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Why Journaling Works & How To Start

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

Write your way to understanding your brain and why you think the way you do

Metacognition, understanding self, journaling tips & prompts, mindfulness practice

Life is hectic. We are conditioned to need to go a million miles a minute in every aspect of our lives. So it's no surprise that our brains are now trained to keep pace. You might think "So what? I know what's going on in my head. I don't need to write it down on paper or in an efile." And yeah, honestly, I was right there with you. I dragged my feet on starting a journaling practice for a long time. A LONG time. Now I rely on it as one of my immediate go-to's when I feel I need to pause, as an instant understanding of my true mindset or thoughts, or as a way to strengthen my commitment to goals.

But it took some science for me to get there, and I'm guessing it might for you, too. So let's chat briefly about why the physical act of writing is so productive, and favorited by some of our world's brightest minds and leaders.

Neuroscience and Neuroplasticity

Neuroscience, simply put, is the study of the central nervous system, which includes our brain, brainstem, and sometimes can also include information given to these areas by the peripheral nervous system, which is what wires and moves the rest of the body, is responsible for fight or flight reactions, automates involuntary body actions, and most importantly for us, receives sensory input. Neuroplasticity look at the cells of the brains, called neurons, and looks at how the structure of the brain via neurons can change in response to different behaviors, substances, lifestyles, and patterns.

Why does this matter for journaling? Well, the more times you do something, the more that action is reinforced as a habit, which acts on the neuroplasticity of your brain and literally rewires your brain cells and changes the structure of your brain!1 No, really. And the coolest part - doing good things (giving gratitude, meditation, reading, mindfulness) grows a healthier brain, no matter what the age. When it comes to journaling, taking time for healthy practices like this can not only improve your happiness, but also help you to develop healthier cognitive function.2

Whether you're a neuroscientist or not, the takeaway is this - adding mindfulness practices like journaling to your routine literally creates a healthier you.

Journaling and Your Brain

Research has shown that journaling practices as little as three weeks in length have resulted in healthier brains, structurally and in terms of types of thoughts.2 It has been shown to boost mood, reduce stress, improve immune function, improve memory, enhance creativity, improve mood awareness, and boosts self-confidence, among other positives.3

But why? Why can't we just think the journaling prompts, and get the same results? Well, the answer lies in the physical act of writing itself. When you write words down on paper (or type them), you are stimulating portions of your brains and activating cells in ways that makes you pay closer attention.4 Mindfulness training is an art in paying attention to the present moment, and writing forces the brain to pay attention to the moment at hand. See the connection?


Why You Need It

Alright, I'll be honest, I was honestly so not into journaling for the longest time. I thought, "I know my brain, I can answer journaling prompts in my head, I'm mindful, I don't need to do that." But that's like saying "I know how swimming works, I don't actually need to get in the water and learn to do it to get the benefits. Theory is enough." I was wrong. That's not how it works. Journaling is effective, in so many ways. When I began journaling with prompts, I internally scoffed because I didn't need any illuminating questions to show me my inner thoughts. I'd done meditation and mindfulness in other ways and I could answer them without writing. But, when I actually sat down with my favorite pens, I realized that even though I knew what my immediate answer was, the act of slowing down to write it out made me think a little more deeply, and find more pieces of the answer that I didn't know were there. I also remembered my answers to questions long after I'd written them down, and was able to recall and reflect upon them when I was faced with the same topic or activation in other portions of my life. This, in turn, reshaped how I felt and approached the situation, and I realized that I was now responding with intention instead of reacting out of instinct.

What this means for you is that, even if you're skeptical or on the fence, you should absolutely 100% give it a try. If you are scatterbrained (like myself), mood swing-y (also like myself), stressed (let's assume that I can relate to all these near universally relatable states of being and save time), looking to deepen a mindfulness or spiritual practice, working on overcoming habits or behaviors, working to incorporate new habits or behaviors, feeling the need to let emotions and thoughts out, craving some space and quiet, looking to work on goals, working with manifestation, or simply would like a new healthy hobby, this is for you. You'll find yourself looking more deeply inward than you typically do, you'll have clearer perception on your life, and better focus on what matters most.

Types of Journaling

"Dear Diary, Today I..." Alright, yes, I know. Most of you are probably cringing. Sitting down and writing about our day is not the preferred style by all, and journaling is not one size fits all. There are days I work with prompts, organization techniques, and tracking, and there are days I bust out the good old Lisa Frank and gel pens. It's all about what suits your mood. Here are some examples of styles and ways of journaling:

  1. Gratitude journaling - Writing three to five things you are grateful for every day, or every morning/night.

  2. Coloring - Yes, coloring! Mindful coloring, meaning you are actively paying attention to your movements and putting effort into your color choices provides the same effects as writing.

  3. Structured/Prompt journaling - There are tons of sites and apps you can download that give you prompts for everything from self-awareness to creative writing. Spend a couple seconds with some key words on Google and you'll find tons.

  4. Tracking - There are lots of things to track, but I recommend tracking things that only make you feel good. For me this means writing down goals I want to achieve for the week or mindfulness habits I'm working on doing more often, and giving myself a little check when I accomplish it.

  5. Mazes, puzzles, and word searches - Just like coloring, this is a great way to focus your attention away from everything going on in your mind and bring you to the present.

  6. Dream journals - Like to reflect on your dreams? Write them down in the morning!

  7. Stream of consciousness - this is the more traditional "diary" style that we're most familiar with. Write anything and everything down as it comes.

  8. One-Year journal - Write one line per day each day for five years

  9. Goal setting - Planning out something you'd like to achieve, broken down from the final goal, to major benchmarks, to individual steps, over a set period of time. These are very popular right now and can double as planners, too.

  10. Reflection - Taking time daily to write down things such as what you did, something good that happened, and something you'll work on.

  11. Evaluation - Typically done in conjunction with another type of journaling such as tracking, goal setting, or reflection, this starts out with a base, then reflects on your progress periodically towards a set goal or desire.

  12. Mind mapping - Starts with a central thought and branches out, eventually connecting ideas and thoughts together to form a web

  13. Art/Photography journal - Words, but with art! Allows creative freedom through images to express whatever you'd like.

  14. Scrapbook journal - Mixed-media of writing, visuals, and integrated things of import such as photos, ticket stubs, pressed leaves or whatever else is meaningful to create your entry

  15. Mood journal - focuses on the ebb and flow of your moods and inner self to study your internal landscape and better understand your emotions.

Tips on Making Journaling a Habit

It can be hard to start something and stick with it. We don't like change. We're actually programmed against it, in some ways. But if you can do something for 14 days, you can make it into a habit. Here are some tips and tricks I've used to help myself into the routine of journaling: