There is indeed a beauty in the act of reflection. Taking a step back and washing over an event with a keen mental eye can help reveal things that are bothering us, and even help us find solutions to long-term problems. Journaling follows that same concept. Though still being explored as a therapeutic practice, journaling offers numerous benefits to mental and behavioral health patients at all walks in their recovery journey. Let us explore some of the key benefits and tenets of this cathartic practice.
Patients who record their thoughts and memories for 15-20 minutes at a time on 3-5 consecutive occasions a week, see significant improvements in their physical state (1). Journaling has been shown to improve liver and lung function (2), immune system function, reduce stress-related visits to the doctor (3), improved blood pressure and reduce blood pressure (4). These benefits may not be registered among patients in the short-term, but in the long-term, such physical improvements have been common among patients who journal regularly.
Patients who journal experience improved social and behavioral states. Such outcomes include: a higher grade point average among students, reduced absenteeism from work (1), better memory (5) and improved sporting performance. These too are long-term benefits, primarily because of the challenges clients face during the beginning stages of the journaling process.
In the short-term, patients often feel a high level of distress, nervousness and even painful physical symptoms as they initially begin to revisit and write about a negative memory. This is a scary time for most clients as they attempt to come to terms with events they may have been avoiding for years. However, as clinicians, we must be ready to counter patient resistance, because before clients even realize it, their mood and physical state will begin to improve and their persistence will pay off (6). It is our job to hold their hand for that brief period, and encourage consistency in trekking toward a future of recovery.
Clinicians often disagree about why journaling is so successful. Some purport that the practice’s success comes from repeated exposure to the trauma through constant recollection of the event. This eventually leads to the extinction of the negative emotional response (7). Others posit that the act is catharsis, and that, in itself, brings healing (1).
Regardless of the reasons for its successfulness, journaling has proven itself a mainstay in modern psychiatry. Coupled with other therapeutic tools such as tracking software and meditation exercises, journaling can increase in effectiveness and use among clinicians of today.
1. Pennebaker, J. W. & Francis, M. E. (1996) Cognitive, emotional, and language processes in disclosure.Cognition and Emotion, 10, 601–626. LINK.
2. Smyth, J. M., Stone, A. A., Hurewitz, A., et al (1999) Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis. A randomized trial. JAMA, 281, 1304–1309. LINK.
3. Norman, S. A., Lumley, M. A., Dooley, J. A., et al (2004) For whom does it work? Moderators of the effects of written emotional disclosure in a randomized trial among women with chronic pelvic pain. Psychosomatic Medicine, 66, 174–183. LINK.
4. Davidson, K., Schwartz, A. R., Sheffield, D., et al (2002) Expressive writing and blood pressure. In The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-being (eds S. J. Lepore & J. M. Smyth), pp. 17–30. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
5. Spera, S. P., Buhrfeind, E. D. & Pennebaker, J. W. (1994) Expressive writing and coping with job loss.Academy of Management Journal, 37, 722–73. LINK.
6. Baikie A. Karen, Wilhelm Kay. “Emotional And Physical Health Benefits of expressive Writing,” BJ Psych Advances; 2005. Web. March, 2015. LINK.
7. Lepore, S. J., Greenberg, M. A., Bruno, M., et al (2002) Expressive writing and health: self-regulation of emotion-related experience, physiology, and behavior. In The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-being (eds S. J. Lepore & J. M. Smyth), pp. 99–117) Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.