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science   ·   08. May 2023

on the role of journaling as a tool for better health

can writing down what’s on your mind aid your physical and mental health? 

It’s not uncommon for the mind to be treated as something separate from the body, especially in modern medicine... As if the mind is something with the ability to react to what is happening, but with no particular say in improving physical outcomes. And while science is primarily focused on the pathophysiology of disease (how and why it manifests in the body), it often does so at the expense of understanding just to what extent our brains may actually be involved. 

There's growing evidence in support of behavioural interventions that reduce emotional stress, and encourage mindful connection between the body and mind.

These interventions can be practices that are as simple as keeping a daily journal, and may have the potential to improve both physical and mental symptoms, by mediating the body and brain response to diseases (1).

Ultimately we know that there remains much room for our understanding of these interventions to expand, but this article seeks to explore some of the research already being done - why we rely on daily journaling as a fundamental part of sofi - as well as tips on how to implement easy and accessible interventions for yourself!

journaling for better health (a free and effective wellness intervention)

Dr. Stephan Dahmer, board-certified integrative physician, and founding member of the sofi scientific advisory board, was first intrigued by the medical benefits of journaling after reading a study indicating that individuals with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) showed significant improvements in pain, stiffness and joint mobility after taking part in expressive writing activities concerning past stressful experiences. 

According to the research study done, patients with mild to moderately severe asthma or RA who wrote about the most stressful moments of their life, experienced clinically significant improvements even four months down the line (2). And similar findings exist for populations of healthy individuals who experienced beneficial effects on well-being and health after journaling about emotionally traumatic past events.

Journaling can therefore be classified as an expressive coping method, signalling that there lies huge - potentially-untapped - health potential via just this one small act.

The approach to journaling outlined above involves providing an avenue for expressing negative emotions and thoughts that may have a tendency to worsen physical symptoms. However, further research indicates that not only can writing about one’s stressful and negative experiences help, but that writing about positive thoughts and experiences can beneficially impact health outcomes too (3, 4, 5). 

In one study, 70 adults experiencing various medical conditions and raised levels of anxiety as a result, were asked to complete 15-minute “positive affect journaling” sessions, 3 times per week, for a total of 12 weeks. The participants’ psychological, interpersonal, and physical well-being were measured both before journaling as well as throughout, and the results of the study found that positive affect journaling was associated with decreased mental distress, lowered anxiety, fewer depressive symptoms, an increase in overall wellbeing, and a greater resilience - both of the body and the mind (6). 

Positive affect journaling - or PAJ as it can be called - is defined as an emotion-focused self-regulation intervention. The term “positive affect” means that unlike the previous study where journal prompts revolved around stress, the primary focus of PAJ is to encourage emotions that are positive. This can most easily be achieved by posing questions to oneself such as “what are you thankful for?” or “what’s something nice that someone else has recently done for you?”

One study conducted throughout the lockdown period of Covid-19 found that participants who completed three consecutive days of writing about the positive thoughts and feelings they experienced during the pandemic (aka written “benefit-finding”), experienced a significant decrease in baseline depression and anxiety immediately after writing. These findings among others point towards the relatively instantaneous, short-term benefits that certain forms of journaling can provide (7). 

PAJ questions and benefit-finding activities like these can be incorporated into quick 5 to 15-minute daily routines, and may offer a range of benefits to both healthy and medical populations, alike. 

journaling as a tool for positive health outcomes

Evidenced by the studies just above, it seems to hold true that writing about both the good things and the bad things in one’s life can be helpful, perhaps for different people, and at different times. What this means is that the right type of journaling practice for you, might differ completely to somebody else. 

As a result, why not let your thoughts and feelings act as your guide - or start by implementing an approach to journaling that contains aspects of both. 

Studies have shown that expressing the feelings that bother you, or ones that reflect on a stressful or traumatic past event, can provide closure and help to boost the functioning of your immune system, as well as improving health overall (8). 

On the other hand, we know that there is vast power in the practice of gratitude, too. Simple positive affect journaling prompts that encourage gratefulness and elicit any positive emotional response such as pride, enthusiasm, energy and joy, are widely evidenced to lower anxiety, improve sleep, and boost self-regulation of pain and mood (9, 10). 

tips on journaling for better health - a how to (11):

  • Commit to daily practice.
  • Set aside some time (for example, we recommend journaling both early in the morning and right before bed) and aim to journal at the same time everyday.
  • Try to be as detailed as you can. Record every little thing associated with the emotions, sensations, or incident you are referring to.
  • Describe your deepest feeling regarding the event. Let go and allow the emotions to run freely in your writing. Describe how you felt about the event both then and now.
  • Focus on “what,” instead of “why.” E.g., “what thoughts am I experiencing currently?” or “what’s another way to view the situation?” versus “Why is this happening to me?” or “why can’t things be easier?” 
  • Write continuously. Do not worry about grammar, spelling or sentence structure. If you come to a block, simply repeat what you have already written. Turn off your internal editor - no-one else needs to see this but you.
  • Return to previous pages to recollect the good things, or revisit personal insights from your journals on trauma or stress. 
  • Find ways to further enjoy the journaling process, versus considering it an extra task. This may include using colourful pens, doodles, or stickers. Or combining your journals with something else you love (a cup of chamomile tea, or lighting your favourite candle). 

According to expert and medical herbalist, Pamela Spence, “journaling allows you to notice the small changes that can be lost in the business of everyday life. And many times, a patient will tell me that nothing has changed, only to realise that there have been positive changes when we examine how they are feeling today in comparison to last session by journal.

Journaling means that you don’t miss anything, and that you become more finely attuned to what you need, as well as more subtle changes in your situation - particularly those that could be easily missed and leave you feeling stuck. 

Comparatively, patients often report feeling more in control of their situation after a period of journaling because they are taking the time to check in and understand what is going on for them. Over time, they can begin to spot patterns between different foods, or habits and their symptoms, and with this kind of insight they can begin to make changes to their diet or lifestyle and track the response, thereby becoming more self-aware and, most importantly, empowered to work with their bodies and minds to affect their wellbeing. This is an outcome that shouldn’t be underestimated because empowered, self-aware people make better choices for themselves going forward.”

With the power to reduce symptoms and improve both physical and mental health outcomes, journalling can be a free and highly effective tool for better health, which is why you'll find it taking up such a pivotal and essential role in our ecosystem.

By using the sofi app to record your daily mood and sleep, sofi not only improves her ability to analyse and measure your unique response to any effect of the plant formulations but also provides a consistent moment of time for us to process and reflect on our emotions - or anything else that we may be struggling with.

From the first interaction to the end, sofi relies on multiple physical and digital touch points to enhance overall well-being, and to help to eliminate the guesswork.

For more on the role of emotion in shaping our day-to-day lives, check out our article: emotion: a mind, body, or cultural phenomenon? Start journaling today to give sofi the best chance of making unique discoveries with each of our plants. You can download your sofi app, free, using the links below:

Text References: 

  1. Spiegel D. Healing Words: Emotional Expression and Disease Outcome. JAMA. 1999;281(14):1328–1329. doi:10.1001/jama.281.14.1328
  2. Smyth JM, Stone AA, Hurewitz A, Kaell A. Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis: a randomized trial. JAMA. 1999 Apr 14;281(14):1304-9
  3. Pennebaker, J. W., & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down: How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. Guilford Publications.
  4. Smyth JM, Johnson JA, Auer BJ, Lehman E, Talamo G, Sciamanna CN. Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Ment Health. 2018 Dec 10;5(4):e11290.
  5. Rakel, DP. Shapiro D, Mind Body Medicine, Textbook of Family Practice. 6 th ed. Saunders.
  6. Smyth JM, Johnson JA, Auer BJ, Lehman E, Talamo G, Sciamanna CN. Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Ment Health. 2018 Dec 10;5(4):e11290.
  7. Sarah R. Hansen, Mark A. Wetherell & Michael A. Smith (2022) Written benefit finding for improving psychological health during the Covid-19 pandemic first wave lockdown, Psychology & Health, 37:10, 1223-1240.
  8. Rakel, DP. Shapiro D, Mind Body Medicine, Textbook of Family Practice. 6 th ed. Saunders.
  9. Ng M-Y, Wong W-S. The differential effects of gratitude and sleep on psychological distress in patients with chronic pain. Journal of Health Psychology. 2013;18(2):263-271.
  10. Loi NM, Ng DH. The Relationship between Gratitude, Wellbeing, Spirituality, and Experiencing Meaningful Work. Psych. 2021; 3(2):85-95
  11. Rakel, DP. Shapiro D, Mind Body Medicine, Textbook of Family Practice. 6 th ed. Saunders.

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