Living with anxiety and depression can be overwhelming and daunting. Anxiety and depression are one of the leading mental health conditions, with over 1M taking their lives each year from depressive states and 1 in 13 people globally suffering anxiety (World Health Organization). In the last few years, research efforts have been ramped up, resulting in a set of proven tools that will help sufferers to fight back.
Journaling has become one of the many outlets for people to express their emotions and feelings, and has been adopted by therapists around the globe looking to create an interactive treatment plan with actionable results.
How Journaling Works
A variety of studies show that journaling has been one of the most effective ways to address conditions like anxiety and depression. But what is the science backing journaling and its methods? And what does journaling involve?
Journaling is the act of expressive writing. Journaling is a written exercise that allows people to express their emotions and feelings in a written format. This has been practiced for many thousands of years and has been effective in helping sufferers of anxiety to alleviate symptoms.
In terms of brain activity, there has been many insights into what happens when your brain is involved in journaling. UCLA psychologists conducted research into this and how expressive writing associated with journaling can improve cognitive functions and improve anxiety.
The study looked into the brain imaging of people during journal therapy. Their research revealed that association of written words help to make an experience or trauma less intense. During the test, patients were shown an angry face, which in turn caused a region of the brain called the amygdala to increase in activity. The amygdala is used to activate alarms in your body to protect yourself. Even when the people were shown these same images subliminally, their amygdala responded.
But once candidates in the study began to associate words directly with the images, their brain’s emotional reaction is reduced. There is a reduced response from the amygdala and you begin to activate the prefrontal region of the brain. Researcher and professor, Matthew D. Lieberman of UCLA rounded this off well by stating this process is “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the break on your emotional responses.” Each time you journal, your brain’s reaction can be less intense making it easier to express important or trapped feelings that can lead to better treatment.
Another similar study looked into the chronic worriers and how journaling supported their condition. The researchers, Michigan State and researcher Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology were taking lead. During their study, they measured the brain’s activity as chronic worriers addressed their emotions through expressive writing.
The study was conducted on college students who all were highlighted to have a form of chronic anxiousness. Students were split into two groups and asked to completed a “flanker task” in an attempt to measure their accuracy and speed. The first group, before the task, had to write about their “deepest thoughts and feelings” about the upcoming flanker task for a total of 8 minutes, whilst the other group wrote about what they did the day before.
Whilst the speed and accuracy of the flanker task performed equally for both groups. The group who were tasked with expressive writing delivered more efficient results and used “fewer brain resources”, this was measured using an EEG during the study.
This study showcased the way expressive writing helps to reduce worry and anxiety on the brain. With Moser, one of the researchers on this piece stating “Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard on upcoming stressful tasks” and that the “technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a “cooler head.””
Reducing Anxiety and Depression?
Journaling has been used for many centuries as a way to reduce anxiety and depression, but the real research has only been conducted into this over the last 10 years.
- Boost your mood/affect.
- Enhance your sense of well-being
Reduce symptoms of depression before important events (Flinchbaugh, Moore, Chang & May, 2011)
- Improve your working memory ( First researched by Richards & Gross in 2000, reproduced by Klein in 2002 and Baikie & Wilhelm in 2005)
- Improve asthma or rheumatoid arthritis in a clinically relevant way, even four months later (Smyth, Stone, Hurewitz & Kaell, 1999)
- Reduce intrusive thoughts & increase emotional regulation (Davidson et al., 2002)
- Result in more health-promoting immune responses (Booth & Perie, 2002)
- Decrease depressive symptoms (Stice, Burton, Bearman & Rohde, 2007)
Studies of all kinds has supported that journaling doesn’t just address any conditions with the mind. There have been many physical benefits of people. Some include; boosting immune functions, improved health outcomes, brain’s working memory, and much more.
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Why is Journaling Becoming Popular?
Journaling has become an effective tool for many people but the awareness of this therapy has been on the rise for many years. This has been for many reasons.
The first is word-of-mouth, many journal users tend to express the way that journaling has helped them through social media and face-to-face conversations and thanks to the awareness and focus on mental health in 2018, there has been more people open to trying something new.
Other ways that journaling has risen to power has been the Bullet Journal movement. Bullet journaling is a methodology developed by Ryder Carroll. This method helps people, using a book, to track the past, manage the present and organize the future, something that many people like to get involved in. But the one option is the ability to add your own journaling process within this to help begin a track of your emotions and feelings, like a diary.
Due to the widespread success, journaling has become even more accessible using methods like this. Millions of people have videos and tutorials on how they use a BuJo (Bullet Journal). The final way that journaling has become a popular method has been the fact that therapists are now recommending this more often, above the likes of meditation, thanks to the extensive research available to endorse the act of expressive therapy like this.
How does it compare to Meditation?
In previous studies conducted by the UCLA research team at the start of this article, showcased that mindfulness meditation is effective in reducing a variety of chronic pain conditions, skin diseases, stress-related health conditions and ailments like this.
But thanks to recent exploratory research into expressive writing versus meditation practices, it has been clear that journaling has much stronger roots in research for it to be the highly recommended methodology to include in addressing mental health concerns.
Many therapists and counsellors around the globe are re-considering the amount of expressive writing therapy that they are introducing into sessions and even the balance of mindfulness practices against writing like this.
Meditation is an effective solution, but not as effective as journaling. Journaling trumps meditation when comes to researched scientific benefits and a way forward for people suffering from anxiety and depressive disorders.
You can read all about the scientific limitations to meditation here.
Thanks for reading along today! Feel free to comment with your own opinions on journaling. Has it helped you to address your mental health concerns? Or do you do it every day?
More Journaling Prompts, Worksheets And Activities
Therachat offers pre-made activities for psychologists and counselors to engage their clients in between sessions and achieve better outcomes.