When I was a boy I occasionally used to keep a diary. I wrote down stuff like “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up”, and “I want to marry the cute girl on the bus”. One of my daughters also kept a journal but what she wrote was more inspiring than my scribbles. She once wrote that she really wanted to be a vet, but if she didn’t get the marks to go to uni, she would just have to work at Sea World and train the dolphins. Sweet, hey?
I read a lot of psychology research, and journaling is often recommended as a form of emotional healing. Some studies show that writing about your thoughts and feelings is beneficial. Writing a diary allows you to better understand your emotions, define your goals and find ways of dealing with life’s challenges.
Writing about your life can be healing. Putting feelings into words helps us deal with negative feelings and can make space for more positive emotions. However keeping a diary is not healthy if you are only going to fixate on the past and again and again focus on a setback without ever moving forward or letting go of the grievance.
Research at Glasgow Caledonian University found journal-keepers who consistently churned over their problems suffered more headaches, digestive problems and sleeplessness than non-diary writers.
What does the scientific evidence tell us about keeping a diary?
In a study in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, researchers found that writing three to five times for 15 minutes was enough to help people deal with emotional and traumatic events. Yet it is not enough to just write about events. How you write is more important.
In another study by the University of Iowa, ‘Journaling about stressful events’, scientists told participants to write in three different ways. Group One focused on how they felt about a situation. Group Two wrote about the thoughts and feelings they had at the time of the stressful event. Group Three wrote factually without emotion, about events in the media.
Yet research still insists that writing down even negative thoughts is still preferable to keeping them inside. This prevents you from bottling up negative emotions, which can surface later. Avoidance will not help you process trauma. It is always better out than in.
Group One who wrote about their thoughts and feelings today were best able to see the positive benefits of the event, and were less likely to dwell on the trauma, but Group Two who focused on how they felt at the time of the incident were most upset. Perhaps because they focused on the negative emotions and did not try to give the incident any perspective. Group Three were not as troubled as Group Two, as they hadn’t personally experienced the traumatic event.
Journal writing is a coping mechanism, but it is most helpful to assess an event in retrospect rather than just keep reliving it in a diary. If you are dealing with a major trauma I strongly suggest you see a psychologist and discuss ways of using journaling to help you heal.
Keeping a diary is also beneficial because it is a record of your triumphs and setbacks. You are not always in a position to totally explore your feelings at the time of writing, however if you detail life experiences in a journal you can return to them later and re-evaluate your feelings then and where you are at now. Writing a diary allows you to relive life happenings later.
How to write in a diary
Keeping a diary is very personal so there is no right or wrong way of doing it. Nobody is going to mark it and hand it back to you with comments like ‘Try harder!’ You can write your diary by hand, type it into a computer, or illustrate it with drawings and cuttings. You might even want to add electronic files like videos or photos. Sometimes I think we spend too much time in front of screens and computers and it’s nicer just to get back to words and feelings, after all, we think in words, don’t we?
Sometimes it’s worth blogging. This is an online diary you share with the world. Think very seriously about sharing your life with the world. There are some fantastic blogs from people battling cancer. The journalist Digby Hildreth wrote 1000 columns on his battle with cancer: https://www.lifehack.org/374972/science-explains-why-keeping-a-journal-can-make-you-mentally-stronger
You don’t need to be Shakespeare to keep a diary. You just need to have the courage to be honest with yourself, and write down your fears, failures, joys and aspirations – that is no easy task.
Other benefits of keeping a diary
Some studies have found journaling can help your performance when facing a new challenge. Research revealed that writing concerns down before performing a task increases results. Just ten minutes of writing can be beneficial. Writing down the steps to solve a problem, means that you are at last prepared!
Should you re-read your diary?
Some psychologists believe that reading back through your diary can help you to spot repetitive patterns of thought or behaviour. Do you keep dating people who fear commitment? Do you sabotage your own job? Other mental health experts believe that just writing down how you feel is enough to help.
What to include
If you want to know what to write about in your diary, start by addressing these:
- Something that you are thinking or worrying about
- Something that you have dreamed of recently
- Something that you are avoiding
- The best thing that happened in your day
James Pennebaker has written a book about keeping a diary Opening Up – The Healing Power Of Expressing Emotions. He says you should find a time and place to write where you won’t be disturbed. Pick a time at the end of your day or before bed. Write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day at least three or four consecutive days in each week. Once you begin writing, just keep writing. Don't worry about spelling or grammar. Don’t censor what you write. Write just for yourself. Hey, you are no longer a kid, your mum is not going to read this.
ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.