Wellness Health Intelligence
Journaling over coffee
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Why You Should Keep a Mood Journal

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From journals and diaries to spreadsheets and apps, there’s no shortage of ways to keep track of your mood. But why start a mood journal in the first place? In short, because it helps improve your self-esteem and, depending on how you keep track, can even lessen depression and anxiety. We’ll guide you through the research and explain how keeping track of your thoughts and feelings can improve your mental health.

Journaling about your thoughts & feelings promotes personal growth

In a study from the University of Iowa[1], researchers randomly assigned 122 students one of 3 writing assignments:

  1. write about emotions related to a trauma or stressor
  2. write about cognitions and emotions related to a trauma or stressor
  3. write factually about media events

Students writing about cognitions and emotions (thoughts and feelings) “developed greater awareness of the positive benefits of the stressful events than the other two groups”. The researchers say this was the result of greater cognitive processing during their writing. In other words, thinking through what happened, how they felt, and journaling about it led to improvements in how they saw their situation overall.

When writing about emotions only, students reported more severe illness symptoms, which the researches attribute to greater focus on negative emotions. In their own words, they concluded:

Journaling that highlights emotional expression and cognitive processing, that is, efforts to understand and make sense of a traumatic event, may offer greater benefits than journaling focused on the expression of negative emotion. Journaling that focuses on negative emotional expression alone may contribute to increased reporting of physical symptoms.

Journaling improves self-efficacy

In a University of Nebraska study[2], 41 students in two undergrad courses were required to complete weekly journal assignments. The study’s author writes:

Since self-esteem and attribution of events are also associated with mood and anxiety, it follows that they could be involved in changes that might occur in thoughts, behavior, and moods of students as a result of cognitive-behavioral information and activities.

Their results showed “significant improvement in self-efficacy, regardless of the type or journaling they engaged in”. What does "self-efficay" mean? Self-efficacy is how you feel about your ability to succeed, or how much you attribute your success to yourself. When you journal, you’re able to reflect on your actions, the actions of others, your feelings, and thoughts surrounding those things. Consistently doing this helps you draw the line from where you were to where you are, and enables you to understand how you got there.

Practicing gratitude improves mental health

Researchers from University of California, Davis and University of Miami[3] randomly assigned participants to keep a weekly record of one of 3 conditions in their lives:

  1. hassles
  2. gratitude listing
  3. neutral life events or social comparison

They hypothesized that those in the gratitude listing group would experience improved psychological well being and they were right!

The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.

The practice of being grateful, as compared to weighing your worth against others, is more conducive to feelings of positivity and appreciation. These feelings lead to psychological benefits, which can in turn foster physical health benefits.

Conclusion

You should keep a mood journal because it can help you understand your thoughts and feelings and see your progress. When you acknowledge your thoughts and feelings or practice gratitude, your mental health will improve. Journaling about your emotions alone isn’t enough and can be harmful if you dwell on the negatives. So, you want to identify how you’re feeling, what the cause might be, and write out what you’re thinking along the way. Additionally, making note of what you’re grateful for can help keep depression and anxiety at bay.

Footnotes


  1. Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression ncbi.nlm.nih.gov ↩︎

  2. Impact of Journaling on Students’ Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control files.eric.ed.gov ↩︎

  3. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life greatergood.berkeley.edu ↩︎