Updated: May 2, 2019
If you haven't jumped on the journaling bandwagon yet, you're actually missing out! Keeping a journal, especially for your mental health, is scientifically proven to increase emotional intelligence, cognitive functioning, memory capability, self-reflection, and speed of recovery/progress in people with mental health disorders. In just a short period of researching the benefits of journaling for mental health, over a dozen studies appeared showing relevant benefits to well-being!
You may be unsure as to 'why', 'how', or 'who' mental health journal prompts really help, and if journaling will actually make a difference in your wellness. The studies I chose to represent the benefits of expressive writing, creative writing, or journaling, were picked to encompass benefits for different demographics of the population, therefore hopefully you can find a study that applies to you!
Continue reading below for 11 scientifically-proven reasons you should be using mental health journal prompts to supplement everyday health routines and aid in the treatment/recovery of mental health disorders.
Still looking for the right journal? Check out the following, giving a few pretty, botanical journal suggestions, destined to inspire jealous from family and friends, as well as give you the confidence you need to better your mental health!
Jaunty Journals for Your Self-Confidence
1. Poetry and Identity Formation
A study done by Alan S. Waterman, Eileen Kohutis, and Julie Pulon from Trenton State College (1977) found that writing poetry was linked with healthy identity development, as well as aiding those with personal identity crises. The same results were not found from just simply keeping a journal, the specific form of creative expression is what had an impact on identity formation. This isn't to say writing in a journal isn't beneficial, but the specific practice of poetry is what researchers attribute to aid in identity development and formation.
2. Writing and Memory
Working memory requires higher cognitive functioning than short-term memory, and a study done by Kitty Klein and Adriel Boal from North Carolina State University (2001) saw improvements in participants' behavior and overall health. Researchers from the study even say,
"Compared with individuals assigned to write about trivial topics, experimental participants who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings showed reductions in physician visits (Pennebaker & Francis, 1996), improvements in immune function (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988), increased antibody production (Petrie, Booth, Pennebaker, Davison, & Thomas, 1995), and increases in psychological well-being (Lepore, 1997; Murray & Segal, 1994) for several months after the expressive writing intervention."
Klein and Boal's (2001) study focused on measuring the improvements they saw in working memory capacity after having participants practice expressive writing.
3. Writing Protects Against Overthinking
Have you ever heard the psychology term for 'overthinking'? Rumination, a maladaptive emotion regulation strategy, causes someone to obsess over negative thoughts without forming any kind of resolution. Denise M. Sloan and Brian P. Marx from VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University, along with Eva M. Epstein and Jennifer L. Dobbs from Temple University (2008) discovered in their study that because rumination is often associated with depressive symptoms, expressive writing can have beneficial effects for people experiencing depressive symptoms as well as those who ruminate!
4. Writing in a Journal Can Help Psychologists Be Better Psychologists
Researchers looked at what specific activities helped psychologists with professionalism, and the leading factor seemed to be self-reflection activities. These activities could include writing in a journal, or (this looks familiar) mindfulness! This study was done in 2017, by Samuel Knapp from The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, Michael C. Gottlieb from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Mitchell M. Handelsman from the University of Colorado Denver.
5. Multi-Cultural Healing
In a study done at the Chinese University of Hong Kong by Celia C. Y. Wong and Winnie W. S. Mak in 2016, researchers mentioned the benefits of self-compassion to mental well-being, but noted this hadn't been studied in Chinese students before. Self-compassion writing was found to have significant impacts on not only mental but physical health of Chinese college students.
This study is important because it provides a multi-cultural perspective of the benefits of using mental health journal prompts. To avoid ethnocentrism, or an ethnocentric bias because I live in a western culture, I've included a study that shows the efficacy of writing universally!
6. Writing Helps Reduce Doctor Visits
Health care utilization is a fancy way of saying going to the doctor, and this study sought to determine if expressive writing (another way of saying writing for fun, writing in a journal, not writing for work/school, etc.) could reduce the frequency of doctor visits. Alex H. S. Harris from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care System (2006), researched participants writing about stressful experiences, and found in healthy populations writing did help reduce health care utilization, but in populations where participants had already been diagnosed with either a physical or mental illness, it did not have an impact.
The lack of impact writing had on the diagnosed population's doctor visits, may be due to those who had already been diagnosed, whether with a physical or mental illness, did not have much of a choice of how often they went to the doctor. This could be due to declining health, medication/treatment changes, or personal setbacks.
7. Writing Helps Promote Therapeutic Change
Scientific articles support writing as beneficial to mental and physical health, but it's especially
reassuring to see writing has even been proven to help professional therapy! In a study done by Jorden A. Cummings of the University of Saskatchewan, Adele M. Hayes of the University of Delaware, and D. Sebastian Saint and Jeff Park of the University of Saskatchewan (2014), expressive writing was found to have beneficial impacts on promoting and tracking therapeutic growth! The progress seen in participants from mental health journal prompts specific to their personal problems was impressive, and researchers encourage clinicians and therapists to incorporate the "simple yet effective" practice of expressive writing!
8. Writing Helps Women with a History of Sexual Abuse
A recent study done by Carey S. Pulverman, Ryan L. Boyd, Amelia M. Stanton, and Cindy M. Meston from the University of Texas at Austin (2017), showed women with a history of sexual abuse were better able to process negative feelings from the event(s) and not let the trauma have as strong an impact on their sexual self-schemas.
9. Types of Writing
Researcher Sara Baker from the scientific journal Traumatology (2009), speaks about her findings on writing from her study in words she puts best,
"A healing writing experience, then, is not so much about genre—memoir, fiction, or poetry—but about clarity, emotional tone, concreteness, sensual detail, and imagery. I think it is also about form, and finding the form suitable for one’s voice, one’s experience."
10. Physical and Psychological Benefits of Writing
Éva Kállay from the Department of Psychology at Babes-Bolyai University (2015) lists many studies that give concrete benefits to wellbeing. Here is what she says in her article,
(i) "Physical functioning: Period of hospitalization, health visits, frequency and intensity of physical complaints (Rosenberg et al., 2002), respiratory problems (Hockemeyer & Smyth, 2002), immune system functioning (Sloan & Marx, 2004), autonomic and cardiovascular outcomes (McGuire, Greenberg, & Gevirtz, 2005), fatigue (DanoffBurg, Agee, Romanoff, Kremer, & Strosberg, 2006), wound healing (Weinman, Ebrecht, Scott, Walburn, & Dyson, 2008), cancer (e.g., via reduction of negative mood and increase of positive mood, Jensen-Johansen et al., 2013; Stanton et al., 2002), HIV (e.g., via increased CD4+ lymphocyte count, Petrie, Fontanilla, Thomas, Booth, & Pennebaker, 2004), chronic pain (Norman, Lumley, Dooley, & Diamond, 2004), etc.
(ii) Performance: Improvements in the grades of college students (Lumley & Provenzano, 2003), length until reemployment (Spera, Buhrfeind, & Pennebaker, 1994), absenteeism (Francis & Pennebaker, 1992), etc., and
(iii) Psychological outcomes: Changes in distress (Nishith, Resick, & Griffin, 2002), bereavement and grief (Range & Jenkins, 2010), suicidal ideation (Antal & Range, 2005), anxiety and depression (Graf, Gaudiano, & Geller, 2008)."
Kállay speaks about the cost-effectiveness of writing as a treatment in therapy, or an aid in mental health "upkeep" in day-to-day life. The study also concludes social constructs could affect someone's ability to open up about certain topics in conversation, therefore expressive writing could provide an outlet for those sensitive topics.
Guidelines proposed by Pennebaker (2010) and Smyth et al. (2008) give optimal conditions for the best results from expressive writing:
➺"in a safe, quite environment, where they are not disturbed, interrupted, or daunted;
continuously, without interruptions, and without paying attention to style or grammar;
➺within a 15–30 min sessions, with the possibility to calm down after the eventual emotional upheavals experienced during disclosure;
➺in an appropriate number of sessions, depending on their needs and possibilities, distributed in an appropriate time frame;
➺in the presence of a therapist or health care specialist who constantly encourages them to explore and disclose their most intimate feelings and thoughts about the event;
➺about the stressful/traumatic encounter that really bothers them, as well as about its long and short-term implications. Moreover, specialists warn against;
➺the implementation of interventions immediately after a traumatic encounter, and recommend;
➺the use of this intervention either as basic treatment technique or as a complementary method to traditional interventions."
11. Benefits of Writing for Men with Difficulty Expressing Emotion
An interesting study by Y. Joel Wong from Indiana University Bloomington and Aaron B. Rochlen from the University of Texas at Austin (2009) researched the impact of expressive writing on men who had problems with restricting or suppressing their emotions. Participants in the study who were randomly assigned to the expressive writing group, claimed they had significant decreases in psychological distress compared to the men who did not use expressive writing (even weeks after the writing activity!).
"What, then, should we call the kind of writing that promotes health and well-being? Personal writing? Therapeutic writing? Self-disclosing writing? Risky writing? Or perhaps simply writing? Whatever word or words we use, we now know, thanks to James Pennebaker and the growing number of researchers who are following his lead, that writing is a way to achieve health and wholeness, a form of 'chimney sweeping' that may be as effective as the talking cure. The writing cure has enormous clinical and educational implications. As Pennebaker affirms at the end of The Writing Cure, both the therapist and the English teacher should encourage patients and students, respectively, to 'construct good stories that provide meaning and structure to their lives' (p. 289). As our lives grow more technologically complicated, it is reassuring to realize that nothing is more powerful for the head, heart, and soul than writing—it is a 'low tech' way to preserve health and sanity."
-THE WRITING CURE: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being, edited by Stephen J. Lepore and Joshua M. Smyth, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2002, xii + 313 pp., Reviewed by Jeffrey Berman, PhD University at Albany, State University of New York (2003)
Now that you can be sure mental health journal prompts will benefit your physical and mental well-being, check out the following mental health journal guides!