Journaling has been shown to be a helpful tool in managing your mental health.
It can help you emotionally process what you’re going through.
Journaling may be useful for stressful events, such as dealing with injury.
As an athlete, any diary you keep is likely filled with training sessions and eating plans, but there is research to suggest that adding your thoughts and feelings to paper as well could help you understand your emotions more clearly and manage your mental health.
Writing in this way is known as journaling and it has proven to be particularly useful when dealing with stress and anxiety caused by challenging or traumatic life events. This type of “writing therapy” was pioneered by Dr James W. Pennebaker – a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin – and can be a valuable tool for processing and understanding the situations and experiences you are going through.
Here, we ask Dr Alice Boyes – author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit – about some of the psychological benefits you could enjoy by putting pen to paper…
What is journaling?
“It’s basically just spending 20 minutes writing down the emotions that you’re feeling, as a way of emotionally processing something that has happened,” explains Dr Boyes. “The idea is that our brains get really stressed out by open loops, so what happens is that when you have intrusive thoughts – like if you have a thought about something you’re anxious about, or you have a really sad thought – you’ll try and push it aside.
“And when you do that, it’s like the loops of those emotions stay open in your brain so that the more you get into that tug-of-war where these little thought intrusions and emotional intrusions will pop in, and you push them out, the more that you have that incomplete emotional processing. The idea is that journaling can help us more fully process what we’re going through – rather than always pushing emotions away – and help close those loops a little bit so that our brains are not constantly bringing them back up.”
How do you do it?
“Often you don’t have to do it too much. There’s some research on it where people did just 20 minutes of journaling for three days in a row, and even doing that had some kind of long-term positive benefits on their ability to recover from the stressful thing that had happened.
“Pennebaker – the researcher who’s most famous for this sort of stuff – even had a set of writing rules that you could follow. He said you should set a timer for 20 minutes, open up a notebook or create a document. When the timer starts, begin writing about your emotional experiences from the past week, month, or year. Don’t worry about punctuation, sloppiness, or coherence. Simply go wherever your mind takes you, curiously, and without judgment. Just write for yourself and not for some individual reader. Do this for a few days, then throw the paper away, stick it in a bottle and cast it out to sea, or close the document without saving it. Or if you’re ready, start a blog, find a literary agent. It doesn’t matter. The point is that your thoughts are now out of you and on the page, and you’ve begun stepping out of your experience to gain perspective on it. It’s just really simple.”
Why might someone want to keep a journal?
“It’s usually a private thing. It really is generally something that you do to process your emotions. You might also do it to record an experience – like going to the Olympic Games – so that you can remember what it was like. If what you’re going through is a negative experience, you might think, ‘Why would I want to remember it?’ But it could also be a historical experience, so some people journal in a situation like that because they want to have a record for themselves of what it was like to go through it.
“That’s not so much dealing with stress; it’s not quite the same as the typical way of using it, which is to close those emotional loops, but it can also be a way of dealing with the stress of the experience.”
Is journaling something that could help in my everyday life?
“It certainly can be. The way that we process emotions is different, depending on if we just let the thoughts go around in our heads versus if we talk about them, or if we write them down. It’s just a different kind of emotional processing that we do, where we can structure those thoughts slightly differently. During the day, we all have things we have to get on and do, so we’re always pushing those kinds of things aside, and not really giving ourselves an opportunity to feel our feelings.
“So, in a situation where you might be going through something that’s tough, you might write about the psychological skills you’re using to stick with it, through all of the emotional ups and downs.”
So, could journaling help me if I’m struggling with injury or something like that?
“Yes – any situation in which you’re going through something really difficult, and you need to give yourself a structured space to process those emotions. People tend to veer between pushing emotions out and then ruminating on them. So, if you’re busy all day, you might be pushing out your frustration and anger and whatever intense, upset feelings you might be having about an injury, or about a coach that you don’t feel like believes in you or whatever it is. And then what happens is you lie down to go to sleep, and then all of those emotions pop out for you.
“People veer between pushing them away, and dwelling on them, so when you’ve got a structured space in your day where you can actually pay attention to those emotions – such as journaling – it can help stop that rollercoaster happening.”
THE IDEA IS THAT JOURNALING CAN HELP US MORE FULLY PROCESS WHAT WE’RE GOING THROUGH – RATHER THAN ALWAYS PUSHING EMOTIONS AWAY.
DR ALICE BOYES