There is no shortage of scientific evidence proving that the practice of journaling on a daily basis is amazing for your mood, your stress levels, and your physical and mental health. One study, published in JMIR Mental Health, found that journaling soothes anxiety and promotes a better sense of wellbeing. Another study, published in the journal Stress Medicine, found that journaling can help your immune system. And another study, published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, found that journaling and “expressive writing” can actually help bolster your brain function.
One 2013 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine even found that adults with physical wounds who spent at least 20 minutes every day journaling about their feelings actually healed faster than those who did not use a journal.
Given the overwhelming science backing the art of writing down your feelings every day, you’d think that it’s a universally accepted force for good in this world. But according to some psychologists, if you’re not careful—and you’re not approaching your journal with the right perspective—it can actually backfire and make you feel far worse. Read on for more about what the experts say about journaling, and what it means for you. And for more great tips to help you live a longer, healthier life, make sure you’re aware of the Surprising Habits That Are Rapidly Aging Your Body, Says Science.
“There’s a lot of advice out there about how to journal, some of it good, much of it bad,” writes Steven Stosny, Ph.D., author of Love Without Hurt. “Sometimes keeping a journal of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences helps, but often it makes things worse. In general, it is likely to hurt if it tries to help you ‘know yourself’ in isolation and helps if it leads to greater understanding and behavior change in your interactions with others.”
According to Stosny, journaling can become dark when you it “makes you live too much in your head,” “makes you a passive observer in your life,” “makes you self-obsessed,” “becomes a vehicle of blame instead of solutions,” and “wallows in the negative things that have happened to you.”
If these sound familiar, your journaling is merely reinforcing the negative thoughts that are already swirling about your mind.
One much-publicized study published in the journal Psychiatry focused has three groups of volunteers to journal: one group about the negatives in their lives, another group about the things in life they were grateful for, and the third group about “neutral life events.” At the end of the study, those who recorded their negative thoughts showed practically zero signs of improvement and even felt more upset or angry with themselves. The people who expressed gratitude experienced the greatest boost in wellbeing from journaling. And for more healthy living advice, check out the Totally Crazy Side Effects of Exercising You Didn’t Know.
You should obviously write about negative thoughts in your journal, but, according to Stosny, it’s important not to go down the path of reinforcing negative emotions when you record them. You need “look objectively at the thoughts, emotions, and behavior you expressed,” he says.
There is no structure or one-size-fits-all to-do list when it comes to keeping a journal for your mental health. It’s meant to be personal, a place where your thoughts can flow freely and help you make sense of the world when it feels too chaotic. But it’s really important that you approach it from the right, objective mindset.
“Look at your writing time as personal relaxation time,” write the health experts at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “It’s a time when you can de-stress and wind down. Write in a place that’s relaxing and soothing, maybe with a cup of tea. Look forward to your journaling time. And know that you’re doing something good for your mind and body.”
If thoughts take a sharp turn toward the negative, Stosny recommends you ask yourself some key questions that will help you view your negative thoughts objectively: “Would you think the same if you felt comfortable?;” “Can you convert the negative energy of this experience into positive creativity and growth?;” “Would you feel the same if you were firmly in touch with your core values?;” and “Are you acting according to your deepest values and the kind of person you want to be?”
If you can apply step away and look at your negative emotions objectively, you’ll enhance your journaling experience and reap the benefits. And for more ways to live healthier every day, try These 5-Minute Exercises That Will Have You Sleeping Like a Teenager.