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The Real Benefits of Keeping a Journal

Scientific studies have discovered that it's beneficial to the brain.

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Photography by: Ryan Liebe

Most of us have tried to chronicle our lives at one point or another. When we were teenagers, we may have kept a diary of our general angst. As adults, we keep a planner to organize our thoughts and recall important details. Modern journaling isn't always within the pages of a bound book that we lock away from others either. Writing a blog can have a similar effect on our brains as keeping a traditional journal. But what does journaling actually do for the brain?

 

According to Ginny Taylor, a life transition mentor at Women of Wonder, journaling has an immediate emotional impact. "I'm not the first to claim that writing has saved my life," she says. "Journaling — or writing for my own eyes — is how I best think, explore my emotions and experiences, discover below-the-surface good and ugly truths about myself, the world, my relationships." 

 

We give a name to our emotions and attempt to order our feelings, make sense of them when we write in a journal. A study from the University of California-Los Angeles found which parts of the brain were affected. The reason that journaling makes us feel better has to do with how it activates the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and decreases the gut punch emotional response in the amygdala. By writing down our emotions, we allow our minds to face them. "Journaling can help us shift from a high-stress response to a more reasoned, insightful response to a particular life challenge," Taylor explains.

 

Journaling becomes the focus for Taylor's Women of Wonder workshops. She works with women who are facing life changes or who desire healing from past traumatic experiences. "I teach journaling as a self-empowerment tool in my sessions [...] There are no rules for journaling — no need for editing, making complete sentences or remembering how to use semi-colons," Taylor says. "With rules tossed aside, I find women begin to write beyond all the perfection pretense and begin to express themselves as honestly as they can."

 

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Dr. Julie Gurner, Psy. D. and coach, says that journaling can provide benefits for everyday management of our emotions. Not only does journaling help us deal with our feelings in stressful situations, it can also help us make sense of our day-to-day health and well-being. "The benefits in areas like mood, sleep and simply coping with every day are well documented [....] Journaling allows people to put to paper anything. It's a non-judgmental format where they can be raw and honest," she says. "Journaling can also be used simply to grow, understand yourself better and look back on your day with a fuller appreciation."

 

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How to Get Started

 

How can we get the most out of our journaling? While there are no definitive rules to the practice, we can enhance the benefits of putting our thoughts to paper or in an online blog. 

 

Dr. Gurner says, "Sometimes a blank piece of paper can look intimidating and people new to journaling aren't sure where to begin." If writer's block has made it difficult to get started, maybe begin with writing about what you're grateful for that day. "Starting from a positive place, no matter what might weigh heavily on your mind, is always a way to keep perspective as you navigate your thoughts." 

 

Let Thoughts Flow Freely

Taylor says that we should write without editing. Just let the words flow and forget about trying to make it perfect. "Journaling is not about creating something perfect on the page," she says. "It's about bringing a sense of curiosity to what happens on the journal page."

 

Set a Frequency

"Set a timer for five minutes and write about a memory, an experience or how you're feeling," Taylor suggests. "Doing so just a few times a week can make a difference. But discover what frequency works for you." You could journal three times a week or every day, depending on your schedule and your needs.

 

 

Keep it For Your Eyes Only

While blogging can provide some of the same benefits as traditional journaling, it's important to have a private journal as well. "When you're pouring your innermost thoughts on the pages," she says,"the last thing you want is for someone else to read them." Private journals allow us to express our feelings and thoughts without worrying about what other people would think of us. We will be more honest with ourselves.

 

 

Express Yourself Beyond Written Words

Taylor says that journal pages can include anything from doodles and coloring pages to stickers and photos. "Give yourself permission to be adventurous and creative on the page," she says. "Use colored pens, crayons, pretty journals with lines or blank sketchbooks." It all comes down to you. 

 

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