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According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20.6% of US adults experienced mental illness back in 2019. It may not seem a lot as a percentage, but looking at the equivalent definitely makes an impact because it represents a staggering 51.5 million people. Said another way, that's 1 in 5 adults. What about people who have yet to seek professional help? We can only imagine how many more of them - all suffering from a mental illness that some may not even be aware of - are unaccounted for.
Thankfully, the world continues to change, and growing awareness has caused some of the stigma on mental health to start fading away. Nowadays, people are more mindful of each other and themselves, and are more inclined to seek the help they need. The good thing is that there's more help than there ever was, and while it's true that we still have a long way to go, how far we've come is worth taking note of, too. This article from NBC News looks at what we hope to change in the future but also highlights a decades' worth of progress: we've made improvements as far as acceptance, treatment, community and government support of mental health is concerned.
But out of all the factors that have played a huge role in the remarkable changes that continue to shape how we see mental health, clinical research has to be the most vital. For instance, many studies over the years have proven that mental health has a biological basis and is associated with changes in the brain's structure, chemistry, and function, thus making it as real as any other medical illness. This "proof" has increased efforts to assist those who need mental health help using more than just available treatment options, and has paved the way in providing them a means to cope and express themselves.
In today's list, we want to focus on the amazing, science-backed benefits that journaling offers to improve mental health - but not just because it's relevant to the journaling community. We also want to do our part, small as it is, in helping remove the stigma that surrounds this important topic further. Whatever it is you're going through, we hope you find something here that works for you!
Before getting started, we’d like to point out that we don’t claim to be mental health experts. If you need help, please reach out to a professional. These are simply tips that we’ve found to help us and others.
Back in the Fall of 1983, Dr. James Pennebaker and graduate student Sandy Beall conducted the first expressive writing experiment. During this controlled study, they discovered that students who were randomly assigned to write about their traumas for four days, 15 minutes a day, ended up going to the student health center less for the next 6 months following the experiment. When the same study was replicated by a couple of researchers two years later, it yielded the same results. Since then and nearly four decades later, countless studies have emerged and confirmed that expressive writing may have a positive impact on healing from trauma - both mentally and physically.
As a method that allows us to write down our innermost thoughts and feelings, journaling has always incorporated expressive writing and provides people with more than just a place to vent out, become organized, or keep a record of their day to day activities. "People who talk about things over and over in the same ways aren't getting any better. There has to be growth or change in the way they view their experiences," Pennebaker says.
And journaling is just that: it goes beyond writing by allowing us to slow down and make sense of what has happened to us in the past, all while giving us the opportunity to stand back in order to assess and reevaluate what's happening in the present. In the case of trauma, expressive writing aids people with the help of different perspectives, and this helps them learn from their emotions, find meaning in an otherwise terrible experience, and find the closure that they need so they can keep moving forward in their lives.
While certainly not a miracle cure, individuals and experts alike can attest to the fact that the expressive writing process - and journaling itself - helps.
A little bit of anxiety is normal. In fact, it's even beneficial in certain situations by helping to motivate us, which ultimately leads to better performance. But too much of it can be distressing at best and, at worst, can keep individuals from leading normal lives. This is because people who suffer from anxiety disorders feel so much fear and worry about everyday situations that they either have difficulty functioning, or are driven to the point of inaction. Here though, is what studies have found: by "offloading" worries through expressive writing, people with anxiety can free up mental space that will allow them to do more things.
One of the many benefits of journaling is providing an avenue for people to write their thoughts and feelings down without being judged. As a result and with this type of creative, expressive freedom in mind, you're able to write your most honest thoughts down in your journal. This doesn't only make you feel good, the practice of journaling your anxiety also allows you to look at your thought process and figure out what your triggers are.
An article from Psychology Today compared our stream of thoughts, the automatic ones, to background music. We know it's there but, oftentimes, don't even notice it. However, despite our inattention, these things can affect a number of things: our mood, ability to concentrate, and even our energy levels. That being said, in order to have a better handle on our anxiety, we first have to figure out what the background music is - and there's no better way to do that other than writing your thoughts down. Seeing your thoughts on paper will make them more real, yes, but then, you'll have a better chance of challenging them, especially the unreasonable (or unrealistic) ones.
Rumination is the process of having repetitive thoughts and can be both positive and negative. The latter can, of course, be dangerous to mental health. A perfect example by Medical News Today is a person with depression who "persistently think(s) negative, self-defeating thoughts." For someone who is already suffering from feelings of dejection and helplessness, ruminating doesn't help and leaves them stuck. But it doesn't hurt just the ruminator themselves; it can also impact their relationships, which then gives them more to ruminate about.
The thing about journaling, particularly with the expressive writing aspect in mind, is that it helps lower negative rumination by allowing depressed people to be intentional about their writing. The goal is not only to vent or offload, but to process, understand, and find meaning behind what they feel. In one study, participants suffering from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) were asked to write their deepest thoughts and emotions about a significant event, with positive results: paired with other existing interventions for depression (like therapy), they showed a significant decrease in depression scores four weeks later. In another study, depression-vulnerable college students were asked to do the same thing and showed lower depression symptoms by the 6-month period.
But more than expressive writing, journaling can help in other ways, too. It incorporates things like tracking habits: for depressed individuals, a habit tracker can become a snapshot of their 'low' days, which can provide insight on possible patterns and factors that influence or worsen their symptoms. Meanwhile, gratitude journaling helps by providing another perspective that focuses on good things - that is, what they're grateful for. Journals have also been used to keep track of goals; whether short-term or long-term, goals can provide positive motivation during bad days by encouraging people to keep going.
This list is, of course, not meant to replace more conventional treatments offered to people who are suffering from mental health illnesses. They can, however, be cost-effective supplements to help you cope with, express, and understand the thoughts and emotions you have about what you're going through. At its most basic, all you will need is a pen and paper to reap the many benefits of journaling - and because there are more advantages than there are limitations, keeping a journal of your own is definitely worth a shot.
Once again, we’re not experts on mental health. This is simply a compilation of tips that have worked for us and others. If you need help, please reach out to a professional.
How has journaling helped you, or someone you know, with mental health and well-being? What improvements have you seen? Are there specific journaling methods that you use for the purpose of getting over trauma, easing anxiety, or battling depression? Share it with us in the comments below! No matter what methods you use, the most important thing is to find something that works for you.
With all that said, wishing you peace of mind and an abundance of better days!