New year, new notebook?
Journaling or keeping a diary is an adaptive way to cope with difficult or confusing situations, said Dr. Eric Storch, professor and vice chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.
“It gives the opportunity to write things down and gain perspective,” Storch said. “Perspective comes when you write it on paper as opposed to having it float around without clear specificity. Where journaling can also be very helpful is generating a sense of catharsis.”
Does journaling actually help a person’s mental health? TikTok would have you thinking yes. A few social media trends this year point to journaling or “manifesting” better mental health for yourself; the trends include vision boards, bullet journaling and shadow work journaling.
However, journaling is simply writing things down, Storch said. The idea of “manifesting” is what he refers to as magical thinking.
“Without behavioral follow-through, journaling may be limited in its scope and utility,” Storch said. “It’s not enough to write it down; linking a behavior with what you’ve written down is key here.” Goal-setting and behavior activating are next steps that can enhance the effectiveness of journaling, he said.
Journaling can help provide clarity and objectivity about an event, memory or feeling. It also helps a person articulate a behavioral strategy of thinking-through, and then implementing an action plan – all in the hopes of feeling better.
Here’s how you can journal effectively:
- Dedicate time to yourself and writing: Journaling is an activity that is about perspective and a release of tension and energy. For someone, just the activity is adaptive and helpful. Storch said it can help reshape a person’s thoughts and gives them an opportunity to reset.
- Formulate a response: If something unexpected or surprising happens, journaling can help a person calm themselves and find an appropriate behavioral response. However, the absence of a behavioral response limits the benefits of journaling.
- Articulate a strategic plan: Writing can be cathartic; however, journaling should come with a sense of purpose. After writing about something that has happened or a painful memory, continue by writing what you should do next.
- Do other things: Journaling is only one of several different coping strategies. Exercising, spending time with loved ones or a therapist, cooking a meal, going to the movies or other activities – each can help a person gain perspective.
Storch likes to do ceramics. “For three hours, I think of nothing except how do I get this ball of clay to do something other than plop over.”
The key to improving your mental health is having multiple coping strategies and to safely confront situations as they happen, he added. Try not to fester in the uncomfortableness of what has occurred; instead, act. And know that not all mental health strategies, like journaling, may work for you.
“For some, journaling can be really helpful. For others, exercise can help clear the mind and gain perspective,” he said. “Whatever it is, I think having some diversity of coping skills and flexibility in your application of them, will be positive.”
By Julie Garcia