What Makes Journaling So Therapeutic?
How does writing down what you feel help with your emotional wellbeing? A journal therapist explains.
“The one thing that I love the most about journaling is that there's no scope for mistakes. There is no right or wrong, no fear of error or judgement, no expectations to be perfect. It’s just you, the page, and whatever you want to do with it.” - Shilpa Giri
No matter where you come from or what battles you are fighting, a piece of advice often given by mental health professionals is to maintain a diary or a journal to write down what you feel to channelise your inhibited emotions. Such a notebook serves as an intimate space and an outlet for you to unapologetically express your feelings, sentiments, and fears - enhancing self-awareness and promoting psychological wellbeing in the process.
FIT reached out to individuals who swear by journaling as an emotionally uplifting activity, and a journal therapist who breaks down the science behind it for us.
‘My Journal Is My Safe Space’
Shilpa Giri of Workdé.art has been journaling since she was 11. While she started with ‘writing’ her thoughts down in the diary, she slowly moved on to what is called ‘art journaling’.
Narrating her journey, she shares, “I love writing, so journaling was the best way for me to express myself without the pressure of other people reading or judging my work. As I grew up, I realised that it doesn’t just have to be limited to words. It can be anything that I wish it to be, anything that I want to see on paper - even pictures, collages, quotes, or supplies that I find at home. All of this, to create a different kind of art form, which I believe, we don’t see anywhere else except in journals. It’s a blank canvas and you can use it to do anything.”
There is no single way to do it, she tells me. You can draw, write, cut, paste, make a scrapbook or a planner out of it, take notes - the possibilities are endless. “Anything that resonates with you and sticks with you, just put it down.”
But journaling is more than just exploring these possibilities.
There is already sufficient research into how expressive writing can help relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, uplift the mood, manage stress and boost long-term wellbeing. Journaling can also help you track your progress, be aware of your triggers, organise your thoughts, and process memories and experiences.
“It is such a safe space. You cannot use your phone, you are not on the internet, you are away from all kinds of distractions. You just sit down, think about what you are feeling, and let the words roll out on the page. This helps you connect with yourself in a very special way. I find that extremely relieving and relaxing,” Giri says.
How Journaling Helps the Mind
Sarah Hosseini, a certified journal therapist, explains what makes the practice of writing down what you feel so therapeutic.
“Writing on the paper actually slows your brain down and de-intensifies the emotion you are currently feeling at a heightened intensity. It helps you have some emotional regulation and control, which in turn, gives some clarity regarding the next step you should be taking. When you slow down, you are making way for a solution, which cannot reveal itself in an anxiety-ridden or a high-octane emotional state.”Sarah Hosseini, Journal Therapist
She adds, “Journal therapy isn’t just for people who’ve experienced trauma. It is for anyone desiring to go inward or needing support.”
Hosseini also shares that journaling can especially help those who may be ‘therapied out’ or who may be facing barriers in seeking talk therapy. “Staying silent and doing nothing is the worst that you can do to your mental health. If the bridge between you and talking to someone is too much, and if, for some reason, talking is not an option, the easiest thing to do is to pick up a piece of paper and pen and get started on writing down your emotions.”
But here, she also adds a word of caution: Expressive writing or journal therapy is intended to support and supplement psychotherapy, not replace it. If you need counseling for issues or are struggling emotionally, consulting with a trusted medical professional would be the best option.
How Can a Journal Therapist Help?
Hosseini takes us through what she does. “As a journal therapist, I guide my clients using journal prompts which are directed by specific goals in mind. I am there to offer support and engage with whatever comes up in a non-judgmental atmosphere. Once they have envisioned their highest vision and outcome, we work on figuring out the actionable steps they can take to get closer to the solution or the vision they have for themselves.”
She offers some of these ‘journal prompts’ on her website. For example, you may be asked to write about what hurts you the most, or to observe and note down elements from your environment to awaken your senses, or about certain blocks and challenges that exist between you and your aspirations. Some of these can be pragmatic lists, others could be more meditative forms of writing. Depending on the issue that is being dealt with, an appropriate prompt will help you begin with the therapy process.
Hosseini explains how she goes about it. A preliminary discussion of 20 minutes with a client, where the latter shares their concerns or problems, is followed by guiding them through suitable journaling prompts.
“For journaling prompts that are guided through me, we can address emotional trauma rooted in childhood, or we can go through a loss that a person may be dealing with - whether in career, love or that of a family member. Once they have written it down, I ask them to sit with it for a week and spend anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour reflecting on it. A week later, we get on an hour-long video call, where they share their feelings about what they wrote.”
“Then, I ask questions, dig a little deeper, and together, we work towards tying up all the loose ends. We try and dismantle what’s not working for them, and expand and grow what is.”Sarah Hosseini
She also adds that writing is only one way to go about it. For people who may not be very comfortable with words or who feel that their writing abilities are hindering the emotional transmission from their brains and bodies to the pages, drawing, doodling, sketching, or just getting creative are also great options. “Either way, you are letting it all out,” she says.
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