The Scientific Benefits of Journaling for Your Brain! | by Dr. Irena O'Brien

Scientific Benefits of Journaling shown by Scientist with pen in hand

Did you journal during the pandemic? If so, you likely came through the past couple of years in better psychological health.

Many coaches and therapists encourage journaling because it's so beneficial. There is even evidence that, in some instances, journaling may be as effective as talking with a therapist (Donnelly & Murray, 1991; Murray, Lamnin, & Carver, ).

That's because writing about your deepest emotions and feelings in response to an emotional challenge helps you gain insight into them.

What is journaling?

A journal is a record of your thoughts and feelings. The most researched and recommended way to journal is to use the expressive writing technique. This technique involves writing for about 20 minutes about your deepest emotions and thoughts surrounding an emotional challenge in your life. We explore this more below.

But writing is not the only way to journal

Many people find writing onerous—and journals can also be drawn, typed or even spoken.

And while it's true that journaling is not always immediately pleasant, there are many medium—and longer-term—psychological and brain benefits to journaling.

So, if you're on the fence about whether you should journal, these crucial benefits may convince you to try it.

The psychological and health benefits of journaling

Here are just some of the benefits of journaling, identified by scientific research:

  • Journaling can improve your overall health: One of the earliest studies on expressive writing found that participants who wrote for 20 minutes a day for four days about their emotions and facts surrounding a traumatic event did immediately experience more significant physical symptoms (blood pressure, heart rate and skin conductance) and higher negative mood. But in the months following the experiment, they showed greater immune function, had few doctor visits and were significantly happier than control participants who had written about trivial daily events (Pennebaker & Beall, 1988).
  • Journaling can reduce symptoms of major depression (Krpan, Kross, Berman, et al., 2013).
  • Journaling can relieve psychological distress (Chan & Horneffer, 2006).
  • Journaling may even help spur the post-traumatic growth of people living with PTSD. Although journaling did not reduce PTSD symptoms, it did lessen the sufferers' cortisol response to trauma-related memories and helped them improve their responses to these memories (Smyth, Hockmeyer, & Tulloch, 2010).
  • Journaling can make vaccines more effective (Petrie, Booth, Pennebaker, et al., 1995).

How journaling helps us change our brain and learn

Journaling may offer these psychological and brain benefits because it works on two levels: our emotions and our thoughts.

Organizing and expressing thoughts and feelings in writing takes them out of our mind and onto paper, where we can look at them objectively.

Writing also forces us to write in sequence and create a story about our experiences. And this allows us to gain some distance from and objectivity on those experiences.

Another benefit is that journaling forces us to label our emotions.

The benefits of emotional labelling

A rich scientific literature on the benefits of labelling our emotions shows that doing so reduces their emotional charge.

Labelling also increases activation in the Right Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex (RVLPFC), which downgrades activity in the Amygdala. The Amygdala is a brain region that processes emotions, especially fear and anxiety, so downgrading our Amygdala activation is good (Burklund, Creswell, Irwin, et al., 2014).

A study specifically addressing journaling found similar results: Journaling increased RVLPFC activation, downgrading Amygdala activation. And these brain effects were also related to better satisfaction with life and reduced depression outcomes (Memarian, Torre, Haltom, et al., 2017).

How to journal and gain the most benefit with expressive writing

Most of the scientific research on journaling has used a technique called expressive writing. Here's how it works:

  1. Write continuously for 20 minutes about your deepest emotions and thoughts surrounding an emotional challenge in your life.
    • If you can't write for 20 minutes, writing for even a few minutes can be beneficial.
  2. Deeply explore the event and how it has affected you. Really let yourself go there.
  3. The goal is to get insight and see connections you may not have noticed, not solely to vent. Here are some ideas of to write about:
    • Past traumas or  painful secrets
    • What's preoccupying you at the moment.
    • You can also write about the same issue repeatedly or write about different issues.
    • The key is to write more than once about an issue, and leave time between writing to allow your brain to process and integrate.

Who should not journal?

Journaling may not be for everyone—or every situation. For example, it might not be helpful to journal if the trauma is too recent—or if you're just using your journal to complain or ruminate and it's keeping you from making important changes in your life.

We each need to be the judge.

  1. Don't rehash the same difficult experiences over and over again (Ulrich & Lutgendorf, 2002). The most effective journaling starts with our feelings and shifts into to the accompanying thoughts.
  2. Adding drawings to your journal may enhance the psychological benefit of journaling (Pantchenko, Lawson & Joyce, 2010).
  3. If you don't like to write, you can talk about your feelings and thoughts to a voice recorder.
    •  In one study, speaking about thoughts and feelings led to a greater cognitive change and self-esteem and better adaptive coping than writing about thoughts and feelings (Esterling, Antoni, Fletcher et al., 1994).

Wrap-up

So there you have it. The scientific benefits of journaling are backed up by decades of research.

When will you start journaling or using it as a tool with your clients?

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Dr. Irena O'Brien

Contributing Author:

Dr. Irena O'Brien, PhD, is a neuroscientist and neuroscience educator. She has been studying neuroscience and psychology for over 20 years following a successful career as a chartered accountant. She is passionate about neuroscience and sharing it with others. She reads and writes about the latest research in neuroscience and psychology in a way that is designed to offer us practical tools and strategies to better our own lives and the lives of our clients. 

She founded The Neuroscience School in 2017. Her mission is to create self-awareness on the planet and she does that by teaching coaches and helping professionals learn about neuroscience and how they can apply what they learn to help their clients. She is known for her ability to simplify neuroscience research into what's essential and practical for coaches to use in their work with clients. Her neuroscience program for coaches is currently certified by the ICF for continuing coach education units. You can find her at neuroscienceschool.com.

Learn more about Irena & see all their articles here >>

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