Therapy in a Journal

“In the diary, you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today….” said Franz Kafka, the famous figure, writer and novelist in The Diaries: 1910-1923.

Writing has long been recognized as a skill that can be earned through an academic degree. Even those who are born as talented writers are minimally appreciated unless they at least have a bachelor’s degree, knowing that undergraduate students have to pass through condensed writing courses to graduate. Looking at writing through Kafka’s lens, one will find value in the writing process itself and the writer’s reflection on the topic, rather than focusing on structural rules and grammar. The former perspective is evident in the value of expressive writing.

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Expressive writing and its health benefits

Expressive writing can be described as an activity that expresses “major upheavals” in one’s life. It is writing that directly comes out from our innermost insecurities and it usually does not reflect on the events that take place but rather on one’s feelings and thoughts about these events. It is a type of writing specially used as a tool for stress management. Rather than repressing emotions such as anger and hostility, people can reflect their feeling through writing and therefore ventilate the negativity that comes in tandem.  Simple examples of expressive writing would be keeping a diary or a daily journal.

James Pennebaker (1999) has created a list of guidelines that one can follow while making a journal entry, to experience the positive effects that come along with expressive writing. The first and foremost important guideline is to allow yourself to explore all feelings and thoughts and especially the ones that are considered forbidden by the society and culture. In fact, the forbidden ideologies are the ones that cause most distress because they are the beliefs and emotions which are most repressed and repression causes distress.  Many of the times people do not like to keep journals or do not express themselves with honesty in their writing because they’re simply afraid that someone would find it and read it, which leads to the second most important guideline – one should write as though no one will ever read what has been written. Psychologists encourage people who are too worried about having their writing read to still express themselves on paper then tear it into pieces and throw it away.

In expressive writing, writers do not need to take care of their spelling or punctuation and all the other “writing conventions”. The most successful and health beneficial journal entries are found to be ones in which the writers use more than one language to express themselves. Sometimes, one language many not have the vocabulary to describe certain emotions that another language has many words to define. This makes it common that bilinguals can feel comfortable writing in one language and filling the missing vocabulary with another. Speaking about sketches and stick figures in the context of expressive writing is indeed considered a type of writing through which writers express their feelings and thoughts.

Facing one’s problems is not an easy task to do because there are many activities that we as humans participate in, which can very effectively impede our acknowledgement that there is a problem in the first place. Hence, one of the major benefits of keeping a journal is that it gives the writers a fuller picture to their problems. When we are in a difficult situation, our tunnel vision tends to haunt us. We could get stuck in our thoughts forever, thinking about our behaviour and how we could have reacted differently to make the situation better. Unfortunately, most of the time our thoughts get swept away and we end up ruminating about the negatives instead of focusing on finding the source of the problem and designing the solution. This leaves us confused and even depressed if the problem is a rather stressful one. This is why psychologists advise clients who are confused about their situation and are unable to figure out what the source of their discomfort is, to write it all down on a piece of paper. Doing so somehow organizes the thoughts of the writers, helping them reach a solid conclusion.  Moreover, one gets a wider perspective of the situation once it has been written down. For example, in arguments, we often tend to victimize ourselves and neglect that other members of the violent negotiation might have gotten affected as well; simply because we are way focused on our own costs and benefits. However, once the argument has been written out on paper, we get to notice aspects that we couldn’t initially see. Therefore, expressive writing forces individuals to bring together the many facets of overwhelmingly complicated events.

Another psychological benefit that comes along with expressive writing is mindfulness and this benefit is especially significant when writers note down traumatic experiences that they have gone through. Psychologists compared expressive writing to exposure therapies (in which clients experience repeated exposures to the object or person who triggers the memories of a trauma until they become desensitized) and overlapping benefits were found. Repetitively writing about traumatic experiences not only allows the writers to get a clear idea of the whole experience but also helps them gain the ability to confront them without being threatened. This desensitizing effect develops because the writers get to explore many hidden emotions and cognitions that they themselves probably did not know existed! When people have masked emotions, they tend to behave insecurely and aggressively, avoiding confrontation, as a strategy to protect themselves from being vulnerable. However, it is key that writers move on from being a victim, in their story, to have made it out alive. The feeling of victory, survival and power should be expressed in their writing to ensure that that the writer has healed from the experience.

A research conducted at North Carolina State University has proven that expressive writing inhibits intrusive thinking and an obvious explanation would be because one gets to ventilate their stress out on paper and therefore, do not need to ruminate about it. However, the benefits of expressive writing are not just limited to advancements in our psychological well-being. In fact, other studies conducted have shown that the participants who keep a journal have reduced the number of visits to their doctors while reporting that they significantly feel better. Biologically speaking, stress and trauma are known to suppress the immune system and ventilating on paper prevents the side effects of stress of having and hampered immune system.

Expressive writing can also improve our working memory by altering our attention span and our cognitive overload. Our working memory is a “limited capacity system” that is part of our cognitive processes. The more emotionally loaded we are, the easier it is for us to get distracted while doing an operational task. In this case, there would be two types of material in our working memory: the task relevant and the task irrelevant- which increases competition for resources in our working memory. Journaling on a regular basis releases a lot of the tension that stems from stressful events and consequently, reduces the amount of irrelevant material that goes into our working memory while leaving more room and resources for relevant material.  This means that our attention span gets wider.

On the other hand, expressive writing is not just beneficial in terms of writing about stressful events and trauma but it is also psychologically very constructive to write about positive things. Multiple studies that have proven that writing about realistic, achievable, future goals and objectives makes people happy. Writing your objectives in a ‘to do list’ manner creates the satisfaction of having a purpose to live in many people’s minds. In fact, writing every day about what you want to achieve, in the near future, reinforces your will to accomplish them. Researchers have also found that repeating your ‘to do list’ every day, even if it has the same task, improves one’s long term memory.

Moreover, when people write about what they want to accomplish, they become more awareness of flaws in the habits and behaviours that stand in the way of reaching their goal. It is very interesting that many therapists employ this tactic in their treatment plan, especially for illnesses that are caused by health risk behaviours. For example, many of those who suffer from eating disorders- bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, are asked by their physician to keep a diary and write about their daily food and calorie intake and any compensatory behaviours that they participate in, such as purging or cutting one’s self. In that way, clients become consciously aware of the destructive habits that contribute to developing and maintaining an eating disorder. Heavy tobacco smokers are also put off smoking in a similar manner. They are asked to keep a diary of how many cigarettes they smoke in a day and what were the situations that triggered the impulses of taking out a cigarette.

In a nutshell, writing is more than a profession or an academic stipulation. Expressive writing has many health benefits when one writes about trauma or stressful events or even about their positive goals and outcomes. These benefits include managing and ventilating stress, getting a wider perspective of one’s problem, organizing one’s thoughts, being aware and mindful, confronting one’s own problems, inhibiting intrusive thinking, improving immune functioning, expanding one’s working memory, feeling satisfied, improving one’s long term memory and pointing out health risk behaviours.

Are you planning to start your journaling journey yet?

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