How Writing in a Journal Helps Manage Depression

For most her life, 33-year-old Christina Suchon has lived with depression. Through the ups and downs, one thing that's helped time and again is writing in a journal.

"Even if it's just total negative, garbage nonsense that I'm scribbling on a page, it helps clear my mind and figure out what is exactly bothering me," says Suchon, who lives in Tijuana, Mexico.

Many mental health experts recommend journaling because it can improve your mood and manage symptoms of depression. Studies support this and suggest journaling is good for your mental health. It may also make therapy work better.

"Journaling is not a cure-all," says licensed professional counselor Jill Howell, but there are plenty of benefits.

How It Helps

Makes you more aware. Journaling helps you get to know yourself better.

Expressing yourself in a journal can bring your thoughts and feelings to the surface. Many people are surprised by what they write, says Denver psychotherapist Cynthia McKay. You may discover you're worried about something you didn't know was upsetting you until you wrote it down.

You can keep your journal private or share it with your therapist. She can help you see what's important and use it to help you move forward.

Lets you take control. When your thoughts and worries swirl around, putting pen to paper can cut down the chaos. "When we write things down, they feel more manageable," says clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo, PhD.

Suchon agrees. She says writing helps her get things into perspective and puts a damper on feelings of worthlessness. "It brings me back to reality."

Journaling helps you take an active role in your treatment. It empowers you to do something to help yourself feel better. It also helps you recognize when you feel worse and need extra help.

Shifts your viewpoint. Keeping a journal gives you a chance to use positive self-talk.

"I like to use gratitude journals and affirmation journals with my clients," says Charlynn Ruan, PhD, a licensed clinical therapist. Ruan says writing about happy memories is especially powerful because depression tends to bring up negative feelings. "It's like retraining your brain."

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Lets you notice patterns. A journal can help you track your symptoms. If you log how you feel every day, you may spot things that trigger your depression.

For example, you may notice symptoms get worse at a certain time of day, when you're under stress, or when you're in a challenging relationship. If you know your triggers, you can avoid them in the future.

Journaling may give you insight on how you're doing over time. If you look back at older entries, you may notice trends. You'll see if you're feeling better, worse, or the same.

It can be a red flag that you need more help or reassurance that you're doing OK. "It has helped me to go and look back at past entries and realize at how far I've come in treatment," Suchon says.

Journaling Tips

Let it all out. Write about anything. Let your thoughts flow freely.

"I often tell my patients to write and rip," says Howell. "When you know that no one will ever read what you're writing, you're much less inclined to edit or worry about spelling, grammar, or bad language." The less you worry about writing, the more you benefit.

Write regularly. Try to journal on a regular basis. Every day is ideal. Aim for 20 minutes.

Look for a time and place when it's quiet and you're relaxed. You may find it's easy to write in bed, before you go to sleep. You may have fewer distractions and can look back on your whole day.

Try new things. Write letters to yourself. Write to loved ones who are no longer with you. You can even write comforting words to yourself that you think your loved ones might say to you, Howell says.

Don't get too negative. If you find yourself jotting down only negative thoughts, try to shift your writing in another direction.

It's OK to write about things that aren't positive, but put a limit on it. Don't do it longer than 20 minutes, Ruan says.

Avoid rereading your negative writing. "Maybe even make a symbolic gesture of wadding up the page and throwing it away after writing it, as a feeling of emotional cleansing," she says.

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Make it easy. Set yourself up for success. Keep a pen and paper handy. Put your journal near your bed, in your bag, or in your car. Or write on your computer or tablet.

"It's taken practice to remind myself," Suchon says, "that no matter what I write, I know I feel better after I do it."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on December 4, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Jill Howell, licensed professional counselor.

Cynthia McKay, psychotherapist.

Perpetua Neo, PhD, clinical psychologist.

Charlynn Ruan, PhD, licensed clinical therapist.

Christina Suchon, Tijuana, Mexico.

University of Michigan Depression Center: "Journaling."

University of Rochester Medical Center: "Journaling for Mental Health."

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