Saying goodbye to ‘Dear Diary’: The reality and benefits of journaling

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Photo: Ally Rzesa

"The only thing that seems to help slow my thought process is journaling."

By Carlota Cano

A key figure in English literature, Oscar Wilde, once admitted: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

On a daily basis, my mind is processing and attending to hundreds of stimuli, and it oftentimes feels like it’s on overdrive going 100 mph. I deal with anxiety episodes more often than I can count. The only thing that seems to help slow my thought process is journaling. 

Researchers at The University of Rochester Medical Center explain how journaling and writing down our thoughts can help people locate their stressors and reduce their anxiety. Journaling has also helped people effectively express and cope with painful emotions or trauma. 

For instance, Frida Kahlo expressed her deepest feelings by drawing colorful illustrations in a journal. Her journal included poems and a variety of designs she later used in her art. In addition, another historical figure known for journaling was Ludwig van Beethoven who had multiple journals, containing a mix of letters and pieces of compositions. In a specific journal entry, Beethoven described the depression he experienced and the struggle to keep his deafness a secret. 

Effective journaling isn’t a “dear diary” type of activity. That may have been prominent in Mean Girls, but look where that got Regina George. Forget the stereotypical idea of a teenager writing in a booklet full of gossip and stickers on top of their bed. Journaling is about expressing your thoughts on paper and reflecting on your day to mentally declutter. 

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Journaling is an extremely relaxing activity for me. Unlike meditation or yoga, it requires no expertise or practice of any kind. 

When I journal, I start by writing what comes off the top of my head. Although I may have hundreds of thoughts clouding my mind, writing them down in my journal helps separate the chaos as my hand and mind are required to work at the same pace. Afterwards, when I finish writing, I look back and read what I wrote. 

The truth is journaling has no structure. My journal has a mix of to-do lists, short summaries of my day, and other personal, emotional thoughts. Lately, I’ve written a lot of lists of things I need to get done before the semester is over. These entries help me prioritize and organize my day to get the most amount of assignments done. There’s no need to worry about where you write it. If you choose, punctuation and grammar can be thrown out entirely—everything’s meant to stay private anyway. Believe me—sentences in my journal entries will make any English teacher suggest I return to the third grade.

A study by UCLA showed the amygdala was less active when journaling. Located between the temporal lobes, this area of the brain is about the size of an almond and is in charge of processing emotions. By reducing activity in the amygdala, the chances of experiencing anxiety decrease. When I pour all my thoughts onto paper, it allows me to go back and brainstorm how to approach and handle the issues prevalent in my life at a later time. 

For me, it always starts with an old notebook and a pen. Nowadays, people can opt to use apps like “Notability”, “Five Minute Journal” and “Moodnotes” that make journaling accessible and private right from your smartphone or tablet. There’s no need to go out and buy a journal or keep hundreds of loose-leaf papers lying around. 

For those individuals who do not journal regularly, starting with five or 10 minutes can help create the habit. Eventually, it can morph into feeling like a routine. 

I understand there are plenty of other effective ways to declutter the mind: meditating, seeing a therapist, or even talking to a close friend. Journaling is just one avenue out of many to get yourself out of your head and make you comfortable.