The therapeutic diary is a powerful tool available to everyone to rediscover the mental balance. When we are going through difficult times, feeling lost or stuck in a rut, or are simply stressed or depressed, therapeutic writing can help us shed some light on that jumble of emotions and thoughts.
What is a therapeutic journal?
The therapeutic diary, as its name indicates, is a diary that provides psychological benefits, often of a therapeutic nature, that help us to know ourselves better or overcome certain situations. It involves using reflective writing to gain mental and emotional clarity, validate experiences, and come to a deeper understanding of yourself.
The person can write a therapeutic journal on their own or keep it under the guidance of a psychologist. It can even be used in support groups, where people can choose parts of their journal that they want to share with others.
The enormous benefits of therapeutic writing for physical and emotional health
Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events generates an improvement, not only in our mental balance but also in our physical health. A study carried out at the University of Notre Dame in Australia revealed that people who kept therapeutic diaries in which they wrote about these events for 15 to 20 minutes, 3 or 5 times a week, reduced their blood pressure and improved the functionality of the liver in just four months, compared to those who wrote on neutral topics.
On the other hand, New Zealand researchers found that therapeutic writing can help us heal faster after a biopsy. In the study, 49 healthy adults wrote about disruptive events or daily activities for 20 minutes, three days in a row.
After two weeks, to ensure that any initial negative feelings aroused by recalling disturbing events had passed, all subjects had their arm biopsied and the healing process followed for the next 21 days. By day 11, 76% of the group that had written about their emotions had been completely cured, compared to 42% of the control group.
In fact, another study conducted at the University of Texas found that young people who kept a therapeutic diary went less to the doctor because they were less likely to get sick. Everything seems to indicate that writing about distressing events helps us to make sense of them, reduce the anguish and the level of stress they generate, which facilitates recovery on the physical level. In other words, the emotional benefits of keeping a therapeutic journal are reflected in our health.
• Relieve the stress. Writing about anger, sadness, and other painful emotions helps release the intensity of these feelings. By doing this, you will feel calmer and can stay in the present.
• Clarify your thoughts and feelings. Thanks to a therapeutic diary you will be able to detect those thoughts that originate or maintain a problem. Writing down what you think and feel will help you determine the irrational beliefs and patterns that are producing these maladaptive behaviors and that fuel anxiety, depression or anger. This will allow you to see more clearly what is happening to you and will help you to rethink that way of thinking and reacting.
• You learn to know yourself better. Going beyond the actions you take every day to focus on what you think and feel forces you to reflect on aspects of your personality that normally remain hidden. In this way you will learn to know yourself better and you will know which aspects to enhance and which would be better to change. You will also be able to realize the things that are beneficial for your well-being and those that are toxic.
• Contributes to problem solving. Writing a therapeutic diary will help you to take a psychological distance from the problems, which often leads to a more detached and global perspective of what is happening to you. As a result of looking at the problem in another light, you are likely to find unexpected and creative solutions to problems that seemed unsolvable.
• Helps turn the page. Therapeutic writing is an excellent tool for turning the page. It helps organize and structure traumatic events to generate more adaptive and integrated mental schemes about oneself, the others and the world. That will allow you to turn the page faster and be able to rebuild your life without the heavy burden of guilt, anger or resentment.
• Resolves interpersonal conflicts. Therapeutic writing will also help you better deal with interpersonal conflicts. It will help you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and develop a more empathetic attitude, or it will allow you to realize that you need to quit a toxic relationship. It will help you get out of that emotional network to see everything in perspective and make a smarter decision.
• Facilitates emotional catharsis. Another advantage of the therapeutic diary is that it can serve as a means to perform a catharsis without hurting anyone. Pages can become your escape valve to unleash different emotions that could harm others. When you’re done, you’ll likely feel relieved, like you’ve took a huge weight off your shoulders.
Obviously, for keeping a therapeutic diary it is not worth writing down everything we have done during the day. It is important to follow some rules, so that this writing is really healing.
Guidelines for Using Writing as a Therapy
There are different models for writing a therapeutic journal. The psychologist Ira Progoff, for example, proposed an intensive journaling method in which there are four color-coded sections: life dimension, dialogue dimension, depth dimension and meaning dimension, which are further subdivided into other subsections such as career, dreams, body and health, interests, events and meaning of life.
However, a therapeutic diary can also be kept following a freer writing model. The important thing is that you choose a time and a place where no one can bother you so that you can connect with your inner world and bring up the experiences you have lived. You should feel free to write, but you should also keep in mind some key details so that this writing process is truly a healing therapy:
– Write in the first person. In this way, you can more easily take responsibility for your actions, thoughts and emotions. Writing in the first person will also allow you to take charge of your life and become more proactive.
– Do not judge or censor yourself. The goal of the therapeutic journal is not to judge you but to let your experiences make their way. Therefore, do not criticize the way you have reacted to a certain situation, try to write from an objective perspective. Also do not judge other people or interpret their thoughts, write in a purely descriptive way, without censoring anything just because you think it is inappropriate. It is an exercise that can be difficult at the beginning, but it will help you manage negative emotions and face life from a more balanced position.
– Avoid “shoulds”. A common mistake that we all tend to make is to set ourselves prohibitions and give ourselves orders, we talk too much using “I must” and the “I have to”. Instead, start using “I want” or “I choose.” It is a radical change of perspective because it will allow you to realize all those things that you do out of commitment but that you do not really feel like.
– Don’t pressure yourself. Writing should be therapeutic, not a source of additional stress in your life. Therefore, although it is convenient that you consider in advance how much time you will dedicate to this activity, nothing happens if one day you write little. Just write at your own pace. And don’t worry about how well you write, the important thing is to write about what makes sense to you and do it in the most natural way.
– Don’t ask, make statements. Questions, in a general sense, tend to create an unpleasant feeling of uncertainty. So instead of asking yourself questions, make statements and, as you read them, reflect on how you feel about them. You are likely to discover aspects of yourself that you did not know. For example, instead of asking yourself “Do I love my partner?” Just write: “I love my partner.” And analyze how that phrase makes you feel. After all, the therapeutic diary is a tool for finding answers.
– Be concrete and positive. We often ramble because we want to hide the truth, but in a therapeutic journal there is no place for lies. Be concrete and write in a positive way. For example, if you refer to your state of health, the phrase “I don’t want to feel bad” is totally counterproductive. Instead you can write “I’m going to quit smoking”, a specific goal that will bring you closer to a goal. Always keep in mind that the goal of a therapeutic diary is not to wallow in your problems but to find solutions that make you feel better.
10 ideas to start a therapeutic diary
If you’ve never tried writing as a therapy before, blank pages are likely to give you some blockage. The important thing is to break the ice. Therefore, these are some ideas to start writing, choose the one that inspires you the most.
1. Write a letter to yourself.
2. Write a letter to someone else, someone to whom you want to say something important, even if he or she is gone.
3. If you could talk to your “self” as a child or adolescent, what would you say to it?
4. What would you like the others to know about you?
5. Describe yourself using 10 sentences.
6. Write about at what point in life you are at this time.
7. Write about where in life you would like to find yourself next year or ten years from now.
8. Write 10 things that you have been grateful for throughout the day.
9. Make a list of the things that concern you most right now.
10. Make a list of the things you have been successful at.
Robinson, H. et. Al. (2017) The effects of expressive writing before or after punch biopsy on wound healing. Brain Behav Immun; 61:217-227.
Baikie, K. A. & Wilhelm, K. A. (2005) Emotional and physical benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment; 11(5): 338-346.
Pennebaker, J. W. & Francis, M. E. (1996) Cognitive, emotional, and language processes in disclosure. Cognition and Emotion; 10(6): 601–626.