Sometimes traumatic or distressing events in life can hijack our emotions so thoroughly that it is hard to function. Recall your emotions after September 11, 2001. Most were deeply affected by footage of suffering and dying Americans as the twin towers burned and collapsed. As a nation, our eyes were teary and our spirits oppressed for many weeks after the event.
We are similarly affected with personal events that are distressing, and our grief, anger, anxiety or fear may stay raw, commanding much of our energy and focus. Tools to manage difficult emotions, such as meditation, journaling, taking care of ourselves, talking to others and exercising, can help bring those emotions under control and allow us to be emotionally balanced again. Today’s emotion-managing tool is journaling.
When negative thoughts intrude
Writing down negative feelings has been shown to reduce those unwanted remembrances of traumas past that intrude on our consciousness while we work or play. You might be minding your own business, eating a blueberry bagel at your desk, when that unpleasant incident of the time you lost your temper and had a knock-down, drag-out altercation with a coworker might come uncomfortably to mind. Or a pleasant walk on a shady trail could be flat-out ruined by a remembrance of that embarrassing incident in the workroom. Journaling seems to curtail these intrusive negative ruminations on past negative experiences, because as we write, we work through them.
In a 2001 study at the University of North Carolina, 71 undergraduates had three 20-minute writing sessions over two weeks. One third of the participants wrote their thoughts and feelings about a negative experience, one third wrote about a positive experience and the control group wrote what they did that day. Only the group who explored emotions around a negative experience were found to have fewer intrusive thoughts about the negative experience during those weeks. (1)
Don’t just vent, find meaning
A key caveat to journaling difficult emotions is that trying to find meaning in a negative experience brings progress and growth; just venting does not. Over the course of one month, 175 students were asked to write twice per week for 10 minutes each time on a distressing personal experience, selected by each participant. One group was to confine itself to writing down the emotions connected with the traumatic experience, another group was to not only write emotions but also to make sense of the situation the best they could, or describe their own internal conversation that helped them deal with it. The control group merely wrote down facts about media events dealing with loss and trauma.
Researchers found that the group that wrote emotions and tried to find meaning from the experience showed increases in positive growth from trauma over time, but the other groups demonstrated no change. In fact, the group that just focused on the negative emotions without cognitively processing them (i.e., trying to find meaning) were found to report more physical symptoms of illness. (2) Other studies have found that using words such as because, realize, understand, effect and reason in our emotional narratives results in better processing and healing. (3,4)
Other perks of journaling
Writing down feelings and emotions over time was found to be more helpful than a one-shot writing binge. Here are some more benefits to keep the keyboard clacking or the ballpoint scratching out the contents of your heart and mind.
Improved working memory. Working memory is our mental workspace where we hold and manipulate important information needed on a short-term basis. (We use working memory when looking at a recipe and then trying to follow four steps by memory without glancing at the recipe again; when doing mental math; when following directions.) (5) Studies have shown that processing experiences in writing improves working memory over time. (1)
Better physical health. In a study of 107 asthma or rheumatoid arthritis patients, participants wrote for 20 minutes three days in a row; half wrote about their most stressful event of the day and the other half wrote about daily plans. Four months later, 47% of the study group had clinically improved in their disease, compared with 24% of the control group having improved. (6)
Boost in immune function. A study of HIV/AIDS patients showed increased CD4 lymphocyte counts, which is a measure of immune system functioning, after using writing to help process negative life experiences in four 30-minutes sessions. (4)
Makes the glass feel more full. Writing it down makes it real. When we take the time to process and describe why something makes us feel great, we appreciate the feeling more and can use it to see things in a more positive light. (3)
Journaling for mental health
Improving working memory
Ideas to get started journaling
Cool journal apps
Klein K and Boals A. Expressive writing can increase working memory capacity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 2001;130(3):520-533.
Ullrich PM and Lutgendorf SK. Journaling about stressful events: effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Ann Behav Med. 2002;24(3):244-250.
Reilly K. Writing your way to better health. Berkeley Science Review. October 5, 2012.
Murray B. Writing to heal. American Psychological Association website. Accessed Oct. 5, 2016.
Gathercole SE and Alloway TP. Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide. 2007: Harcourt Assessment, Procter House.
Smyth JM, Stone AA, Hurewitz A, Kaell A. Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction on patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis. JAMA. 1999;281(14):1304-1309.