Bullet Journals to Expressive Writing: How Journaling Helps Your Mental Health

Gratitude journals, bullet journals, dream journals, food journals, pregnancy journals, there are so many types of journaling one can do. Many of us probably kept a journal when we were adolescents writing about teenage angst and school drama. But is there a more lucrative way to journal to help with our mental health? The answer is yes, and journaling isn’t just isolated to pen and paper anymore. Journaling apps such as LIFE Intelligence can help you implement journaling and self-reflection into your daily routine, all while fitting in your pocket.


Types of Journaling

When we think about journaling, we often think about just writing down our thoughts and life stories. While that is the general idea of journaling, many different types of writing have been identified.

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1. Expressive journaling

One of the most looked at writing styles, expressive writing concentrates on the profound thoughts and feelings of a distressing experience. It is more vulnerable than the other writing styles, however, it is quite rewarding. Expressive writing involves writing about how you felt during a particular event versus what happened. It is a much more intimate and emotional style of journaling than what we typically think of when it comes to journaling (Pennebaker, 2013; (Nazarian & Smyth, 2013).


2. Positive journaling

As its name entails, it is concentrated on the positive features of life. An individual using this writing style may write about their tenacity, strengths, and experiences. Maybe you got a promotion at work or met up with a childhood friend after years, writing about these events can help foster optimism and positive emotion in one’s life (Smyth et al., 2018). Positive writing is a broad category that includes other writing styles such as best possible self writing and gratitude writing. 


3. Best possible self journaling

This writing style focuses on the future. Individuals using this strategy write about their goals and what the best outcomes could be. If everything happened exactly the way you wanted it to, what would that look like for you? As children, we generally view our dreams as attainable and believe everything will work out perfectly for us to achieve our dreams and goals. As we get older, we tend to lose the optimism we once had as children. Utilizing the best possible self writing strategy can help us rekindle positivity and hope, allowing us to better live happier and more meaningful lives (Meevissen et al., 2011).

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4. Gratitude journaling

This writing style has been trending in recent years and many businesses have even created journals just for gratitude writing. This style of writing consists of writing down things or people an individual feels grateful for. Maybe someone held the door open for you or maybe your friend comforted you during a breakup. It could be something as small as the weather being pleasant when you are moving into your new apartment. A popular saying that encapsulates gratitude writing is, “it is the little things in life.” In a fast-paced world, it can be difficult to slow down and really appreciate the small elements of our lives. (O'Leary & Dockray, 2015).


5. Bullet journaling

Bullet journaling is a very popular journaling style as of late. Think of it as a journal, planner, to-do list, habit tracker, and dream journal all in one. Many people use it to track habits, record their daily water intake, write down their goals, and monitor their spending habits. It is one of the most creative styles of journaling, although, finding inspiration and ideas for bullet journaling can be intimidating. Because it is so creative, it can be personalized for each individual. Many people will use decorative tape, colored pens, and print out pictures that inspire and motivate them. With bullet journaling, the sky's the limit.


Many of these concepts are new, they have just been assigned technical names. More and more research is being done to study these different writing styles in a variety of environments such as work or therapy. For this article, we will be taking a closer look at expressive writing.

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Expressive Journaling

The idea of writing about an emotional event or a tumultuous time is nothing new. An increasing number of studies have been conducted measuring the effects of expressive writing on our well-being. One such study looked at the quality of life in Chinese breast cancer patients after a 3-week expressive writing intervention. An important note to bring up is the cultural difference. Many Eastern cultures are collectivist and tend to be more stoic with their emotional expression compared to their Western counterparts. 118 patients were recruited and randomly assigned to 4 different treatment groups:

1. Self-regulation group (SR): Participants in this condition had different writing prompts for each week. For week 1, participants were asked to write about their thoughts and emotions during their cancer treatment. In the second week, they were asked to write about any coping mechanisms they used. The final prompt asked participants to write about their positive thoughts and emotions during their treatment.

2. Emotional disclosure group (EMO): For all 3 weeks, participants in this group were asked to write about their in-depth thoughts and feelings regarding their cancer experience.

3. Cancer fact writing group (CTL): In this group, participants were asked to impartially recount their cancer experience for all 3 weeks.

4. Blank control group: This group of participants were the control group and had no writing assignments. 

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At the end of the study, all writing groups showed improvement in their quality of life. However, the emotional disclosure group (EMO) participants had the highest level of quality of life at the 6 month follow up, a 15% increase from the beginning. (Ji et al., 2020). Not only does expressive journaling help with mental well-being, but it has also been linked to improvement in physical health, especially with the immune system (Maslej et al., 2020).


Expressive writing is an effective emotional outlet. However, it should be noted that writers often experience discomfort or distress in the beginning stages (Maslej et al., 2020). Because it is so intimate and personal, many people seem to experience negative emotions before they get better. It is a common phenomenon, things tend to get worse before they get better. While the long-term benefits are indisputable, it is important to acknowledge the possible discomfort that it may bring upon the writer.

Gibb’s Reflective Model

The generally accepted definition of reflective writing is the process of analyzing and reconstructing one’s situations, ideas, or problems with the goals of self-improvement and self-development (Husebø et al., 2015). Graham Gibbs, a former Oxford professor, recognized the importance of reflection in people’s lives and created the following model. 



1 Description

What experience are you reflecting upon? How, what, when, and where does this take place? Writing down details can help you paint the bigger picture and allows you to dissect the experience. 


2 Feelings

How did you feel during the experience? Happy? Sad? Frustrated? What were you thinking during this experience? Comprehending the underlying thoughts and emotions can help us determine how these feelings and thoughts direct our behaviors and actions. 


3 Evaluation

What are the takeaways from this experience? Are they good or bad? Were there any positives or negatives? Often, we focus solely on the good or bad parts of an experience. Even with bad experiences, we can learn something good from them. 

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4 Analysis

What can you make of the experience? Did anything lead up to it? Why did it happen? Especially in a fast-paced environment, we can skim over the “why” of things. Determining why something happened can help us prevent it from happening in the future.


5 Conclusion

Could you have changed the outcome of the experience or situation? Was there anything you could have done differently? While it is easy to get stuck in the “what if” mindset, it is important to determine if you truly could have done something differently. It can help you improve future experiences or allow you to accept things that may be out of your control.


6 Action plan

If this situation was to happen again, what can you do differently? What can you do to ensure you’ll be able to carry out this action plan? Without a plan, we often revert to behaviors that are familiar to us. Writing down an action plan or what you would do differently can help you change the outcomes of situations.


Many healthcare professionals and students utilize this reflective practice to improve their work as it helps individuals to work through and analyze experiences (Husebø et al., 2015). This model is a straightforward way to debrief and evaluate situations in order to grow from them.

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Journaling and mental health

The road to optimal mental health is a continuous journey, one that requires small everyday changes to maintain. Journaling is being proven to be an effective technique to improve mental health. Journaling allows individuals to write down their painful or positive stories which can elicit feelings of control and acceptance (Faccio et al., 2019). In recent years, journaling has been promoted as an effective self-care technique, and research has only substantiated this notion.


One study by Kim-Godwin et al. (2020) looked at journaling as a coping mechanism for mothers. A total of 34 mothers participated in this 6-week study. The 34 participants were randomly assigned to 2 writing intervention groups, a gratitude writing group, and a best possible self writing group. The women were asked to write for 15-20 minutes at least 3 times a week. Those in the gratitude intervention were asked to simply write about things or people they were thankful for, while participants in the best possible self intervention were asked to envision and write down their ideal future. All of the women completed questionnaires concerning life satisfaction and optimism 

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Post-test results revealed an improvement in both interventions, however, the best possible self writing group showed the most advancement. The best possible self group had an average increase of 13% in life satisfaction and 11% in optimism. While the experiment focused primarily on life satisfaction and optimism the women reported improvement in many other areas of their lives.



Although a lack of time can be a limiting factor, the researchers emphasize the therapeutic benefits of journaling such as promoting an optimistic outlook, improving emotional well-being, and serving as an emotional outlet (Kim-Godwin et al., 2020) Even journaling for 15 minutes a few days a week can lead to improvements in well-being.

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Tips to start journaling

With all this information discussing journaling and its benefits, it can be confusing when you are new to the concept of journaling. An article by Portman (2020) lists out some helpful tips to follow or keep in mind when beginning this journey.



LIFE Intelligence: a digital bullet journal and expressive writing outlet

Often an overlooked self-care method, journaling is a proven way for people to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Now more than ever, people lack adequate time to take care of themselves. Thankfully, digital tools such as the LIFE Intelligence app provides not only the tools to bullet journal about your moods, goals, and day, it also provides a robust course that teaches you to expressively reflect and write on various aspects of life.

LIFE's 9-step program comprehensively covers your self, career, and relationship development. Deep prompts push you to introspect, making some users call it as insight-inducing as therapy or leadership coaching. Whether you use the app to build a journaling habit with the question a week or to utilize the several writing prompts within each Mission, LIFE is here to get you started on your journaling adventure, anytime and anywhere.


Mason Low
January 16, 2021

References

Faccio, E., Turco, F., & Iudici, A. (2019). Self-writing as a tool for change: the effectiveness of a psychotherapy using diary. Research in psychotherapy (Milano), 22(2), 378.

Haertl, K. L., & Ero-Phillips, A. M. (2019). The healing properties of writing for persons with mental health conditions. Arts & Health: An International Journal of Research, Policy and Practice, 11(1), 15–25.

Husebø, S. E., O’Regan, S., & Nestel, D. (2015). Reflective practice and its role in simulation. Clinical Simulation in Nursing, 11(8), 368-375.

Ji, L., Lu, Q., Wang, L., Sun, X., Wang, H., Han, B., Ma, Y., & Lu, G. (2020). The benefits of expressive writing among newly diagnosed mainland Chinese breast cancer patients. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 43(3), 468–478.

Kim-Godwin, Y. S., Kim, S.-S., & Gil, M. (2020). Journaling for self-care and coping in mothers of troubled children in the community. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 34(2), 50–57.

Maslej, M. M., Srikanth, N., Froentjes, L., & Andrews, P. W. (2020). Why does expressive writing affect emotion? Considering the impact of valence and cognitive processing. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 52(2), 85–96.

Meevissen, Y. M. C., Peters, M. L., & Alberts, H. J. E. M. (2011). Become more optimistic by   imagining a best possible self: Effects of a two week intervention. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 42(3), 371–378.

Nazarian, D., & Smyth, J. M. (2013). An experimental test of instructional manipulations in expressive writing interventions: Examining processes of change. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 32(1), 71–96.

O'Leary, K., & Dockray, S. (2015). The effects of two novel gratitude and mindfulness interventions on well-being. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 21(4), 243-245.

Pennebaker, J. W. (2004). Writing to heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval. New Harbinger.

Portman, S. (2020). Reflective Journaling: A Portal Into the Virtues of Daily Writing. The Reading Teacher, 73( 5), 597– 602.

Sicora, A. (2019). Reflective practice and learning from mistakes in social work student placement. Social Work Education, 38(1), 63–74.

Smyth, J. M., Johnson, J. A., Auer, B. J., Lehman, E., Talamo, G., & Sciamanna, C. N. (2018). 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 mental health, 5(4), e11290.

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