Journaling, Why Your Brain Loves It And One Exercise That Will Improve Your Life Now

Why journal? You’ve probably run across countless articles touting the health benefits, productivity gains, or the famous people that journal. This is not one of those articles. Instead we’re going to look at why journaling is such an incredible tool from your brain’s perspective.

Speaking of your brain, have you noticed that it carries on a lot of inner dialogues? No? Think about the last time you were stressed about work. Did you run through different scenarios in your head, maybe even simulate dialogue with the person stressing you out? This is called inner-speech or Self-talk.

Recent research shows that we can process inner-speech at a rate of 4,000 words per minute. This is a whopping 10 times faster than a real conversation. That’s absurd and a bit crazy, right? Doesn’t that mean we’re all walking around talking to ourselves like an insane person?

Yes and no. A lot of the words we process internally are fragments of dialogue, in part because we already know what we’re talking about. In The Voices Within, Charles Fernyhough hypothesizes that we are all fragmented, there is no unitary self, and we’re always struggling to create the illusion of a unitary ‘me’ from moment to moment.

Put another way, we’re using our inner speech to craft and edit a narrative. We’re constantly telling ourselves stories and then discussing them as we move throughout our day and life. It’s poetic to think about writing your own story — kinda like the movie Stranger Than Fiction.

But…. and this is a big but. Wouldn’t it be nice to quite some of the noise? Four thousand words a minute is a lot of static, especially if you’re like me and spend A LOT of time in your head.

This is where journaling can be a huge win for you. Think of it as an output/input tool. Let me explain. Let’s say you’re writing about a recent traumatic event. It could be anything from a sports injury to a death in the family. Let’s keep things light and focus on the injury as an example.

When you sit down to write about your injury you’ll probably start by describing what happened, ponder how it might be avoided in the future, and may even find yourself reframing the experience as a positive event.

Let’s break this down. When you’re describing the crash you’re in output mode. You’re writing down and recording those endless loops in your head. The ones that might be saying things like “you should have known you were going to get hurt” or “I’m so stupid, why did I do that?”

Now that those nagging conversations are gone your brain is able to see the situation from new angles. You can start to see the positives, or at the very least how to avoid hurting yourself again.

This is the input part and it’s pretty cool. By writing about the event you’ve gained distance from it. With this distance you’re able to see it in a new light. By seeing it in a new light you’re able to completely transform your understanding of the event and in the process your thoughts. It’s kinda like brain voodoo.

In fact, research shows that writing about a traumatic event for 20 minutes each day for three consecutive days leads to lower blood pressure, improved immune function, more happiness, less depression, and less anxiety.

Pretty incredible, right? This my friends is just scratching the surface of the power of journaling. In the coming weeks I’ll be diving deep into the science behind journaling and providing you with journal prompts so you can perform all kinds of brain voodoo. In the meantime if you want to try the exercise, I’ve included the journal prompt below so you can get rid of some of those nagging thought loops.

Want to try this for yourself?

Just follow the prompt instructions below (adapted from James Pennebaker’s instructions for clarity and brevity)

  1. Set a timerfor 20 minutes
  2. When the timer starts, begin writing about your emotional experiences from the past week, month, and year.
  3. Forget about punctuation, spelling and so on. The point is to write about the experiences, not create a grammatical masterpiece.
  4. Go where your mind takes you. Be curious, be open, be without judgement.
  5. When done, delete the document, or burn the paper, or don’t. As they say in sailing it’s not about the destination it’s about the journey. Or to paraphrase Pennebaker, the important part is that you’ve started the process of observing your experiences from a different vantage point and now have a new perspective.
  6. Feel happier, less anxious, and healthier

Love it, Hate it, Meh?

Let me know in the comments, share it with someone who will find it useful, or tell me personally what you think at tylerclemmer@gmail.com.