Man journaling

"Journaling is a simple and effective way to help manage depression and boost positive feelings."

A journal isn’t just a diary for dwelling on negative feelings. Journaling is a tool that can be used to keep track of your goals, organize your thoughts, and understand your behaviours. It’s a tried and proven method for managing stress and depression that can help you better understand yourself and get things done.

Research has found several benefits to keeping a journal. One study found that expressive writing (the technical term for “journaling”) can reduce rumination and depressive symptoms1. Many mental health professionals recommend it as a way to fight depression that can be used in conjunction with other treatment options and self care strategies.

Whether you’ve tried it before or are brand new to journaling, it’s a potentially useful tool to add to your arsenal of ways to combat depression.

Journaling doesn’t have to be complicated. All you have to do is get a notebook and a pen, and regularly record your thoughts and feelings about the events in your life. 

Why journal?

Clears your head:

  • Journaling can help rid your mind of intrusive thoughts, which helps reduce stress and relieve tension. Sometimes the simple act of writing down what is bothering you is enough to free your mind from a seemingly inescapable loop of worry and self doubt.

Gives you insight:

  • Journaling helps you track your symptoms so that you can become more aware of triggers, negative thought patterns, and other influences on your moods and behaviours. By increasing your emotional awareness and getting better at recognizing things that impact your mood and thoughts, you can be more in control of how you react.

Get to know yourself:

  • Journaling brings your goals, hopes, and dreams to the forefront, so that you can move toward them with more clarity and purpose. 

Puts things into perspective:

  • Keeping a journal can help put problems into perspective and allow you to feel attuned to feelings of gratitude. The human brain evolved to remember negative memories more readily than positive ones as a survival mechanism (after all, it was more important for our ancestors to remember how they fought off a predator than it was to recall the beauty of a sunset)2. But this evolutionary adaptation isn’t as useful as it once was, and can do more harm than good, especially if you’re dealing with depression.
  • By reflecting on a few good things each day, no matter how small, we can begin to fight back against our inherent “negativity bias” and appreciate more of life’s simple pleasures.

Creates a backup and record:

  • Since a journal is a record of your thoughts and feelings over time, you can refer back to previous challenges you have faced, reflect on what worked well in the past, and plan for what you would like to do differently in the future.

How to start journaling and keep it going:

Make it easy:

  • Keep a pen and notebook somewhere you will regularly see them, like on your nightstand or desk, so that when you feel like journaling, they’re easy to reach for.

Try some different approaches:

There is no right or wrong way to keep a journal, but there are a few different approaches you can try out:

  • “Stream of consciousness” journaling, a.k.a. writing about whatever comes to mind and trying not to filter your thoughts before you put them down.
  • Gratitude journaling, in which you focus on the things in your life you appreciate, which can be easy to forget or ignore when we’re stressed or feeling down. 
  • Writing from journaling prompts:
    • Such as journaling prompts from PsychCentral, which include questions like “I really wish others knew this about me…” and “What’s one topic I’d like to learn more about?” 
    • You can also find books of journal prompts – try searching online or at your favourite book store for ‘guided journals’ to find one that appeals to you. 
  • If you need more structure:
    • Some journals feature weekly planners and habit trackers so that it’s easy to track your progress as you go. Take some time to look around and find one that will best help you keep up with the new habit. 

Create a routine:

  • Incorporate journaling into your daily routine, such as writing while having your morning coffee or before you go to bed. Clearing your head by journaling can help set the tone for a positive day or a restful night’s sleep. More on how daily routines can improve your mental health

Set a timer:

  • Journaling, like any new habit, can seem daunting at first. One thing that helps is to set a daily timer, so you don’t have to ask yourself, “Have I written for long enough? Am I finished?”
  • It doesn’t have to be for a long period of time. Research has found that people benefit from journaling for as little as 15 minutes per day.3 So set your timer for what you feel is doable and go for it! You may even find that you don’t want to stop once the timer is up.

Use an App:

  • For the more tech-savvy, there are useful apps on the market that let you journal anytime and anywhere you have your phone. Journey.cloud is a popular free option, or another is Penzu, which has customizable email reminders to keep you on track, and encryption features to keep your entries completely private and secure.

References:

  1. Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms | PubMed
  2. Negative Bias: Why We’re Hardwired for Negativity | Verywell Mind
  3. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing | Advances in Psychiatric Treatment.
Written by the HeadsUpGuys Team - Combining lived experience, clinical practice, and research expertise. Reviewed and approved by Dr. John Ogrodniczuk - Professor and Director of the Psychotherapy Program at the Department of Psychiatry, The University of British Columbia.
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