Journaling has been around a long time. From Leonardo da Vinci to Anne Frank, journaling has shown itself to be not only a means of historical record but also a profound analytical opportunity and thus, an effective therapeutic tool.
Continual self-evaluation has also long been recommended for authentic, sustainable recovery from addiction. First published in 1939, Step 10 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (4th ed., 2001, p. 59), clearly states “We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”
Although today, writing down our thoughts and feelings can sometimes be viewed as old-fashioned or a pain-staking waste of time (far from our contemporary, instant-coffee style kind of living), the psychological and even physical benefits of journaling are well established and well tested. Many scientific reports point to the numerous benefits that journaling has for our general well-being.
Historically, journaling has successfully helped “Vietnam veterans and psychiatric prisoners” process personal pains. It has even “eased the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis” as well as significantly “boost the immune system” (Pollard, 2002).
Nguyen (2015) writes “Studies have also shown that the emotional release from journaling lowers anxiety, stress, and induces better sleep.” In recovering addicts, journaling helps prevent the accumulation of resentments, self-pity, shame and irrational fears. Putting thoughts into black and white has a way of making them official, tangible and present. It will even chip away at any denial that might be building up. Researcher Gillie Bolton, someone who has endured her own traumatic experiences, and now invested in the benefits of journaling, states “I couldn’t trust a therapist the way I could a piece of paper. Paper’s always there to reread or rewrite. Once you’ve said something you can’t unsay it, but with a page of writing, you can. You don’t ever have to share it. You can burn it if you want.’” (Pollard, 2002).
Journaling requires us to bring our past frustrations and future anxieties into the present moment, where they can be properly acknowledged. There is also a scientific concept that backs journaling’s capacity to assist with the establishment of future goals. When we write down our goals, the reticular activating system (RAS) of the brain is engaged and signals the importance of what is being written down. From this point, the RAS notes opportunities and tools to achieve the established goals, which becomes a kind of psychological blueprint that can’t be as easily forgotten (Nguyen, 2015).
Besides clarifying thoughts and feelings, and making our future goals more literal and achievable, writing is a processing tool that establishes a slow, methodical definite record that develops a stronger self-awareness and better understanding of others. It has been found that journaling can contribute to a higher emotional intelligence, largely due to this analytical process of recording and reading journal entries, as well as engaging a natural search for new words and ways of expression. Nguyen (2015) writes in the Huffington Post “A report by the University of Victoria noted that ‘Writing as part of language learning has a positive correlation with intelligence.’” Journaling positively influences memory and comprehension, as well as reduces stress. Very often, through writing down our experiences, previously blocked emotions can finally be released and processed.
Therapeutic writing takes place when the writer has direction and focus. This might take some practice, but it is essential in avoiding superficiality, which is the main problem with a lot of journals, according to psychotherapist Miriam Kuznets (Pollard, 2002). Writing about negative events and traumas can help the processing and acceptance of them. Writing about a positive, happy experience will allow the brain to relive it, and release endorphins and dopamine to “boost your self-esteem and mood.” (Nguyen, 2015). This can, with time, become a collection of experiences to look back on with a sense of achievement and gratitude.
Bolton strongly recommends the redrafting process, as it is not simply during the outpouring onto paper that healing takes place, but the revisiting, when new realizations can be made from a new perspective (Pollard, 2002). Writing is more material than spoken words that are only present for a moment and then becomes forged in the past, and it takes a lot longer to say less.
There are many journal writing exercises available online, in the form of themes or writing prompts. Bolton (Pollard, 2002) suggest that the first thing to do is to forget the rules of writing. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or neatness. Choose something concrete as opposed to abstract. Describe an object dear to you, or a day that sticks in your memory. When you write, remember that you always have control. You decide what happens to that written piece after it’s done, and you can edit it into eternity. Maintain your privacy when you write, this will help you feel more secure and honest about what you put down. You can start by writing for 6 minutes or 20 minutes, every day or three times a week. If it’s very difficult for you, perhaps even try write in the third person.
If you are reading this article, it is highly likely that you have a connection with addiction in some way. Families and friends are no strangers to the dispersed harmful and hurtful effects addiction has, yet many of these people are unaware that perhaps they, too, need some support. The great benefit of journaling is that it is accessible to everyone, with no negative effects on the body or the pocket! I would like to encourage you to start here, with a journal. Perhaps you will be surprised at the effect this kind of writing might have, or perhaps you will identify some new information about yourself and your life. The benefits are a definite, and on offer to all groups of people, in addiction, in recovery, in perfectly normal lives; it’s certainly worth a try.
Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book (4th Edition) (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous World Service, Inc., New York, USA.
Colino, S. (2016/08/31) “The Health Benefits of Expressive Writing”. U.S News. http://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/2016-08-31/the-health-benefits-of-expressive-writing
Nguyen, T. (2015/07/15) “10 Surprising Benefits You’ll Get From keeping a Journal.” The Huffington Post.
Pollard, J. (2002/07/28) “As easy as ABC”. The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2002/jul/28/shopping