The psychology behind reflection and how to make use of it

Reed Rawlings
Apr 19 · 6 min read

There are few acts of self-care as well known, cost-effective, or simple as journalling. And, there’s a good reason for that. It’s helped countless historical figures record their lives, philosophies, and plans. Whether they knew it or not, they’ve all reaped the mental and physical rewards of putting pen to paper.

But, what makes the journal such a powerful tool? Why did Einstein and Marie Curie spend their valuable time recording their days? And, why do gurus like Oprah, Ariana Huffington, and Reid Hoffman, swear by it today?

The Science Behind the Benefits

In 1986, James Pennebaker conducted the first psychological review of expressive writing. Or, what we know as journaling. He found that participants writing about their thoughts reported significant physical improvements.

Since then, research has shown a myriad of prosocial and mental benefits. They include,

Mental Benefits

  • Improved working memory
  • Improved mood
  • An increase in psychological well-being
  • A reduction in stress
  • Anxiety management

Health Benefits

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved lung function
  • Stronger immune-system functioning
  • Fewer hospital/doctor visits
  • Heal injuries faster

Social/Behavioral

  • Higher GPA for students
  • Better performance in sports
  • Quicker re-employment after a job loss

While that list may touch every part of life, it’s no guarantee for results. Nor, was every experiment beneficial for participants.

As with all physiological research, there are caveats. Often, this research was carried out with a specific set of writing instructions. So, it doesn’t mean any type of expressive writing will yield the same results. Worse, journaling seems to be detrimental for adults suffering from childhood trauma. Finally, the benefits are more pronounced for men than women.

Further, it’s crucial to note that participants often report a short term reduction in mood. As well as an increase in distress and poorer health when they start journaling. But, over the long term, they see significant mental and physical improvements.

In one meta-analysis the author reported,

“for physically and psychologically healthy individuals, the effects produced by expressive writing are substantial… similar in magnitude to the effects of other psychological interventions, many of which are more involved, time-consuming and expensive.”

Why do Psychologists believe Journaling Works?

Whenever I research a new topic, I love to dig into the “why” behind it. It’s never been enough for me to know that something works, I want to know how things tick.

As with all self-improvement, the factors at play here are complex and diverse. There is no single reason why journaling works. Instead, there’s an interesting overlap between cognitive and biochemical functions.

Initially, Pennebaker assumed journaling was a form of emotional catharsis. That, as we write, we release pent up emotions and reduce rumination.

Studies haven’t aligned well with this theory. When participants write solely about negative feelings, they aren’t able to gain perspective. However, when they include the experience, they exhibit stronger mental coping. Because of this, and the immediate decrease in well-being, it’s unlikely the effect is due to emotional venting.

Another theory sees the chronic stress associated with traumatic events as a primary culprit. Trauma often leads to rumination and avoidance. The subsequent act of suppressing emotions places your body under a physiological strain. Journal keeping helps us confront our feelings instead of forcing us to brush them aside. While it’s intuitively appealing, results are mixed.

Today, psychologists work under a slightly different set of assumptions. They believe journaling allows us to form a coherent narrative about our life.

A coherent narrative isn’t as simple as starting and ending a story. In clinical settings, it’s seen as the ability to understand how events shaped our being. It involves taking an objective look at our memories. In the hopes that we can gain a better perspective on how they affect us. When we fail to examine our history, we are far more likely to hold onto negative beliefs. Journaling is the perfect space for this process. It provides a safe, nonjudgemental environment, where writing is the only priority.

As Pennebaker notes,

“Writing about an emotionally charged subject or an unresolved trauma helps you put the event into perspective and gives some structure… to those anxious feelings, which ultimately helps you get through it.”

In a recent study, journaling served as a way for people to distance themselves from stressful experiences. I’ve written about emotional distancing before, and the results here are no different. In short, when we view past or future versions of ourselves, we see them as strangers. So, when we write, adverse events aren’t happening to you, but someone very similar. Through this, self-distancing provides an avenue for emotional regulation.

The studies lead author, Jiyoung Park, believes, “…the process of creating a coherent story out of disorganized, emotional memories facilitates self-distancing because this process requires people to adopt other people’s perspectives and focus on broader contexts.”

So, How do I Journal?

This is one of the first questions I asked when I started journaling. I either wanted to do it “right” or not at all. In my research, it seems therapists often supply the same guidelines set by Dr. Pennebaker. But, in no way do they seek to limit how or what their clients write.

I’ve outlined the basic principles below.

“For the next 4 days, write your deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends or relatives. To your past, your present or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be or who you are now. You may write about the same experiences on all days of writing or about different topics each day. Your writing will be completely confidential.

Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or sentence structure. The only rule is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up.”

For some, that may be more intense than your average journal entry, and it should be. That outline was meant to help practitioners recover from trauma. Not the prompt for your average workday.

If you’re not focused on overcoming a stressful life event, you’ll find the advice of Julia Cameron who wrote, The Artists Way, helpful. She recommends merely writing about, “anything and everything that cross your mind.” That’s it. Clean, simple, and easy to understand.

My Experience

Of all the self-improvement tools I’ve tried journaling has been the most effective. Perhaps because I can do it anywhere and anytime. The how is irrelevant. I can write, make a recording or type something out on my phone. All that matters is getting my thoughts out.

I’ve been keeping a journal on and off for the past four years. I started at the suggestion of a school counselor where I worked after having a particularly nasty student interaction. I found that I was able to gain perspective on an otherwise emotionally charged situation. I was able to understand my student’s mood, assumptions, and intent in ways ruminating didn’t allow for.

It’s precisely this reason that journaling turned in to an almost daily habit for two years. I haven’t stopped entirely, but I’ve learned to process my emotions without the need to write them down.

I take more time to practice solitude and give myself the space to think through stressful situations. In essence, I’ve transferred the vehicle for my cognitive processing.

I don’t know if I would have ever reached this point without my journal. Not only did it help me vent my frustrations, but it also helped me develop into a better person. I became less bitter and judgmental. I learned my initial reactions were merely selfish responses — not the answer.

The philosopher and activity, Susan Sontag, put it best when she said,

“In the journal, I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.”

That’s precisely what these past four years of journaling have allowed me to do.


Looking for more from Mind Cafe? Check out this article from our editor, Adrian Drew

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Reed Rawlings

Written by

I focus on self-regulation — goals, compassion, motivation, focus, stress, and the tools to support them. Reed@mindcafe.co

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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