therapist if you are experiencing difficult emotions. Remember, one does not have to be in therapy in order to journal.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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