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Journaling Can Help or Hurt

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

woman writing

Within my clinical practice, just as many other therapists do, I often suggest that people journal about their experiences. I suggest different journaling exercises depending upon the circumstance. However, one common approach I take is to ask people to just use stream-of-consciousness writing when they feel upset about a circumstance.

I have found that this exercise tends to help them gain greater awareness of their experiences. For instance, “I’m feeling upset” might become, “I felt hurt at first, but that quickly turned to anger… Now I’m just so overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted that I feel depressed.” So, journaling can help to clarify some emotions and open you up to acknowledging other emotions.

I’ve also seen patients gain greater perspective with journaling (though sometimes only with the added help of therapy). For instance, you might start out journaling about how hurt you feel by the actions of someone you love. Then, while journaling, it might occur to you that this is a common theme for you; leading you to question your actions and responses.

Given my experience with asking people to journal, my curiosity was piqued by a study I recently read about. This study (which will soon be published in Clinical Psychological Science) looked at people who had a recent marital break-up.  They were assigned to  one of three groups: expressive writing about their experiences, a novel-type writing, or control writing (not emotionally expressive). They did this for twenty minutes over 3 consecutive days. Those who tended to ruminate or actively search for meaning were much more distressed 9 months later when they had done the expressive writing than when they had done the control writing. And, interestingly, the high ruminators and those in search of meaning in the control group ended up (after 8 months) feeling less upset by their separation than the low ruminators or those not actively searching for meaning. So, while thinking about the separation could be helpful, journaling about it could also be harmful.

This makes sense to me in that it is often helpful for people to make sense of their experiences, but they can also fall into the trap of just “spinning their wheels.” Thinking and re-thinking the same things; or rehashing the same emotions; can leave people pointlessly distressed. In my experience, people are less likely to get caught in such a cycle if they remain fully emotionally engaged as they try to understand their experiences – a process called mentalizing. Mentalizing allows people to work through the feelings that often drive their ruminations; and gain new insights into themselves. Unfortunately, this complex relationship of reviewing experiences while being emotionally engaged is beyond the scope of the current study. To learn more about how continued emotional engagement combined with reviewing reasons for experiences might affect the results of expressive writing, someone can conduct a study on it, or you can just think back on your own experiences. I suggest that you try the latter.

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

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