Fascinating characters and successful people have been keeping journals for hundreds of years. They scribble down their experiences, fears and joys. The writing is often passionate and unreserved and is often begun with the familiar cliché of “Dear Diary”. Even if you do avoid this teenage soap opera cliché, at the very least a journal is written as if for an audience even if that is the entirely against the author’s wishes. Why would you address a bundle of bound pages as if it were a friend?
Writing as if speaking to a confidant sets a familiar scene and helps you put aside the idea that you are in essence talking to yourself. It gives the exercise a frame of reference you understand. Most of us know how it feels to share our deepest secrets with a friend and understand the relief that comes with “getting something off your chest” and starting with Dear Diary gives you licence to get venting. There is research that shows that writing down your emotional experiences not only improves your mental and physical health1 but that it assists you better gain perspective of your circumstances and that often leads to making decisions about your future that will be better in tune with what is good for you long term2.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was created with an acute understanding of the benefits of having a client write about their emotional distress. However, the client is encouraged to go further than documenting events and into analysing why those events have caused such distress. So how does this achieve a new perspective and what exactly does “perspective” mean? Writing something down puts your thoughts onto paper which is quite literally a blank page. Your mind is not. This is especially so if you are suffering a severely distressing state. To lay things out in a more logical fashion on paper is far easier than attempting to make sense of a situation in your head when there are conflicting emotions that will make certain thoughts and ideas seem more credible. Emotions are often important for guiding your life forward, but all too often these emotions can lead us to decisions that may best be avoided.
Don’t be fooled. Not everything you write down is emotionless and one hundred percent reflective of what you want and who you are. It is however, a very big first step to answering those questions. Now all you have to do is convince yourself to get started. The benefits will be felt from your first attempt, but will you be able to make it a habit in the long term? That first hurdle is a phenomenon I will discuss in my next blog.
1: Empirical foundations for writing in prevention and psychotherapy: Mental and physical health outcomes (Brian A Esterlinga, , Luciano L’Abateb, Edward J Murrayc, James W Pennebakerd). Clinical Psychology Review. Volume 19, Issue 1, January 1999, Pages 79–96.
2: Treating Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Structured Writing Therapy: A Randomized Controlled Trial (Arnold A.P. van Emmerik, Jan H. Kamphuis, Paul M.G. Emmelkamp) Psychother Psychosom 2008;77:93-100