Definition and History
Unlike diary writing which records observations of daily events, journaling is expressive personal writing, writing not so much about what happened, but what the writer thinks and feels about what happened. Feelings are expressed from his/her mind and heart, without regard to the form, spelling, grammar, punctuation, or other writing conventions. It may link the writer to scenarios involving relationships to others, the past, or visualization of the writer's future. (1) It is for the writer's eyes only and no one should have access to that person's journal without their permission.
Journaling has been practiced for centuries. The earliest example is from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Often called "pocket notebooks," the journals of many famous people are preserved in institutions around the world. E.g. Albert Einstein's 5,000 documents were bequeathed to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but can be accessed online. Charles Darwin's notebooks record his thoughts and observations including sketches of an evolutionary tree, new species identification, and notes on geology, and they are available through University of Cambridge, England. Frida Kahlo, Mexican artist, illustrated her journal with future works of art, wrote musings and described personal feelings over relationships and deteriorating health. In 2005 Carlos Fuentes published a colour recreation of her journal. Leonardo da Vinci left more than 7,000 pages of notes and illustrations. He also recorded personal reminders and from those we learned that he preferred pink tights. The British Library has published a digitized copy "Codex Arundel." (2) (3)
In the 1960's, the therapeutic values of journal writing was noticed when Dr. Ira Progoff, a psychologist in New York City, used a "psychological notebook" in his work. His 1978 books gave instructions about the process. In 1977 Christina Baldwin, a writer and teacher from Minneapolis, published her first book, One to One: Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing, based on her teaching experiences, and in 1978 Tristine Rainer, of Los Angeles, published a guide-book on how to journal for self-discovery. (6)
Teachers began to ask students to journal as a means of allowing them to practice creative thinking and as a way to get to know them better. Students often found clarity of thought after writing about conflicting ideas and worries. (6)
In the 1980s, Dr. James Pennebaker, of Texas, conducted studies which indicated that writing helps give mental clarity and has a direct effect on a person's ability to withstand stress and fight off infections. The Pennebaker studies awakened therapists to the benefits of journal writing. In 1985, Kathleen Adams, a psychotherapist in Colorado and founder/director of The Center for Journal Therapy, designed tools people could use for self-discovery. Her first book, Journal to the Self: 22 Paths to Personal Growth, was published in 1990. (1) (6)
Scientific studies regarding journaling
CATHARSIS & CLARIFY THOUGHTS - Some of the earliest studies about the effects of journaling on wellness were conducted by Dr. James Pennebaker, Chair of Psychology, University of Texas, and his colleagues. (Links to many of their research projects are given in reference (4) ). He discovered that venting emotions immediately after a traumatic event made the patient unhappier, more distressed and have a higher blood pressure. However, two weeks after the traumatic event, writing about their thoughts and feelings made the hurtful effects dissipate and benefits emerge. (4) Sigmund Freud taught that people find relief by expressing their emotions to a trained listener. Pennebaker concluded that writing enables the journal-writer to be the listener. It helped the person "organize their fragmented memories," clarify their thoughts, weigh conflicted reasoning and find the correct words to express themselves. (5) Joshua Smyth, PhD, of Syracuse University, conducted similar studies. He advises that venting alone is not enough; the person needs to focus their thoughts and understand their emotions to benefit. (4a)
BRAIN ACTIVITY - Michael Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, said in 2009, that the effect of writing is different from a catharsis, which is seeing a problem in a different light. According to his findings, medical scans show that writing about feelings activates the amygdala, which is responsible for controlling the intensity of emotions. The brain activity of those who wrote expressively about feelings matched volunteers who were trying to control their emotions. In one study volunteers wrote 20 minutes for four consecutive days. Half of the group wrote about a recent emotional experience and half wrote about a neutral experience. Those who wrote about an emotional experience had activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (which turns down strong emotions). Men seemed to benefit more than women; hand writing showed more effect than typing. Whereas using vivid language in descriptions made the person reactivate the original feelings and made the person upset, writing in an abstract sense like writing in a journal, making up poetry or a song was more calming and helped people get over emotional distress. (5) (7)
COGNITIVE ABILITY & MEMORY - A study by Dr. Kitty Klein and Dr. Adriel Boals (2001) described in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, concluded that the group of students who wrote about their thoughts and feeling about starting college rather than a trivial subject, showed larger memory. From another study Boals concluded: the results "suggest that at least for fairly minor life problems, something as simple as writing about the problem for 20 minutes can yield important effects not only in terms of physical health and mental health, but also in terms of cognitive abilities." (5)
STRESS - Elizabeth Broadbent, professor of medicine in New Zealand thinks that writing about distressing events helped people make sense and reduced distress. Long-term emotional stress increases body production of stress hormones such as cortisol. Research described in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that writing about a personal emotional topic lowered the person's cortisol levels. (8)
REACHING GOALS & HAPPINESS - Adam Grant, PhD's article The Power of the Pen, cites research to support that writing about future goals and dreams, keeping a gratitude journal, and writing how their job made a difference brought greater happiness and better health to the writers. (4)
CHRONIC PAIN, BOOST TO IMMUNE SYSTEM, DEPRESSION, & OTHER BENEFITS - Pennebaker's team has demonstrated physical and mental health benefits from journaling. One patient wrote that he "was finally able to deal with it, work through the pain instead of block it out." Pennebaker and colleagues have found that there are positive effects from expressive writing with chronic-pain patients, prisoners, crime victims, women after childbirth. "They've found decreases in depression, anxiety, anger, and distress. They've shown that writing about stressful experiences also reduces absenteeism from work—and increases grade point averages among students. They've even found that expressive writing has objective immune system benefits. After writing about trauma, people show higher t-cell growth, better liver function, and stronger antibody responses to hepatitis vaccinations and Epstein-Barr virus." Talking into a recorder works just as well as writing. Expressing the effects of a trauma through art, music and dance is not as effective as expressing the feelings through language. It seems that people need to express the negative experience in words—either through writing or speaking—to reap the health benefits." (4) Pennebaker, Riecolt-Glaser and Glaser (1988) tested blood samples of students who wrote about the emotional aspects of a trauma and found that writing had boosted their immune systems. (5)
DIARY WRITING - Leona started writing in a diary thirty-two years ago. She'd been inclined to write notes all over her kitchen calendar, notes about things to do, what she had to remember, what happened that day. Her husband remarked that there wasn't room to write all the things on her mind, and suggested that she buy a notebook. In an interview she said she writes every day. She writes details about what happened and expects that her three grown daughters will one day be reading her notes, so she never writes derogatory feelings about anyone. She likes to look at the good things in life and that's what she wants to record and remember.
Leona is a great grandmother, a retired egg farmer, a widow after 59 years of happily married life to her husband, an egg farmer and former Canadian Air Force mechanic.
JOURNALING - Ann wrote about her thoughts on journaling. "I have journaled on and off since I was a teenager, and although it started as more of a daily diary of events and feelings, over the years it has progressed into a stream of consciousness process that helps me to gain clarity on my life. In my teenage and university years, my journal provided the comfort of a friend or confidante who was non-judgmental, a good listener and a half-decent sounding board for my feelings and experiences. It was a safe place to go to 'try out' expressing myself and my thoughts.
Then in time, in my 30s, my journaling took on a creative aspect, one which would allow me to express myself through poetry and creative problem solving. For example, I might ask my inner self, 'What do I need right now to move through this challenge?' And then allow the writing that followed to answer my question, all the while observing and witnessing how I felt as I posed solutions for my problem. In this way, my journal came to be a way in which I could access my deeper self, giving me confidence in my ability to manage and handle situations in my life. And when needed, my trusted journal could still be that quiet friend, who listened like no one else could! I came to recognize that this quiet writing time gave me important time to reflect on and process my life's events.
In more recent years, after completing a Meditation Teacher training, I have come to find that journaling is also a great way to access my intuition and my connection to the world around me. I have discovered that when I couple meditation with journaling, I can access an even deeper sense of calm, peace, creative guidance and self-actualization. If there is a question that I am trying to solve, or a decision that I am stuck on, I can first focus on my question and then head into a silent meditation. And upon coming out of the meditation if I journal stream of consciousness style (writing whatever comes to mind and letting it flow naturally), I am often able to access greater intuitive or universal knowledge about my question than if I had simply tried to think the problem through. After 35 years, journaling is still one of the best tools I have in my life-management tool kit!"
Ann is a Meditation Teacher and an Instructive Coach.
|Ann's desk is a relaxing place with 2 candles and a rose quartz crystal (left)|
A page from Ann's journal (right)
Getting started to journal-write
This is going to be a journal for your eyes only (the journal-writer's eyes) unless you give permission for a partner, a parent or therapist to read it. Choose writing materials that suit your comfort. You'll need a notebook of sorts, and a pen or pencil. (I prefer a spiral notebook or a steno-pad, and I want a pen with ink that flows well.) Sit in a comfortable place which promotes relaxation. Do not be concerned with correct spelling or other rules of writing. Be truthful. Use sentences, phrases or just words, whatever springs to mind from your heart. Scribble or write slowly, however your drive dictates.
- Free-write what's on your mind. Let it flow. Write about a meaningful moment, a portrait of another person, a fresh idea, consider writing a dialogue with someone who is affecting you, or write from a prompt, a question like: What do I want? What is bothering me today? Why am I so angry? The happiest day of my life, I...
- Be truthful with yourself. Use phrases like: I want... I feel... I think...
- After so many minutes, read what you've written and reflect.
- Write about your reflection: I see that... It seems to me that...
- Days later read what you've written and reflect on any changes to your feelings or wellbeing that came about following your journaling.
(Note: Reference (9): Kathleen Adams, Director of The Center for Journal Therapy, givers her suggestions about starting to journal-write.)
Scientific study indicates that expressive writing of one's thoughts and feelings in a journal, has a positive effect on the writer's physical and mental wellness. While other artistic endeavours aid people to deal with trauma, expressing thoughts and feelings with words is the most beneficial. Pennebaker and others believe that venting about one's emotions after a traumatic event, is not enough, and that journal-writing helps the writer clarify conflicted thoughts, find the correct words to express themselves, and notice trends in their decision-making and life. It fosters self-understanding and acceptance, reduces stress, is a therapeutic way to release negative feelings, enables one to visualize a future, and shows ways for forgiving and gratitude. Pocket notebooks of famous people show how journaling enabled them to visualize possibilities and become successful. Journaling requires discipline to sit down and write, but journaling is a way to become your own best friend, to get help through the vexations and traumas of life and give voice to your dreams and aspirations.
- (1) Evans, John F., EdD.2012. "Expressive Writing, What's on your mind and in your heart?" Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/write-yourself-well/201208/expressive-writing. Recovered 29/10/2017
- (2) d'Estries, Michael. August 10, 2016. "8 famous visionaries who kept a journal." https://www.fromthegrapevine.com/lifestyle/famous-people-who-kept-journal-albert-einstein-marie-curie-mark-twain-charles-darwin. Recovered 25/10/2017
- (3) McKay, Brett & Kate. September 13, 2010. "The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men." The Art of Manliness, Travel & Leisure. http://www.artofmanliness.com/2010/09/13/the-pocket-notebooks-of-20-famous-men/. Retrieved 25/10/2017
- (4) Grant, Adam, PhD. May 29, 2013. "The Power of the Pen, Boosting happiness, health, and productivity." Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/give-and-take/201305/the-power-the-pen. Retrieved 29/10/2017
- (4a) Murray, Bridget, Monitor Staff. June 2002. "Writing to heal." American Psychological Association, Vol. 33, No. 6 Print version: page 54. http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun02/writing.aspx. Retrieved 01/11/2017
- (5) Griffiths, Mark D., PhD. Jul.14, 2015. "Writing Wrongs, Diary writing and psychological wellbeing." Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-excess/201507/writing-wrongs. Retrieved 29/10/2017
- (6) Adams, Kathleen. 1999.Journal Therapy training paper © 1999 Kathleen Adams. https://journaltherapy.com/get-training/short-pogram-journal-to-self/journal-to-the.... Retrieved 28/10/2017.
- (7) Sample, Ian, Science correspondent. Feb.2009. "Keeping a diary makes you happier." https://www.theguardian.com/science/2009/feb/15/psychology-usa. Retrieved 29/10/2017
- (8) Rodriguez, Tori. Nov.1, 2013. "Writing Can Help Injuries Heal Faster." Scientific American Mind. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/writing-can-help-injuries-heal-faster/. Retrieved 29/10/2017
- (9) Adams, Kathleen. (no date) "The Center for Journal Therapy Inc." The Center for Journal Therapy. https://journalthreapy.com/about-center-for-journal-therapy. Retrieved 28/10/2017
- (10) Henry, Alan. 2014. "Why You Should Keep a Journal (and How to Start Yours)" Lifehacker. https://lifehacker.com/why-you-should-keep-a-journal-and-how-to-start-yours. Retrieved 25/10/2017