An excellent article on MedicineNet.com interviews medical professionals and therapists about using writing to cure depression. Creative writing might very well have positive effects on depression, but the kind of writing the article discusses, and the kind I recommend for working on almost any emotional or motivational issue, is journaling.
Before I go much further than this, I’ll add this disclaimer: of course not all emotional concerns can be addressed through writing and self-help. This is one tool for helping address depression, but it’s not meant to be a cure-all, something that does everything for everyone.
What can a journal accomplish for a depressed person? There appear to be a whole range of benefits:
- Dr. Michael Rank calls journaling the “most effective and cheapest” form of self-help.
- A journal can be used with an understanding of idea repair to help fix broken ideas. This is one of the most powerful contributions of cognitive psychology: a tool we can use to change our own thoughts and feelings from damaging to constructive.
- A journal can create a feedback loop, which can help a person break an old habit, start a new one, or make progress with motivation in general.
- Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Austin, reportedly has found that “writing about upsetting personal experiences for just 20 minutes at a time, over three or four days, can result in a significant drop in blood pressure and a healthier immune system.”
- Therapist Catherine Carlo credits journaling with giving journal writers “a better sense of where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going,” according to the article.
In the article, Rank points out that people can feel resistance to starting a journal. This is an understandable feeling, but reversing any habit or emotional condition requires something either internal or external going in a new and not entirely comfortable direction. However, my experience writing about even very disturbing issues in my own life is that it rapidly becomes not only comfortable but actively a relief.
There are several approaches to journaling that can be useful. Carlo recommends journaling in a group. “Just having that unspoken support and encouragement gives [journal writers] courage to write about their feelings” even if the journals aren’t shared, the article quotes her as saying. Carlo also suggests envisioning yourself in a medieval castle while writing, in order to get some distance and perspective.
Recording journal entries with a tape recorder, computer, or smartphone is a viable alternative to written journaling for anyone who doesn’t like to write.
Sharing a journal with someone else can invite help and understanding. On the other hand, some journal writers may prefer to never share what they write in order to create a feeling of complete privacy about the process. When I write about something especially sensitive in my life, I go beyond even that by writing the journal entry and then immediately deleting it. I still reap all the benefits of writing the entry, even though there’s no outward trace left over when I’m done.
People who like to draw, even if only stick figures are involved, can substitute drawings for writing some of the time. While these drawings aren’t usually as clearly-communicated as words, they can sometimes be more expressive and exploratory.
Journaling can also be used to understand how we might not be using time well by logging everything we do (even down to stopping to pick up the phone or take a bathroom break), to provide insight into why we’re acting the way we are (see my article on “How To Improve Willpower Through Writing Things Down: Decision Logging“), or to create a record we can use to go back and understand parts of our lives better, after the fact.
It doesn’t have to be difficult to start journaling. If you can get yourself to sit down at a computer and open a word processor or to pick up a pen and a notebook, you can just write, with no pressure about how much or how often you’ll write, nor what you’ll write about. Journaling gives us each the choice of how to approach difficulties in our lives … and often, even the tools to overcome them.
Photo by paperbackwriter