The science of journaling: how it can help your mental and physical health


The word ‘journaling’ used to evoke young teens on their bed writing in their diary, but now it’s a major buzzword in the self-care movement. It has flooded our IG stories, shown during people’s morning routines and has been touted as the saviour to those who are affected by stress and anxiety. But is journaling just another trend *cough*celery juice*cough* or does this activity actually help us? 

Journaling is an expressive writing activity as a vehicle of emotional exploration, a way to channel difficult feelings into healthy and creative outcomes. It is a form of free self-expression that leads to exploration and personal growth. By writing down your thoughts and feelings, you are forced to slow down and pay attention to everything that is going on in your life. You have to listen rather than run away from your feelings.

How journaling can help you:

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The act of journaling can activate the left-side of your brain, leading to a wide range of benefits including improved memory, better communication skills and improved physical health, quality in sleep, more self-confidence and a higher I.Q - does it sounds too good to be true?

According to this New York Times article, labelling emotions and acknowledging traumatic events — both natural outcomes of journaling — have a known positive effect on people, Dr. Pennebaker said, and are often incorporated into traditional talk therapy.

Keeping a journal, can help us to organise an event in our mind, and make sense of trauma. When we do that, our working memory improves, since our brains are freed from the enormously taxing job of processing that experience, and we sleep better. This in turn improves our immune system and our moods; we go to work feeling refreshed, perform better and socialise more.

The science of journaling:

UCLA psychologists conducted research into how expressive writing associated with journaling can improve cognitive functions and improve anxiety.

The study looked into the brain imaging of people during journal therapy. Their research revealed that association of written words help to make an experience or trauma less intense. During the test, patients were shown an angry face, which in turn caused a region of the brain called the amygdala to increase in activity. The amygdala is used to activate alarms in your body to protect yourself. Even when the people were shown these same images subliminally, their amygdala responded.

But once candidates in the study began to associate words directly with the images, their brain’s emotional reaction is reduced. There is a reduced response from the amygdala and you begin to activate the prefrontal region of the brain. Researcher and professor, Matthew D. Lieberman of UCLA rounded this off well by stating this process is “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the break on your emotional responses.” Each time you journal, your brain’s reaction can be less intense making it easier to express important or trapped feelings that can lead to better treatment.

Get started with journaling:

It doesn't take a big time commitment to reap the benefits of journaling. Try to journal for 15 to 20 minutes a day, 3 to 5 times a week, consistently for a couple of months. If you think you’ll forget - pop an alarm on your phone or schedule it into your calendar like you would a doctor’s appointment.

Some of the most popular methods of journaling are: