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Your brain on journalling

Writing down what's going on each day can have a huge impact on your life.

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 Dan Murray-Serter
Dan Murray-Serter
October 25, 2020
4 min read

Dear diary… Whatever your reasons for starting a journal, chances are it’s going to be helpful. The reported health benefits of journalling* stretch from stress and anxiety relief, to more restful sleep, healthier finances, improved fitness, and even better heart health.

(**Before you @ us, journaling vs journalling has been a hot topic in the team this week. Even Collins and Oxford dictionaries disagree on it. So, we’ve gone with a double ll, because we’re Brits, and on balance, it just felt right. So, that’s that out of the way.)

Types of journal

There are no rules really when it comes to journalling, but it can be good to have a variety of journals choose from, depending on your mood on any given day.

  • Gratitude journal: A simple list of three - five things you are grateful for.

  • Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s 5-step stress release: Write down the answers to these five questions: What is one thing I'm anxious about today? What is one practical thing I could do to prevent or prepare for it? What's one reason it's probably not going to be as bad as I fear? What's one reason I know I can handle it? What's one upside of the situation?

  • Reflective journal: Look back on your day to process thoughts and feelings.

Mental health benefits of journalling

Journalling is most-commonly associated with its purported mental health benefits, but what’s the scientific proof? 

Studies (like this and this) show that reflexive journalling is beneficial for emotional well-being, and a useful and effective tool for tapping into your emotional intelligence.

This study of medical students resulted in a reduction in anxiety and the negative impacts of anxiety across the board after visual journalling; and parents in this study showed improvements in parenting stress, negative affect, and life satisfaction as well as significant reductions in negative thoughts and feelings after completing four weeks of a daily gratitude journal.

Why the brain loves a gratitude journal

Of all the types of journalling, gratitude is the most widely studied for mental well-being. Not surprising really, as it is connected to both mental and physical well-being, with links to processes within the brain that have long-term impacts on our overall health.

Studies have shown that it can improve well-being throughout your life, increasing self-esteem and life satisfaction. 

In a trial of people undergoing psychotherapy, gratitude journalling in conjunction with treatment resulted in significantly better mental health—interestingly this was compared to those who received therapy treatment alone, or therapy as well as expressive writing exercises. 

Patients who did gratitude journalling while suffering from heart failure reported improved sleep, and a reduction in depression, amongst other physical improvements.

Cognitive benefits of journalling

Extra fascinating (to us brain geeks anyway), is the impact that journalling has on activity within the brain itself. 

One study found that the act of gratitude journalling is linked to a greater and lasting sensitivity to gratitude—the participants showed increases in gratitude behaviours and significantly greater neural activity in response to gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later.

Another study found that people who wrote a gratitude journal for three weeks increased the altruism response in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens. Meaning that gratitude journalling could benefit others, as well as yourself. 

Benefits of journalling on learning

Journalling is an unexpected learning aid. Students who engaged in journalling were able to think more analytically, with greater focus and resilience. It has also shown to be useful in encouraging reflective thinking, which is a useful learning tool.

In younger children, teachers experienced benefits like improved well-being, relationships, and cognitive skills as well as an improved classroom environment after gratitude journalling.

For another well-being idea, check out these top tips from WeTransfer CCO Damian Bradfield on changing your digital behaviours.

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