“Journaling! Why would I want to journal? Isn’t that like a diary? Aren’t diaries for teenagers?!” exclaimed Julie, as she sat across from me in my counseling office. It was almost as if I had just offended her by suggesting something like journaling. “Well, yes,” I stated, “I guess it is like a diary, but it is also so much more!” I could tell by her body language I was going to have a hard time convincing her of the benefits of journaling, even though I know they worked.
I thought I’d take another approach. “Why such a negative reaction to this idea? Did you have a bad experience with a diary as a teenager?” I asked. Taking a deep breath, Julie nodded, “Yes, I used my diary to disclose some of my deepest darkest secrets and my older brother found it and proceeded to share it with everyone at school! I was mortified! I told myself I would never write my thoughts and feelings out on paper again.”
Maybe you can relate to Julie. Maybe you cannot. Maybe this journaling idea is a new or novel concept for you. No matter your thoughts on this topic, I want you to set aside your experiences and feelings for a little bit and I want to walk you through the three main reasons why I believe journaling is a powerful tool for healing and future health.
Journaling Releases Stored Emotional Memories
When difficult things happen to us, our bodies go into protective mode and they store the sensation (or experience) as both an emotional memory and a pictorial memory. The emotion and the picture are linked. If they are not separated, you have the potential of having an emotional reactive response to a similar experience. Essentially your body is on high alert and anything remotely similar to the first difficult experience will trigger your reactive response system.
Journaling helps process the emotion from the event. When you write (and it has to be pen/pencil to paper), you are engaging the parts of your brain that are storing both the emotional memory and the pictorial memory. By writing, you begin the process of separating the emotion from the experience (picture) and as a result you begin to gain perspective and make meaning from that experience. The more you journal, the more insight and healing you will gain. In my experience, the best way to start is to re-tell the story of the event or struggle and then allow yourself to free-write after.
Journaling Actually Changes Your Brain
Journaling helps strengthen brain connectivity. Our reactive, emotional brain receives sensory and experiential information from both internal and external stimuli. Without a buffer, this system will simply react. The buffer is our thinking brain (the frontal cortex); the part of our brain which is necessary for consequence reaction, forethought, planning, and reasoning. The emotional brain and the thinking brain are connected through the anterior cingulate. This connection gives us the ability to think and react rationally and provides a holistic perspective of our experiences.
Like anything in our brain, there is a “use it or lose it” principle. The more you journal, pray, meditate on and memorize scripture, the thicker the anterior cingulate becomes, and the more holistic you are in how you act, react and interact with your world. Brain scans actually show a visibly thicker anterior cingulate in individuals who journal regularly. Pretty amazing If you ask me!
Journaling Provides Historical Perspective
I don’t know about you, but I feel like Dori in “Finding Nemo ” and have short-term memory loss when it comes to God. Journaling provides a historical timeline to reflect on God’s goodness and faithfulness. It is a great cure for memory loss. My mom always says, “Trust in the character of God and not the circumstances of the past, present or future.”
Journaling can be a direct historical record of God’s character and a great tool for reflection. Furthermore, it provides us a narrative to pass along to our children and their children.
Deuteronomy 6:3-9 gives us instruction as to what this should look like: “Listen obediently, Israel. Do what you’re told so that you’ll have a good life, a life of abundance and bounty, just as God promised, in a land abounding in milk and honey. Attention, Israel! God, our God! God the one and only! Love God, your God with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got! Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night.” (MSG)
So, if I have convinced you, great! If I haven’t, I will challenge you, as I challenge my clients to give it a try for at least 30-days. Discipline yourself to journal for at least 15-minutes a day for 30-days and then see if anything has changed.
Dr. Mark Mayfield
Dr. Mark Mayfield is an author, speaker, leadership coach, and professor. He has extensive experience in executive leadership as former founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers a 501c3 non-profit in Colorado Springs which serves over 20,000 appointments a year. Dr. Mayfield is an executive leadership coach, helping churches and organizations navigate the complexities of their mental and emotional health. He is also an Assistant Professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at CCU. He lives in Magnolia, TX with his wife and three children.