In the digital age, there’s a lot to be said for the benefits of putting pen to paper. But more than just the preservation of penmanship, effective journaling can prove to be a life-changing pursuit, affecting everything from how you cope with stresses to your physical health.
And the perks aren’t simply anecdotal. Neuroscience can vouch for the many ways that opening your notebook and writing emotively can prove beneficial, however you choose to do it. And indeed, for a more structured and productive approach to journaling, there are plenty of resources to set you on specific paths (find some here).
Read on to discover just some of the scientifically-backed benefits of journaling.
Putting our feelings into words was found by UCLA psychologists to make feelings of sadness, anger and pain less intense. Their study combined Buddhist teachings with modern neuroscience, testing the region of the brain called the amygdala – which serves as an alarm to activate biological systems that protect the body in times of danger – when confronted with photographs portraying different emotions.
What they found was that when we put our feelings into words, we reduce the response in the amygdala while activating the brains prefrontal region. “In the same way you hit the break when you’re driving and you see a yellow light,” said study authors, “when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”
It reduces anxiety
Bottling up your worries never did anyone any good, but short of voicing them out with a therapist, journaling has been found to be the next best thing. A Michigan State University study provided the first neural evidence of this, finding that expressive writing frees up cognitive resources.
Working on the basis that worrying takes up cognitive resources (the study author puts it that people who struggle with worry are constantly multitasking to try to suppress their worries) college students who had been pre-identified as chronically anxious were asked to complete a computer-based “flanker task” measuring response accuracy and reaction times. While one half of the group were asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the upcoming task, the other wrote about what they did the day before. When it came down to it, the two groups performed at roughly the same level for speed and accuracy, but the expressive-writing group performed much more efficiently, using fewer brain resources.
Yet another car analogy is used to simplify what’s happening here. Study authors say worried students who wrote down their worries were able to offload them and run more like a brand new Prius, whereas worried students who didn’t offload their worries guzzled more brain gas to achieve the same outcomes.
It inspires altruism
When trying to determine whether personal altruistic traits were affected by a journaling intervention, researchers from the University of Oregon were thankful to find that regularly noting feelings of gratitude led to an upward swing in selfless generosity.
Thirty-three women were evaluated to assess baseline gratitude and altruism before undergoing MRI brain scans. Here, each participant viewed transactions in which money was either donated to a local food bank or deposited into their personal bank account. They followed by adding a journaling intervention to half the group, who wrote a daily journal responding to prompts with questions related to gratitude. When this segment of the study group returned to the MRI scan to view the same transactions, activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex shifted in the gratitude-journaling group, and they increased the value signal toward the charity receiving money over themselves.
Study author Christina M. Karns notes these findings show that there’s more good out there when there is gratitude – something easily expressed through journaling.
It can help you sleep
While research continues to unearth the many benefits of a good night’s sleep (and the many shortcomings of a lack thereof), we’ll take just about anything we can get to optimise it. If that means five minutes to jot down a few of our to-dos each night, consider it ticked off.
Thanks to research from Baylor University’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition lab, evidence that writing a to-do list to ‘offload’ thoughts and reduce worry is no longer merely anecdotal. Using overnight polysomnography, researchers monitored electrical brain activity with electrodes in a group of university students, one half of which wrote down everything they needed to remember the next day and the other half who wrote down completed tasks during the previous days.
Contrary to some doubt that writing about upcoming tasks might induce anxiety and hinder sleep, those who wrote out a to-do list fell asleep faster than those who journaled about completed tasks.