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Journaling For Mental Health Benefits Can (& Should) Go Beyond ‘Dear Diary’ Writing

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With self-care on a rapid rise these past months, people are getting creative in how they deal with pandemic-related stress and anxiety. Literally, anything goes these days — culinary therapy, painting, organizing, walking meditations, journaling. The latter, in fact, has become increasingly popular, with fancy apps that allow you to vent on-the-go to a slew of cutting-edge journals full of thought-provoking prompts that are a far cry from the blank spiral notebooks of yesteryear. Yes, journaling for mental health has come a long way and now takes many forms that extend past “Dear Diary” formats — yet the therapeutic benefits remain intact.

"Journaling is a naturally calming technique,” Dr Nancy Irwin, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, says to The Zoe Report. “It forces us to slow down a bit and get in a rather hypnotic rhythm, collect our thoughts and feelings, and express them."

In fact, a 2013 study found individuals with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) showed significant decreases in depression scores after participating in "expressive writing" (about their deepest thoughts and feelings) within a matter of days. Dr. Irwin explains that this could be because the practice of journaling "allows us to more accurately identify our feelings. Getting them out of our head and down on paper typically gives us hope and a sense of control over them."

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The beauty of this practice (aside from the aforementioned benefits) is that there really is no right or wrong way to go about it. "The only way to get it wrong is to not do it at all," says Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D, marriage and family therapist and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough. "By not doing it, you're cheating yourself out of an easy, free, and very impactful way to intentionally direct your life in a positive direction. [...] I like to see my patients do it as a daily practice. Even if it's as simple as writing down three things for which you are grateful or perhaps one thing you want to accomplish that day."

If daily journaling seems like a lot, Dr. Irwin says to go with what feels comfortable. "Some do it daily, others weekly, while others only [journal] once a year, or when they feel depressed or 'clogged' emotionally," she explains. "There are no rules."

To help get you started, ahead, three journaling methods to consider to help clear your mind, express your feelings, and relieve that stress and anxiety once and for all.

Types Of Journaling For Mental Health: Bullet Journaling

What if you're not one to pour out your heart on paper ad nauseam? Can you still partake in a little journal therapy? The answer is, of course, yes. There's even a name for some of short and sweet writing methods. "I recommended a bullet journal or simply to keep lists," says Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC Therapist & Licensed Professional Counselor. "So often in therapy, clients have commented, 'I need to write this down so I can remember!' When clients come to our office for their initial appointment, we provide them a journal for this purpose. When they have insights, helpful thoughts, etc. they can keep track of them in this journal."

Freya Tillem, co-founder of stationary and journaling brand Adefli (which she founded with sister Phoebe), says she often encourages clients to start by setting small writing goals for themselves that are simple and straightforward. "Like, writing a list of 10 things you're grateful for before bed each night," says Tillem to The Zoe Report. "Or [spend] five to 10 minutes in the morning to simply write your train of thought. You can even write, 'I don't know what to say,' or, 'I hate to write' over and over again if that's all that comes up."

Reframing the idea of journaling can also prove helpful, says Tillem. "Rather than focusing on the finished product, the process of getting out of your head and onto the page is the goal," says Tillem. "Like any practice, consistency is key. And that being said, journaling is intended to be a supportive tool, if you hate it, maybe it's not for you and that's OK."

Types Of Journaling For Mental Health: Journal Prompts

For some, a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled with your inner most thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming. Many need guidance by way of thought-provoking prompts to get going, which is why more and more journals are including just that. "Journaling has never really been 'Dear Diary' and that's probably the biggest misconception," says Meha Agrawal, founder of monthly self-care journal service Silk + Sonder, to The Zoe Report. "The barrier to entry for most people is thinking that journaling is a recap of your day or to-do list, when in reality journaling is an opportunity to reflect, release, and plan intentionally for your day."

Agrawal's personal discovery of the aforementioned notion led her to create Silk + Sonder's signature journaling model, which includes monthly curated planners that are centered around a specific theme. For example, June's topic will be Passion, and includes calendar spreads, goal trackers, journaling prompts, reflections, and intention exercises with this theme in mind. "Clients love that every month is new and evolving," says Agrawal. "And they like the fact that it's all in one — journaling, introspection, guided prompts, coupled with an action-oriented approach to planning and self-care."

Types Of Journaling For Mental Health: Alternative Journaling

Sometimes journaling doesn't even need to include writing — no, really. Dr. Hokemeyer says people who hate writing can still keep track of their thoughts and emotions in ways that feel natural to them. "One of my patients draws an image that represents how she's feeling," explains the therapist. "Another dictates into his smartphone. Another simply rights down three things he's grateful for each day."

You can also try a journaling app. Programs like Daylio, Five-Minute Journal, and Day One are perfect for those who prefer to express themselves digitally or want to keep things brief and to the point (the latter app even allows you to plug in imagery and videos as you log your thoughts for the day). Whatever your vehicle, the goal should be to create a record of your thoughts and feelings so you can track them over time, says Dr. Hokemeyer. "What you're looking for is just some way to articulate how and what you are feeling on that day," he explains. "This doesn't have to be your life's work or a publishable memoir."

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Studies Referenced:

Krpan, K. M., Kross, E., Berman, M. G., Deldin, P. J., Askren, M. K., & Jonides, J. (2013). An everyday activity as a treatment for depression: The benefits of expressive writing for people diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders, 150(3), 1148–1151. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2013.05.065