Can Journaling be Bad for You?
Daily journaling is a common practice. Several studies have found that journaling can have many benefits, including reducing stress, helping you process traumatic experiences, finding a sense of meaning, noticing patterns in your life, improving working memory, and, of course, keeping track of what has happened. For these reasons, journaling is often part of recovery plans for people recovering from substance use disorders or mental illnesses, but journaling can benefit anyone, in recovery or not. However, writing is just a tool and it’s possible that journaling in the wrong way can do more harm than good.
If you use journaling to merely reinforce bad thinking habits, then journaling probably won’t help you much and might leave you stuck even more deeply in your problems. For example, journaling may be a way to confirm your existing biases. Say, for example, that you resent someone deeply and you decide to journal about it. If you spend 10 pages marshalling all the evidence that that person is no good and treated you unfairly, and so on, your anger and resentment will only become more deeply entrenched. A much better approach would be to explore your resentment from many different angles. What actually happened to cause your resentment? How did that hurt you? What might the situation look like from the other person’s perspective? How might your own behavior have contributed to the conflict? When you use journaling to open your thinking to this type of exploration, you may actually gain insight, rather than just rehearsing your grievances.
This is true for pretty much any problem you face. If you tend to be pessimistic, writing about how awful your day was is not likely to help. It is certainly helpful to identify negative beliefs that contribute to your suffering, but the key is to refute those beliefs with sound evidence, rather than cherry pick reasons those negative beliefs must be true.
To keep your journaling on the right track, it may help to have a systematic approach. For example, one method often used in cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is to write down negative emotions you’ve experienced that day, what events caused them, and what beliefs link the events and the negative emotions. Then you can examine that underlying belief critically, and perhaps undermine its power to make you unhappy. Another common approach is to write down three things you’re grateful for every day and why. This helps you focus on what’s good in your life and has been shown to boost positive emotions. There are several such methods proven to help you in different ways depending on your goals. Sticking to these and avoiding the negative habits mentioned above will help ensure journaling has a positive effect on your life.
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