Most of us can list the lifestyle choices that help maintain and improve mental health. Regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep and staying socially active are all proven and well-known strategies. But…
Most of us can list the lifestyle choices that help maintain and improve mental health. Regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep and staying socially active are all proven and well-known strategies. But another less-known yet equally simple act also has solid research to support its efficacy: writing.
Keeping a journal is a powerful mental health tool. At the American Psychiatric Association says: “Journaling can provide general wellness and self-improvement benefits, such as making you more self-aware, boosting creativity and helping you build better habits. Journaling can help you better understand your feelings and emotions and help you manage stress. Writing about things that have frustrated or upset you can help you to let go of some of the stress and gain perspective.”
But how does this work? A 2017 study in the journal Psychophysiology may have found one clue. College students at Michigan State University who were identified as chronically anxious completed a computer-based task that measured their response accuracy and reaction times. Before the test, about half of the participants wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the upcoming task for eight minutes; the other half wrote about what they did the day before. Both groups performed at about the same level for speed and accuracy, but the expressive-writing group performed the task more efficiently. An electroencephalography, or EEG, showed they used fewer brain resources while performing the task.
The EEG measured a concept called error-related negativity, says lead author Hans Schroder, then an MSU doctoral student in psychology and now a clinical intern at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital. “That happens right when we make a mistake, even before we are conscious of making the mistake. People with anxiety in general have a larger response, meaning they are working harder than they need to.” But those who wrote about their worries beforehand had a smaller response than those who didn’t. “We thought that if you wrote about your worries, you would offload your worries from your head to the keyboard, reducing the load of worry you are carrying,” he says. In essence, writing leaves the brain with only one thing to think about — the task at hand — and doesn’t need to use energy on its other, less productive task, anxiety.
Co-author Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, compared the results to a car. The anxious students who wrote about their worries cleared that anxiety out of the way, allowing them to “run more like a brand new Prius,” he said in an MSU release, “whereas the worried students who didn’t offload their worries ran more like a ’74 Impala — guzzling more brain gas to achieve the same outcomes on the task.”
Writing is often part of the process of psychotherapy and can help to address specific mental health concerns, according to the APA: “A journal can help you track how you’ve been feeling and functioning over time and how you may have handled difficulties in the past. It can also help you identify areas that you want to focus on or change.”
“If things are floating around in your head, when you actively put those things into words to it forces you to work through it and acknowledge conflict, which is the first step to resolving conflict,” says Dr. Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist and former assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, now a research fellow on Capitol Hill.
Cyrus often uses journaling in her practice. “If you have social anxiety, for example, I tell clients to keep a journal about when you feel it, who you were talking to, how you felt. Keep a record and notice patterns. If you are feeling sad or down and are not sure why, journaling is a way of exploring why that might be,” she says.
And that, in and of itself, can help reduce symptoms. A 2013 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding an emotional event for 20?minutes over three consecutive days showed significant decreases in depression scores immediately after the experiment, and they still felt these benefits four weeks later.
Journaling is beneficial to anyone, even those without mental health issues. “It’s like meditation,” Cyrus says. “It’s restorative to set aside time for yourself and your thoughts. You don’t have to be ‘on.’ You give your brain a bit of rest, let it be.”
The APA notes that there is no “right way” to journal. Write any way you feel comfortable — on paper, on your computer, even by jotting notes on your smartphone. The object is to write every day, if possible, for at least 20 minutes. “Write quickly, write what feels right and don’t stress over grammar or punctuation,” the organization recommends.