When you need to hash out certain emotions, process troubling thoughts, and give yourself a safe place for expression, few outlets are as successful as journaling. Here’s why experts often recommend this practice not only for people in recovery, but also for anyone looking to improve their health.
A Diary vs. Journaling: What’s the Difference?
The purpose of the two overlap quite a bit, actually. Think of a diary as kind of a day-by-day account of what’s going on in your life. For example, if you have some goal benchmarks you’ve established for a new direction, you might track your progress in a diary. If you want to explore how you feel about these goals and what greater meaning they have, you might explore these aspects in a journal.
Can you do both? Or just one? Of course. Really, there’s no right or wrong for writing things out, but the research behind the process of journaling is rather interesting:
- According to the American Psychological Association (APA), some studies indicate that “writing about emotions and stress can boost immune functioning in patients with such illnesses as HIV/AIDS, asthma and arthritis.”
- However, psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, PhD, of the University of Iowa notes in the same APA article that for people processing trauma, writing it out might not be enough—or be too triggering without therapeutic direction. “You need focused thought as well as emotions…an individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”
- Some preliminary studies involving expressive writing exercises for women recovering from substance abuse “showed greater reductions in post-traumatic symptom severity, depression, and anxiety.”
- Additionally, researchers even suggest forms of doodling in your journal can provide insight about your daydreams and how your brain functions.
What you might discover is that a diary, while helpful for data collection, doesn’t really get to the heart of how you’re truly thinking and feeling like a journal can. Sure, you might find it necessary in early recovery to record certain aspects of, say, your 12-Step program progress, but after a while, you’ll discover that your observations of life, recovery, goals, and other aspects are far more interesting.
What Writing It All Down Does for You
Rather than mulling things over continuously in your mind, the actual physical act of writing is believed to help release emotions because of the free association method to the practice: you learn what you really think and feel. Also, in particular, handwriting—which uses both tactile and spatial skills— enhances memory and your ability to process what you’ve written down. This doesn’t mean you won’t experience benefits by typing in an online journal, only that more research centers on the benefits of putting pen to paper.
Speaking of journaling benefits, healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente lists many, including:
- Reduces stress and anxiety by giving you an outlet to channel negative thoughts and look at them with a clearer perspective.
- Improves writing and communication skills to make conversations with others more productive.
- Enhances working memory so it’s easier to recall what you really need to.
- Tracks growth and builds self-confidence, especially if you’re the type who likes to review what you’ve overcome within a certain period of time.
- Maps out goals and plans so you can stay connected to your progress or maintain accountability.
- Helps you develop more aspirations for what you’d like to achieve.
- Gives you another tool to manage emotions more effectively.
- Creates a stronger connection to focused thought and deliberate action.
- Helps maintain a better sense of gratitude by regularly acknowledging the joys in your life.
Keep in mind, these are only a few examples of what you might experience journaling.
Steps for Successful Journaling
Here are some ideas for incorporating the act of journaling into your daily recovery routine:
- Start with something comfortable. Maybe noting three things you’re grateful for each day is an easier journaling entry point than exploring situations from the past. Remember, there’s not a right or wrong way to journal, but if you’ve never practiced this before, you want to build motivation to continue the process.
- Make your journal easy to access. Whether you prefer to write things out by hand or keep an online journal, have it with you somehow so you’re always able to jot down what’s important to you.
- Write every day. Some people might prefer to do a more stream of consciousness morning pages exercise, such as what Julia Cameron suggests, while others take stock of what they experienced at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter when you write as long as you dedicate a few minutes each day to do it.
- Use prompts, if necessary. Not sure how to get started each day? Journey has some ideas.
- Write, draw, doodle—whatever feels right. All too often, individuals think they need to journal a certain way for it to be effective. Instead, embrace the freedom to express yourself in whatever way you like at the moment.
- What you do with a completed journal is up to you. You can share it in therapy, review it, burn it, shred it—there are no rules.