journaling for mental health

If you struggle with stress, anxiety, or depression, starting journaling for mental health is a great idea. Most mainstream journaling practices though can make you feel good at first but later make you spiral into negativity, self-criticism, and hopelessness.

For that reason, cognitive journaling for mental health offers an alternative and systematic approach to journaling. This article gives background information on what cognitive journaling is, explains relevant scientific research, and gives steps and helpful tips to improve your mental health with journaling.

What Is Cognitive Journaling For Mental Health?

Cognitive Journaling is a mix of cognition and journaling. Cognition refers to “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”*. We can refer to it as a process of reflection in order to understand.

Journaling, on the other hand, is the act of expressing thoughts and feelings through writing. It’s a mental, emotional, and spiritual process that strengthens these three areas.

Summarizing cognitive journaling is the act of expressing thoughts and feelings through writing while focusing on acquiring knowledge and understanding through them. It means that you are not just expressing your feelings in a journal or answering certain questions, but you are systematically trying to acquire knowledge and understanding from your thoughts and feelings. 

What’s Wrong With Normal Journaling?

Normal journaling for mental health is mostly focused on either expressing feelings and emotions or answering journaling prompts. A study by Ullrich and Lutgendorf from 2002 found that journaling that focuses only on negative emotional expression may increase symptoms of distress and depression. Furthermore, distressing events that come with distressing conclusions may be stored in the existing mental scheme which makes it difficult to integrate and thus leads to long-term negative effects.**

Furthermore, research shows that “journaling that highlights emotional expression and cognitive processing [..] may offer greater benefits than journaling focused on the expression of negative emotions.”**

Before you start your cognitive journaling practice for mental health, here are a few guidelines

Guidelines For Journaling For Mental Health

#1 Have A Routine

To seek the long-term benefits of this process, a routine is crucial. Because cognitive journaling for mental health uncovers its benefits the more you do it. To start a routine, set a specific duration and time of the day to journal. For the time of the day you have two options:

  1. You can create a routine around the time when you feel most flushed with negativity, stress, or depression
  2. or design a routine as a preventative.

The good thing about the 2nd option is that you can work on things before they get big. Usually, when we wait until we feel like we “need” to do this process, it’s already so emotionally charged that we cannot see things clearly.

#2 Be Honest And Write Unfiltered

A big part of journaling for mental health is being honest and write unfiltered. It’s so crucial to express yourself fully without thinking too much about it. Usually, when you ask a question, the first answer is right and you can go ahead and understand this answer more through deeper thinking.
If you are worried someone might read your journal, hide it somewhere.

#3 Don’t Be Negative Only

When you don’t feel good it’s easy to be negative and write down everything that disturbs you. The problem is that when you are just negative, you spiral into negativity and you end up not actually improving your mental health. For that reason, it is advised to write objective and clear statements with feelings and do the test in #4.

#4 Do A Falsify Test

Hand in hand with #3 comes the proof of falsifiability. In his article, Cognitive Journaling: A Systematic Method to Overcome Negative Beliefs, Richard Ragnarson, shared a great approach to falsify experiences:

“For an experience to be a fact, you must be able to falsify it by answering yes/no to the question of it happening. Either it happened or not, either you felt it or not, either you thought it or not. This is true for events, thoughts, and emotions.”***

For example, I think I failed vs. It was a failure. The first one is a fact because you can be sure whether you thought it or not, the second one is an opinion and you cannot state the absolute truth of this statement.

For everything you write down, you should be able to do the falsify test and answer yes. Now we move to the actual process. 

Disclaimer: this process and the entire video do not substitute for therapy.

Cognitive Journaling Process

The cognitive journaling process focuses on four areas: feelings, events, beliefs, and questioning the belief.

1. State your feeling

The first step of this process is writing down how you feel by filling in this sentence.

I feel…

You can write down that you feel sad, frustrated, disappointed or angry for example. And you can also write several emotions. Just make sure that you don’t write any reason for now, and just focus on the main feelings. 

2. Activating Event

For this step explore and write down the activating event. To do this, complete this sentence:

The situation that happened was…

Put in as many details as possible and describe the facts. Do the falsify test with each. See the video for an example. 

3. Belief

With this step, we want to find the belief or assumption that you had at the moment. To do this, fill in the following statement:

In that situation, I thought that…

Write down what you concluded or thought in the situation.

4. Challenge The Belief

After uncovering the belief or assumption, it’s time to challenge the assumption or belief. To do this, answer the following questions or read this article for a more detailed process. 

Is this belief true?
Can I be 100% certain that it is true?
How is this belief hindering me in my life?
What would someone else think about this?
What would I rather believe?

That’s the process. It is a very effective process if used regularly. Make sure to look at this article to read more on the process.

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognition

** https://link.springer.com/article/10.1207/S15324796ABM2403_10  

*** https://betterhumans.pub/cognitive-journaling-a-systematic-method-to-overcome-negative-beliefs-119be459842c#61f1

If you struggle with stress, anxiety, or depression, starting journaling for mental health is a great idea. Most mainstream journaling practices though can make you feel good at first but later make you spiral into negativity, self-criticism, and hopelessness.

For that reason, cognitive journaling for mental health offers an alternative and systematic approach to journaling. This article gives background information on what cognitive journaling is, explains relevant scientific research, and gives steps and helpful tips to improve your mental health with journaling.

If you struggle with stress, anxiety, or depression, starting journaling for mental health is a great idea. Most mainstream journaling practices though can make you feel good at first but later make you spiral into negativity, self-criticism, and hopelessness.

For that reason, cognitive journaling for mental health offers an alternative and systematic approach to journaling. This article gives background information on what cognitive journaling is, explains relevant scientific research, and gives steps and helpful tips to improve your mental health with journaling.

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