Do you currently journal?
If not, perhaps you should.
Based on a study by James Pennebaker, a researcher and psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, journaling may help strengthen your immune cells (Source). It also has mental health benefits, which is what I’m focusing on today.
I don’t journal all of the time, but when I do, I find that it does three things:
— It is a stress-reliever
— it helps me increase my focus
— it empties out the ‘mental clutter’
We women carry a LOT on our plates whether we’re single women, married, or single/married with kids. We’re working towards that GPA, or trying to get the kids interested in creative arts/sports, or meet that target at work, or arrange that amazing weekend getaway with our spouse. We’re trying to juggle all of that in our brains, well, it’s a lot to remember, and it can get overwhelming. And that’s when we’re at our best and just dealing with positive stress. That doesn’t even take into account NEGATIVE stress. As if one type of stress wasn’t bad enough, there are actually two. Did you know that?
The two types of stress
There is Eustress (positive) and Distress (negative).
Examples of Eustress:
In my college years, it would’ve been me striving for a 4.0 GPA, which I considered a good challenge, but it can be any challenge that you competitively strive for.
Today, it might be the (good) anxiety created by going on carnival rides, or trying to meet goals I set for myself, or perhaps engaging in a challenging hike.
Examples of Distress:
In my college years, it might’ve been struggling with a college course that was “beyond me” or trying to juggle family time, social time, my day job and my night classes all at the same time. Not fun.
Today, it could be a conflict in my relationships, an illness, outstanding financial difficulties, or trouble at work.
For more examples of Eustress and Distress, see this article on Stressors at MentalHealth.net.
So, there you have just a couple of examples and I’m sure some people will have more stresses, others less. We’re all different. But, what we have in common is that with all of that on our mental plate, if you’re trying to juggle it all, it’s a lot to remember and it can get overwhelming. (Other sentence was better).
The link between stress and memory retention
Imagine that all of the things that come up during the day that you have to remember are eating up the processing RAM on your mental computer. They’re things that you want to be able to retrieve easily so you keep them close at hand, instead of deep in your hard drive, like your long-term memories like your fifth birthday.
The problem is that your RAM is finite and if you’re using all that RAM to keep those short-term to-do’s close at hand, you won’t be able to use it to focus on other programs, like the one that helps you concentrate at work, remember to pick up milk at the grocery store or call your best friend back.
When I journal, it’s like I’m saving all that info to a flash drive instead of relying on my RAM. Sure, I could theoretically transfer it to the hard drive but have you SEEN my storage system? It’s a mess. I don’t want to go there. And yeah, there’s a chance my “flash drive” could get misplaced (though probably not permanently) and it frees up my mental RAM to run some of those other programs instead.
Wow, I just geeked out there.
Anyway, all that mental clutter creates stress as you try to balance remembering it all and living your life to the best of your ability. When you jot things down, you can see the big picture and make the choice to focus on one thing, one goal, at a time, and devote more of your mental energy towards that task, without trying to recall all of that other stuff you need to do in the background.
How do I start?
Journal-writing is a great way to alleviate some of that stress, and it’s practically free. All you need is a pen/pencil and journal, or a word processing/note app on your phone/tablet/computer.
When you write, make a point of jotting down the date and day, and if you have a mind to, do an ice breaker like documenting the weather or perhaps what book you’ve been reading lately, or what bit of scripture you’re working through. Then, go ahead and do a brain dump. Let it all out on paper. It may seem counter-productive to take time to put down everything you think you know but we multi-task so much and carry so much that it’s hard to see the whole picture at times. Carrying all that mental clutter alone is enough to create negative stress that can affect our attitudes and maybe even our health, not to mention negatively affect our focus/concentration/engagement on the situation at hand.
Go ahead and write it down. Whatever you need to do, whatever is bugging you, get it all out there. You won’t be showing this to anyone (unless you want to). This is just for you.
What I’ve found when I journal is that it helps me articulate what I’m thinking even in the process of writing it down, so I come to understand my feelings better. It helps me to see the whole gamut of responsibilities and/or goals that I currently have to accomplish in the near future. It’s amazingly freeing because it allows me a release — if it’s all on paper, I’m (theoretically) not going to lose it and I don’t have to hang onto it mentally anymore.
So why not give it a shot? Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, take 5-15 minutes and sit down with a pad of paper and your favorite pen, and jot down what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling, or whatever those to-do’s are that you might forget between now and when you actually get around to doing them. You may just discover that in doing so you’ll have more clarity, better focus and perhaps better overall health.
For more information, I recommend this article on journaling for mental health, by the University of Rochester.