What do you think of when you hear the word “diary?”
If you’re like me, you think of preteen girls writing about their crushes and book two of the Harry Potter series. Frankly speaking, the word “diary” seems kind of feminine or at least childish.
Even as an avid recorder of the day-to-day myself, I still shy away from calling my notebooks “diaries,” preferring instead to call them “journals,” which for some reason feels more grown-up and masculine.
I’m sure that there’s a difference between diaries and journals (I don’t know it) but it all seems silly now that I’m writing about it.
Semantics aside, what we’re referring to here is the recorded reflection on daily events, exploration of ideas and/or introspection committed to paper (or blog, or word doc, or whatever).
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” – Joan Didion
Journalling is a form of meditation. It is the practice of looking deeply into ourselves and reflecting on the things that happen to us. It is like remembering, but with intention – the careful act of making meaning out of our lives.
We experience time in a linear fashion, moving only forwards from one moment to the next. Accordingly, our memories, no matter how recent, can only be recordings of past events. In addition, these recordings are colored by the different cognitive biases and perspectives we have developed over the course of our lifetimes.
Despite how it feels, our memories are not accurate logs of the past. They are retroactively organized narratives of our experiences. The way that our brains organize these narratives depends on the kind of story that will make sense within the context of our worldviews.
Our brains tend to spot patterns and look for consistency. The stories that emerge out of our life-events are reflections of this tendency. As long as everything fits into these stories, it’s all good. But sometimes we experience events that are so far outside of the scope of usual life that we struggle to integrate the events into mental narrative we have for ourselves. We call these events “traumas” and they can have a significant effect on our lives when they happen to us.
Psychologists at the University of Austin conducted a study about the benefits of composing a narrative about traumatic events. Participants were given a prompt that told them to write about the most traumatic event that they had experienced in their lives for 60 minutes spread over a period of 4 days. A control group was given a prompt about a non-emotional topic instead.
During the study, many participants cried and became emotional. Though participants were not surveyed for traumatic backgrounds, their writing revealed painful and tragic histories that included “rape, family violence, suicide attempts, and drug problems.”
When they followed up with the participants, the researchers discovered that participants who wrote about their traumas scored higher for positive emotional states than controls. Remarkably, they also reduced the number of visits to doctors and other healthcare services after the study.
Writing about their traumas not only improved the participants’ emotions but also their physiological well-being.
Our brains have difficulty integrating traumatic events into life-narratives. By definition, trauma is the result of an “overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with the experience.” As a result, we can tend to dwell on these events, playing them over and over in our heads, trying to make sense of them. This can cause us to feel confused and insecure, putting us under even more stress and lowering our emotional states.
The act of writing is, in essence, the act of organizing your thoughts into a meaningful narrative. By writing about our trauma, we can pin the thoughts swirling around our heads in front of us, where we can see them. There, they are concrete and simpler to process, and we can finally give meaning to the things that happen to us. Once organized into a narrative and given meaning, life events, traumatic or not, are more easily stored as memory and, ironically, forgotten.
If we are fortunate, we don’t experience trauma every day. But every day, consciously or unconsciously, we are telling ourselves stories about our lives. By keeping a diary, we stay in touch with our sense of self and the kinds of stories that we tell. As authors of our own life stories, I believe that we owe ourselves a bit of attention – some editing and reflection. In doing this, our minds are more at ease. We free up brain-capacity by quieting the voice that ruminates on the past. As a result, we are able to increase our capacity to think, feel, and learn. We are less stressed and more present, which in turn improves our health.
Try it out, start keeping a journal. At the end of the day, write a little bit about how you felt, what you did, and what it meant to you. It doesn’t have to be long. A couple sentences go a long way.
Til’ Next Time