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Heal and Grow: The Power of Journaling

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

If you’ve ever visited my website, you have likely noticed that I am a volunteer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI. I mention it on my About page and I have written several blog articles about mental health-related topics that are posted on my Blog page, but which were originally posted on the websites for and Life At The Intersection, my friend Terri Lyon’s creative activism site.

Like millions of other families in this country, there is mental illness in mine—diagnosed depression and anxiety.

For those who are diagnosed with mental health disorders or syndromes, treatment most often comes in two forms: psychiatric medications and psychotherapy (one-on-one talk therapy and peer support groups).

So, why in a blog for my editing business am I taking you down this road? As an editor, blogger, and writer myself, I wondered how best to merge these two worlds—my advocacy for those with mental health disorders and my skill with words.

That quest inspired me to educate myself about journaling. I found that journaling comes in many flavors—gratitude, art, prayer, dream, travel, and so on. But with a focus on mental health, I’ve chosen these three styles to discuss: therapeutic, reflective, and expressive. Let me share what I’ve learned.

What Is Therapeutic Journaling?

Therapeutic journaling differs from traditional journal or diary writing, which involves recording the details of daily events. Instead, difficult life events and challenges are written about and discussed with a mental health practitioner for the purpose of working through pain and trauma and moving toward self-confidence and recovered mental health.

Therapeutic journaling allows you to come to a deeper understanding of yourself and gain a different perspective on these difficulties. By identifying patterns in thinking, you see your struggles in a new light, allowing you to break the patterns.

Note: Therapeutic journaling sits in the wheelhouse of trained therapists, psychologists, LCSWs, and clinical settings. The type of writing that is done is not dramatically different from expressive or reflective journaling. The distinguishing aspect is that the journal entries are read and analyzed as part of the writer’s mental health treatment.

In summary: Therapeutic journaling is about delving deeper into your life’s experiences to make sense of them, learn from them, and gain new perspectives on your challenges. Writing about your thoughts and emotions provides opportunities for healing and growth.

Expressive vs. Reflective Journaling

I found this description of these two journaling styles in a February 2014 article on a website for the Education Resource Group. It is meant as a classroom writing assignment:

Expressive writing is personal and shows your thoughts, ideas, and feelings about an experience. Reflective writing goes beyond just sharing an experience, requiring the author to look back at the past and apply what he or she has learned to the future.

For some, the distinction between expressive and reflective journaling might be a case of splitting hairs. Let’s see if I can bring the purpose of each into focus.

What is Expressive Journaling?

Expressive journaling was popularized by Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, Austin. According to Pennebaker in his book Expressive Writing: Words That Heal, expressive writing promotes physical, psychological, and behavioral health.

Expressive writing, explains Pennebaker, is not so much about what happened during your day but how you feel about what happened. By regularly documenting your emotional reactions to life events, you are able to identify problematic thinking patterns that might not be serving you well.

In summary: Expressive writing is not about what happened but how you feel about what happened. Okay, so what’s the difference between expressive writing and therapeutic writing? The primary difference is that expressive writing looks at your current daily life, while therapeutic writing focuses on memories of past trauma or injury and how they detrimentally affect your thinking now.

What is Reflective Journaling?

Reflective journaling is the process of writing down your daily reflections (hence the name) about something positive or negative that happened to you. By thinking back on the day’s events, reflective journaling lets you put into words what you have learned from your experiences.

In summary: A reflective journal encourages you to think about all you experienced in the course of your day and decide what learnings you can come away with. It’s a reflection on your behavior and the behavior of others in relation to you. Whether an experience was good or bad, there are lessons to be learned.

Tips for Journal Writing

Regardless of which type of journaling you choose, follow these guidelines to get the most from the practice:

  • Choose a quiet, private place with no distractions.

  • Write at the same time or as close to the same time as possible each day you journal.

  • Write daily if possible or, at least, several times during the week. The more often you journal, the better you will become at it and the clearer a picture you will get of yourself.

  • Use whatever writing medium appeals to you: a pencil or pen that feels good in your hand, a special notebook or journal that is yours solely for the purpose of your regular writing practice, a laptop or desktop if you’re firmly rooted in technology. The choice is yours. The medium does not matter, just the practice.

  • Write quickly and don’t stop to edit or correct. Don’t over-think it. Just let the words spill out.

Pitfalls of Journaling

At the risk of sounding like a silly fuddy-duddy, journaling can have its downsides. Here are a few behaviors to be on the alert for.

  • Journaling can dredge up all kinds of emotions and might cause an outpouring of negative feelings and memories. It should never drive someone to a place of despair. Sharing your journals with a mental health practitioner, a journal writing group, or even just friends can keep you balanced and keep your memories and feelings in perspective.

  • Don’t write excessively, to the exclusion of other activities. Journaling should add insight and growth to your life, not rob you of other life experiences.

  • Over-analyzing your journal entries will not lead to improving your life. You can analyze your words to death. Read your entries a day or more after you’ve written them with an eye toward planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. Journaling is meant to be a complement to your life’s activities.

Benefits of Journaling

Journalist and therapist Kara Mayer Robinson, in an article for WebMD, summarized the many reasons that journaling is beneficial. Journaling…

  • Promotes self-awareness. You will get to know yourself better.

  • Lets you take charge of your emotions and worries. See them. Name them. Take control of them.

  • Shifts your viewpoint about yourself and those around you. You will gain a broader perspective.

  • Creates a positive opportunity for healing and recovering self-worth. Whether you write in a journal about problems or gratitude, a healing process happens.

Your Comments and Stories, Please

I welcome comments about my descriptions of these journal writing styles and the usefulness of one form of journaling over the other. If journaling in any form has improved your life, I’d love to hear about it.

In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.

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Very interesting! I've seen some information about reflective journaling but I've never tried it. Question: you say use whatever method of writing suits you best but I wonder whether methods differ in terms of therapy outcomes. The research on handwritten vs. electronic note taking in education is what brought this question up for me.

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