When we journal, we can express ourselves freely. Journaling gives us a safe, introspective space to explore our thoughts, motivations, successes, and much more. It’s no wonder that one of the top self-care suggestions is to journal. But, what if journaling doesn’t work for you? What if it adds to your stress, and seems to sabotage your mental health?
Rumination & Mental Illness
You may have heard the concept that depression is worrying about the past, whereas anxiety is worrying about the future.
I don’t know if I subscribe to that exact dichotomy, but anxiety and depression often occur alongside one another. And both have a tendency to obsess over things you cannot control.
Rumination is that repetitive, obsessional thinking. It is replaying an embarrassing moment. It is imagining what could go wrong.
Rumination is a thought-process that is common in many mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Rumination may also be why journaling is more stressful for you than anybody told you to expect!
Why Journaling Doesn’t Work For Everyone
When we journal, we intend to explore different concepts and sides of ourselves.
Researchers, Gortner, Rude, and Pennebaker, explored the benefits of expressive writing. Those who suppress their emotions benefit from journaling. Journaling, as we know, provides a space to explore thoughts and feelings that we may not express otherwise. Alternatively, those who ruminate did not benefit from this exercise.
Why is this the case? According to Pinterest or self-care websites, journaling should do wonders for my mental health.
Is there a reason why journaling doesn’t work for everyone?
The short answer is YES.
The long answer has to do with rumination.
As explained above, rumination causes you to obsess over past or future events. Generally, this is just in your head. If you ruminate throughout your expressive journaling, you are giving those negative thoughts power!
This can add validity to worries that would otherwise exist only in your head.
What Can You Do Instead?
The first step to solving any problem is admitting that it requires a solution.
Unfortunately, many people will brush their overthinking off as “just who I am”. But, we at Science Backing Wellness believe that we can all be better.
So, the first step? Recognize when your worrying is becoming a little too obsessive. Are your fears justified? Are you stressing over something you can control? Or are you worrying for the sake of worrying?
When we recognize rumination, we can work to stop it. For example, a study explored various ways to stop rumination. They found that distracting activities and mindfulness can put a brake on obsessive thinking! Once the rumination was paused, people were able to think of solutions to the problems they faced!
If Journaling Doesn’t Work, Try Mindfulness
When we are mindful, we are able to address more clearly how thoughts are constructive or destructive.
Mindfulness can take a variety of forms! And luckily, even practicing it for 5 minutes a day makes a big difference.
You can practice mindfulness in the shower. What is the smell of the soap you are using? Feel the lather on your skin? What is the temperature of the water?
Mindful walks are also a great way to combine exercise and mindful thinking. Listen to the sounds around you. Feel the air on your skin and in your lungs. What color are the leaves, or the sky?
My favorite form on=f mindfulness is mindful coloring. In a previous post, I explored how mindful coloring can lower stress, boost creativity, and create a sense of pride! It combines distraction with a focus that gives you the ability to manage your thoughts.
Interrupt Rumination With Gratitude
On the other hand, it is hard to be mindful when your thoughts are running a mile a minute.
At times like these, I remind myself to take a breath and try to focus on the positives.
Did I pet a dog today? Was it warmer than yesterday? Could I smell spring in the air?
Gratitude re-wires our negative thought patterns into positive ones! Moreover, it helps us remember what is concrete rather than the “what ifs”.
How To Make Journaling Work For You
You don’t have to write journaling off entirely just because you’re an overthinker. (Get it – write off, journaling?).
But, it does require a little more effort to journal effectively.
Firstly, psychologists have found that there are some benefits to rumination. Specifically, if you are thinking about a failed task, ruminating improves performance. In psychology, I find it very important to recognize the evolutionary advantages of different behaviors. Rumination was likely very important as humans and our technology evolved. It served a purpose.
Therefore, if you find yourself beginning to ruminate, take the time to focus only on what you could have changed. Not what you were wearing. Not how you responded to a question. Instead, think about how you prepared for an event, and what you could do better next time.
Secondly, focus on positive thinking. When we explore positive outcomes or things that we have to be thankful for, our mental health improves. Gratitude journaling is very beneficial for mental health.
A Final Word
Psychology and mental heath are confusing, but humans evolved the way they did for a reason. While rumination seems mal-adaptive, it did serve a purpose at a time, and you are not broken when that purpose has changed.
Moreover, self-care is a personal journey, and what works for one person does not always work for another. Just because journaling seems to be the be-all and end-all of self-care that doesn’t mean you’re a failure when it doesn’t work for you.
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