It’s oft repeated (especially on our Monday morning WHQ journaling workshops) that journaling is good for you. It’s the “eat your greens” of writing, with anecdotal evidence of its mood- and creativity-boosting powers all over the place, both here at WHQ and across the interwebs. Julia Cameron advocates for journaling as a fertile creative practice in The Artist’s Way but is it true that writing in a journal improves your mental health as well as your writing?
I’ve done some digging, and roped in trainee psychotherapist Sam O’Neill (full disclosure: she’s also my wife) for extra rigour and rubber-stamping.
And it seems the answer is… maybe. If you do it right.
Eesh, this is awkward. How many times have we said “there’s no right or wrong way to do journaling”? Well. Technically there’s no wrong way of journaling, but there is a journaling style that won’t particularly benefit your mental health: rumination.
Rumination is sometimes called self-immersion because it describes the recounting of events – usually in the first person – going over and over what happened and how it made you feel. Literally immersing yourself in the experience as if you are re-living it, entrenching a fixed idea of your feelings around the subject, and falling into your own navel in the process. It doesn’t help because it means you get stuck going round in mental circles, preventing you from processing and moving on.
The key to avoiding rumination and practicing the kind of journaling that will benefit your mental health is the opposite to self-immersion: self-distancing. Think of it like social distancing, but for your ~inner voice~. In short, the difference is that rumination digs its mental heels into one perception of reality, while self-distancing involves seeing things from a different point of view – that of an observer, a bird’s eye view or that of an author writing a character, for example.
“’Distancing’ refers to the ability to view one’s own thoughts (or beliefs) as constructions of ‘reality’ rather than as reality itself.”
Alford and Beck
So when you journal, you’re giving your thoughts space to breathe by putting them somewhere outside of you. Just like mindfulness or meditation, you become an observer of your mind and emotions. Journaling’s a bit like downloading those thoughts onto an external hard drive, in order to free up space in your mind. Once they’re on the page you gain a bit of objectivity and the chance to construct a new narrative around them.
“Writing about grief and trauma helps achieve closure which tells the brain its work is done.”
Dr James Pennebaker
Using a journal means you can write about an experience in a hundred different ways. This sense of control and agency over your own stories is incredibly powerful in terms of processing experiences. You have the ability to make sense of your thoughts, let your creative brain play, experiment and ultimately give shape and order to your memories.
As writers and as human beings, stories are deeply ingrained in our psyche. Because of this we seek structure and meaning in everything that happens to us, and it’s distressing when we can’t find it. Writing about our inner and outer lives gives us a safe container to find that meaning and craft a satisfying character arc for ourselves.
The simple act of writing about yourself means you’re re-framing reality through your own point of view. That doesn’t make you a narcissist or a fantasist – everyone’s reality is subjective. When you organise your thoughts into a pleasing narrative you get to be both protagonist and omniscient narrator.
Even without any embellishment or fictionalising, the way you recall a story will be a reflection of your own rich inner world, and by using different exercises and approaches to journaling, you can view your life through a new facet every time you sit down to write. Magic, huh?
Creating self-distance in your journaling is pretty easy – you’re probably already doing it. Here are some of the best self-distancy journaling exercises:
Write your day as a metaphor for something else
Write something else as a metaphor for your day
Draw out a small, poetic detail and focus on that
Write about yourself in the third person
Write a letter to yourself
Write your experiences as if they are happening to the main character in your WIP
Use the language of fairy tales
Dream up an alternative ending
So there you have it, everything you need to write in a way that will make your brain go “mmm, peer reviewed”. It’s worth dropping a lil caveat in here to say that while all this is true and ~studies show~ and all that … writing is not therapy and when used well and consciously, writing is just one tool that can help build emotional well-being.