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Becoming Wellbeing Heroes, One Journal at a Time - the Science, the Power, and the How-to of Journaling.

By Life Skills Group

Published 23 September 2021 10.35 AM

High jumper Nicola McDermott made Australian history last week, becoming the first woman to clear two metres, and claiming a silver medal in the event. Despite her incredible athleticism, what has caught attention however, is her unusual post-jump ritual of journaling, which has left many Australians thinking, what is she scribbling in her notebook? And why is she doing it? 

The autobiographical practice has been around since the 17th century, with several methods and types, all following the same idea of writing or drawing one's emotions, activities, reactions or goals. This article will examine the science behind journaling, then turning to the horde of benefits it creates in the classroom, for mental health conditions and trauma, and conclude with a how-to guide for beginners.

The Science

Research and scientific studies purport that journaling improves brain function, creativity and enhances metacognition. Psychotherapist and journaling aficionado Maud Purcell (2019) explains that writing concerns the logical and analytical left side of the brain. In doing so, the right brain is opened to imagination, creativity and expression. This psychological process helps to free the mind from any blockers, and effectively use both sides of the brain.

Metacognition is the ability to review and self-regulate the thoughts and feelings one encounters everyday, in order to ascertain strengths and weaknesses, and apply these skills to different situations (Kozoil, 2021). Journaling helps to hone a person's metacognition, through gratitude, ability recognition, and being able to connect emotions with the physical body, which can be applied to both the classroom and daily life.

A study conducted by UCLA researchers endeavoured to show what happens in the brain through expressive writing. They found that the emotional responses of subjects who engaged in regular journaling were less intense than other participants (Intelligent Change). For instance, when presented with an image of anger, although both groups' activity in the amygdala (where emotions originate) escalated, those who wrote these feelings out curtailed their brains reaction. Lead psychological professor Dr. Lieberman (et al. 2007), likens the process of translating emotions into words (dubbed affect labeling) to slamming your foot on the car brake when you see a yellow light.

The Power

Journaling is a wonderfully cathartic practice, popular for any age group or context. Possessing this highly adaptable quality, participants have identified journaling as a useful tool for personal use, improved academia, and alongside other forms of professional therapy (Kozoil 2021). Such writing is also personalisable and completely private, removing the risk of stigma or social anxiety, and making it tailorable to personal issues and aspirations. In the words of author and educator Shubhangi Swarup “I write because it makes me feel like someone’s listening or maybe I am finally listening to myself”.

  • Reshaping your classroom environment
    Engaging in a regular journaling routine has been proven to ameliorate student academic performance, emotional intelligence and personal identity, according to Expressivist Writing Theory (ETW). As one of the pivotal approaches to journaling, ETW explains that through the process of writing, students are able to learn about their experiences and motivations, the extent of their imagination, it empowers their unique voice, and assures self-identity (Koziol 2021). Natalie Goldberg is a prolific author on writing studies, who suggests that journaling is ‘having a relationship with your mind’. Thus, journaling is a channel through which one's mind and actions communicate in order to establish a personal identity and fulfilment. Baikie & Wilhelm (2005) outline the practice's academic profit, enhancing students' working memory, as well as their communication and literacy skills. At Life Skills Group, we are actively taking advantage of these benefits, by including a journaling function in our Life Skills GO digital platform for students to use in conjunction with their social-emotional learning. Therefore, the ways in which journaling improves classroom outcomes is manifold, and works toward the ultimate goal of a student's fulfilment.
  • Curbing mental health conditions

    Through evidence gathered by scientific studies, journaling has been proven to taper the effects of mental illnesses, and shown particularly useful in conjunction with other forms of psychological therapies (Kozoil 2021). The proliferation of mental health diagnoses has intensified the need for effective and holistic treatments, with 17% of 16-85 year-old Australians experiencing a disorder this past year (Beyond Blue 2021). Kozoil (2021) proposes the healing potential of a writing regime that increases self-control in order to mediate symptoms of mental health conditions. A study completed by Suhr et al. (2017) found the group who engaged in journaling recorded lower levels of depression and bolstered stronger emotional regulation strategies than the control participants. Stice, Burton, Bearman, & Rohde (2006) go so far as to claim that expressive writing could be as effective in reducing depression as other forms of cognitive-behavioural therapy for at-risk adolescence. With over half of mental illnesses manifesting by the age of 14, and 75% before 25, journaling programs are vital to the wellbeing of young people. Contiguous to reducing stress-related disorders, students will be able to boost their engagement in the classroom, through a regular journaling practice.
  • Helping to process trauma

    Forms of journaling have the power to alleviate symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the brain, with Art therapy proving particularly effective for sufferers. Baikie & Wilhelm (2005) provide the science behind expressive journaling reducing intrusive thoughts and avoidant behaviour for PDTD patients. By confronting the emotions relating to trauma, people are able to process and understand difficult memories, gaining control over these ‘big emotions’. Khatib & Potash (2021) published a fascinating study into the use of visual journaling on child refugees as a treatment for PTSD. The inquiry confirmed that art therapy was a valuable form of emotional expression, which encouraged the voluntary disclosure of traumatic experiences,  enhanced a sense of resilience, and ameliorated the bonds between family members. Life Skills GO draws on the written and visual styles of journaling, with students being able to draw and type their entries, as well as choose from a selection of emoticons and prompts designed to elicit or represent emotions. Thus, Life Skills GO can be used as a holistic social-emotional solution for students and educators who undergo traumatic experiences.

A Crash Course on Journaling

As established above, there is no one correct way to journal, given its expressive form and mediums, but here are a few tips for getting the most out of your journaling, many of which I have found to be very useful in my own practice:

  • Write in a quiet, private space where you feel comfortable - and don’t share it with others
  • Allow time after each session to reflect and calm your emotions
  • Don’t worry about aesthetics or structure, get your thoughts out naturally, they will not be perfect 
  • Write down some strong thoughts and emotions you have experienced throughout the day to prompt your writing 
  • Find out how best you journal! Everyone is different 

Furthermore, the Center for Journal Therapy (Adams, n.d.) W.R.I.T.E acronym can be used to inspire your journals:

  • What do you want to write about? What is currently happening in your life, your current thoughts and feelings, what are your goals and what habits are you avoiding?. Identify it and put it on paper
  • Review or reflect on it. Take a few moments to be still, breathe deeply, and focus. A little mindfulness practice could help in this step. Try to start sentences with “I” statements like “I feel…”, “I want…”, and, “I think…” Also, use the present tense, with sentence stems like “Today…”, “Right now…”, or “In this moment…”.
  • Investigate your thoughts and feelings through your writing or drawing. Just keep going! If you feel you have run out of things to write or your mind starts to wander, take a moment to re-focus (another opportunity for mindfulness meditation!), read over what you have just written, and continue on.
  • Time yourself to ensure that you write for at least 5 minutes (or whatever your current goal is). Write down your start time and the projected end time based on your goal at the top of your page. Set a timer or alarm to go off when the time period you have set is up.
  • Exit mindfully. Go over what you have written and allow a moment to reflect on it.  Summarise the main points in a few sentences, starting with statements like “As I read this, I notice…”, “I’m aware of…”, or “I feel…” If you have any action items or steps you would like to take next, record them.

In totality, journaling is a cathartic and helpful practice, herding multiple benefits for the social-emotional wellbeing of all ages. Although it felt uncomfortable and pointless at first, journaling has become a foundation of my mental health practice, and a quintessential coping strategy. I hope this inspires you to pick up a pen and start writing. I promise, you are one step closer to becoming a wellbeing hero.

Check out our FREE Conference: Implementing, Teaching and Measuring Whole-School Wellbeing

Join us on Tuesday 19th October 2021, for a morning of connection, insights and practical tips and tools to equip you to implement and manage personal wellbeing, school wellbeing programs and work with key leadership stakeholders as you bring them on the journey to whole school wellbeing. This conference, delivered virtually, will feature keynote speaker Dr Denise Quinlan, and masterclasses delivered by Nikki Bonus. 

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Additional Resources



Adams, K n.d., Its Easy to W.R.I.T.E, Center for Journal Therapy, viewed at https://journaltherapy.com/journal-cafe-3/journal-course/

Baikie, K, & Wilhelm, K 2005, ‘Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing’, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, vol. 11, no. 5, pp. 338-46. 

Intelligent Change n.d., Benefits of Journaling: The Science and Philosophy Behind Keeping a Diary, Intelligent Change, viewed at https://www.intelligentchange.com/blogs/read/benefits -of-journaling

Khatib, I & Potash, J 2021, ‘Visual Journaling using Art Therapy with Refugees’, The Arts in Psychotherapy, vol. 74, no. 1, pp. 1-7.

Kozoil, C 2021, ‘Journaling’s Impact on Mental Health’, UWL Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 1-9. 

Lieberman, M, Eisenberger, N, Crockett, M, Tom, S, Pfeifer, J, & Way, B 2007,‘Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to

Affective Stimuli’, Psychological Science, vol. 18, no. 5, pp. 421-28.

McMurty, A 2021, What Aussie high jumper Nicola McDermott was writing in her journal, news.com.au, August 8, viewed at https://www.news.com.au/sport/olympics/what-aussie-high-jumper-nicola-mcdermott-was-writing-in-her-notebook/news-story/8f67f367239fd524b49ab949b4ee0116

Purcell, M 2019, Journaling: Relief for Anxiety and Depression, journaling.com, August 8, viewed at https://journaling.com/articles/journaling-relief-for-anxiety-and-depression-with-maud-purcell/

Suhr, M., et al. 2017, ‘Maintaining Mental Health through Positive Writing: Effects of a Resource Diary on Depression and Emotion Regulation’, Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 73, no. 12, pp. 1586–98.


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