Benefits of Journaling for Depression
If you struggle with depression, you aren’t alone. According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, more than 17 percent of American adults, slightly more than seven percent of people aged 18 and over, struggle with major depressive disorder. Many others report mild to moderate depression.
Harvard Health notes that the most prominent symptom of major depression is a severe and persistent low mood or a sense of despair lasting two weeks or longer.
Mild to moderate depression isn’t as severe, but may still include feelings of anger, irritability, hopelessness, or guilt, along with appetite changes, insomnia, fatigue, lack of motivation, and difficulty concentrating. You can’t just “snap out of it.”
If you’re depressed, it’s important to note that journaling can’t take the place of professional counseling or medications, but getting your thoughts down on paper is a tremendous tool for reflection and self-discovery. If you’re seeing a counselor, you may want to share parts of your journal, or you may prefer to keep your writing private.
Benefits of Journaling for Depression: Why Should You Keep A Journal?
Dealing with painful thoughts and emotions isn’t easy, but ignoring your feelings can affect not only your mental health, but it can impact your immune system and overall health. For instance, you may get colds and flu more often, or you may experience more headaches or digestive upsets.
Your journal is a place where you can safely sort out your innermost feelings so you can deal with them. Rather than keeping your emotions bottled up, getting them down on paper is a healthier way to relieve pent up anger, frustration, and disappointment.
In time, journaling will help you clarify your thoughts, and as you explore, you’ll expand your vision and gain insight that may lead to positive changes and a happier, more fulfilled life. For instance, you may begin to recognize patterns or trends that lead to greater self-understanding.
Your depression may be worse early in the morning or later at night. Many people notice a significant increase in depression during the dark days of winter, while others are more depressed when it’s hot and sunny.
Don’t expect to feel better instantly. Be patient; journaling can be life-changing, but real changes don’t happen overnight.
What Should I Write About?
Don’t worry about what you write, and don’t limit yourself. Just allow your thoughts to flow, and don't get caught up in grammar, spelling, or punctuation. If your journal seems a little boring, that’s okay, too. Your journal isn’t a place for perfection, and nobody will see it but you (unless you invite them).
Feel free to write about anything you like, including “socially unacceptable” feelings like anger or aggression, but be compassionate and gentle with yourself. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, take a break and try again later. Your journal should feel like a haven.
It’s essential to dig deep and be truthful with yourself, even if it makes you feel a little uncomfortable; however, forcing yourself to write about upsetting or traumatic subjects that make you feel fearful or more depressed can be counterproductive. Write about those sensitive subjects later, when you feel ready.
If you’re feeling stuck, begin by writing about your day. Write about the negatives, but don’t hesitate to write about positive or pleasurable things, too. Note accomplishments, appreciation, small wins, or humorous thoughts.
How Often Should I Journal?
Research over the last few decades suggests that emotion-focused journaling for 15 to 30 minutes per day can help people come to terms with feelings of depression. According to an article in Greater Good Magazine, published by U.C. Berkeley, many experts recommend writing for at least 20 minutes, four days in a row.
Dr. James W. Pennebaker and Dr. Joshua M. Smyth, authors of Opening Up By Writing it Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain, recommend three short sessions. This method of writing works this way: Write about a personal problem for 10 minutes. Stop and read what you just wrote, then spend the next 10 minutes writing about issues you uncovered during the first 10 minutes. Finally, write 10 minutes about what you’ve discovered.
Don’t feel bad if you miss a day, and don’t beat yourself up if you get off track; you can always start again. Dr. Pennebaker, quoted in the New York Times, said that even a single session of focused writing does a lot of good. Your journal is just for you; you get to call the shots.
An Attitude of Gratitude
You may want to dedicate your journal (or part of it), to gratitude. Greater Good Science Center, University of California Berkeley, notes that writing about gratitude for as little as 15 minutes, at least once a week, can be more effective than journaling every day.
Writing about gratitude may seem difficult when you’re feeling depressed, but if you stop and think about it, you’ll find reminders that good still exists.
Be specific with your gratitude journal. For example, don’t write that you’re grateful for your friends. Instead, note a phone call from a college roommate, or express gratitude that a friend took time to send you a funny or inspirational email.
Write about unexpected occurrences and surprises. For instance, don’t write that you’re grateful for nature, but about the bright red cardinal you noticed in the park near work.
Tips on How to Keep a Journal
If you haven’t tried journaling by hand, you may want to give it a try. Experts say writing by hand involves different pathways in the brain, possibly offering a greater connection to your thoughts and emotions. Some think handwriting forces us to slow down and think about what we’re writing. Don’t worry about your handwriting if you haven’t exercised your writing muscles for awhile.
Journaling should be a positive experience and an effective means of self-care, so make the experience special and unique. Although an inexpensive paper notebook is fine, you may find that you enjoy writing in a durable and elegant, refillable leather journal that gets softer and more luxurious with time.