Clear Mental Clutter: The Power of Journal Writing

Summary: I love it when a simple tool provides multiple benefits. The practice of journal writing is a tried-and-true way to relieve stress and boost joy. It can clarify what's most important to you and help you achieve important goals. Read on to learn three ways journal writing can be better than therapy.

Clear Mental Clutter: The Power of Journal Writing

A word after a word after a word is power. -Margaret Atwood

The act of putting pen to paper has become just a practical tool for many of us. We might scribble out a grocery or to-do list, but when it comes to communicating important things many of us prefer text and email. 

In a fast-paced world, the act of handwriting seems cumbersome. It takes more time than typing, and handwritten messages can’t be sent instantly like electronic messages can. 

Pencils sitting on top of two journals

But in its slowness lies its beauty, especially when it comes to understanding ourselves better.

I’m a big fan of journal writing, especially the handwritten kind. In this blog I’m going to make a case for why you should have a journaling practice in your life’s “toolkit”. I’ll also share why I think handwritten journal entries are particularly beneficial. 

Expressive writing in any form – via pen and paper or keyboard – is useful, though you might find it’s easier to access your deepest, most complex thoughts by putting pen to paper. Here are the ways journal writing can help you thrive. 

Helps you manage everyday problems.

Social psychologist James Pennebaker has long studied the effects of expressive writing on mental health and found that it helps us deal effectively with a variety of problems, from daily irritations to larger mental health issues. In his studies, “Dr. Pennebaker found that directed, expressive writing is beneficial for everyone, meeting us where we are at, whether we’re coming to terms with a difficult commute, struggling against an annoying coworker, navigating a divorce, or coping with deep grief or PTSD.”

Combats anxiety and improves mood.

For those of us that have a perpetual “worry soundtrack” going in our heads (mentioning this for a friend), one of the benefits of writing in a journal is that it can help you identify and disempower the anxious thoughts.

“There’s simply no better way to learn about your thought processes than to write them down,” says psychologist Barbara Markway, PhD. 

“I write to discover what I know.”  -Flannery O’Connor

Some of us think our anxiety “just is” – that it’s a result of a genetic predisposition and unrelated to a specific thought process. But this isn’t true, says Markway. While genetics can predispose us to being “worriers”, there is always a thought process behind anxiety that can be disarmed through journal writing.

Markway says, “Oftentimes, simply going through the process of writing in your thought diary helps you ferret out important insights. It certainly takes practice and patience, and if you persist, you’ll become adept at noticing your thoughts and seeing the connections to your anxiety.” In short, journal writing can help you reduce stress and anxiety. 

Gets you to real problem. 

Often, what we think we’re upset about is actually just a symptom of a deeper issue. For example, in my previous job, I spent a lot of time frustrated that the leadership of the organization didn’t appreciate my department’s contribution. I thought my problem was lack of recognition for hard work. Over time (and many journal entries) I figured out the real problem: I was tired of working in a toxic and dysfunctional environment and wanted out. 

Benefits you physically.

Expressive writing has been shown to boost immunity and resilience, and also (this one blows my mind) help physical wounds heal faster. Those who were laid off from work were much more likely to rebound and find new jobs after writing out their feelings and frustrations 30-minutes per day for five consecutive days. And a 2013 study showed that “expressive writing can improve wound healing in older adults and women.” 

Helps you savor the happy.

Writing about happy times in your life is a great way to savor and preserve these memories. Personal development coach Barrie Davenport says that writing can be even better than photographs in helping you remember the good times.

“A better way to reinforce your memories of feel good moments is to write about them…When you do document the event, the act of writing in longhand allows you to relive the moment and imprint it on your brain.” My husband and I will often journal together when we travel, and we have found those journals a real delight years later, reminding us of good times and allowing the memories to persist.

Helps you identify and achieve your goals.

Journaling about the things you wish to accomplish also helps you unconsciously begin to create a blueprint for achieving them. The process of writing gets your brain to tune in to what’s most important to you as well as figure out how to pursue your goals in a tangible way. 

Psychology professor Gail Matthews conducted a goal-setting study, and “discovered that those who wrote down their goals and dreams on a regular basis achieved those desires at a significantly higher level than those who did not.”

Still not quite ready to grab a journal and pen? Ask yourself this: What do you have to lose? Journal writing has many advantages and few disadvantages. In addition to the benefits already listed above…

  • It’s cheap. Unlike costly therapy, anyone can grab a notebook and pen, find a quiet corner, and go to town.
  • It’s private. Does the idea of sharing your deepest thoughts with a therapist you just met sound unappealing? No problem! What happens in Las Journal stays in Las Journal. No one needs to know that what you really think about your boss or your neighbor but you and your stationary. 
  • Go at your own pace. In a world where we always feel like we’re trying to keep up or get ahead, writing is something that can – in fact, must – happen at your own pace. Also, handwriting your journal forces your mind to slow to the pace of the pen – a gentle way to calm a whirlwind of constant thoughts. 

“Paper is more patient than people.” – Anne Frank

Journal for Joy! Check out our FREE Journal You Way Towards Joy Guide, which provides you with ten journal writing ideas specifically designed to help you reduce stress and find more joy in your day.

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