Journal therapy is a type of writing therapy that focuses on the writer’s internal experiences, thoughts and feelings. Journal therapy uses reflective writing so that the writer can receive mental and emotional clarity, validate experiences and come to a deeper understanding of him or herself. Journal therapy can also be used to express difficult material or access previously inaccessible material.
Like other forms of therapy, journal therapy can be used to heal a writer’s emotional or physical problems or work through a trauma, such as illness, addiction, relationship problems etc.
Journal therapy can be added to therapy, or can take place in group therapy or self-directed therapy.
Psychoanalysts and psychotherapists such as Sigmund Freud, Marion Milner, Carl Jung and Ira Progoff have all used journaling, autobiography and other types of writing for personal insights, and to develop their own theories. Journal writing began in 1966 in New York and was started by Dr. Ira Progoff. Dr. Progoff created the Intensive Journal Method, a structured way of writing about life that allows the writer to achieve spiritual and personal growth. This method consisted of a three-ring, loose-leaf binder with four color-coded sections: lifetime dimension, dialogue dimension, depth dimension and meaning dimension. These sections are divided into several subsections. Some of these subsections include topics like career, dreams, body and health, interests, events and meaning in life. Progoff created the intensive journal so that working in one part of the journal would in turn stimulate material to work in another part of the journal, leading to different viewpoints, awareness and connection between subjects. The Intensive Journal Method began with recording in a daily log.
The field of journal therapy reached a wider audience in the 1970s because of the publication of three books. The three books were Dr. Progoff’s At a Journal Workshop (1978), Christina Baldwin’s One to One: Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing (1977) and Tristine Rainer’s The New Diary (1978).
In 1985, psychotherapist and one of the pioneers of journal therapy, Kathleen Adams, started providing journal workshops, designed as a self-discovery process
In the 1990s Dr. James W. Pennebaker published multiple studies which affirmed that writing about emotional problems or traumas led to both physical and mental health benefits. These studies drew more attention to the benefits of writing as therapy.
Today, journal therapy workshops are provided through Dr. Progoff’s Dialogue House, Adams’ Center for Journal Therapy and certificates can be reiceved through certain other educational institutions. Generally, journal therapists obtain an advanced degree in psychology, counseling, social work, or another field and then enter a credentialing program or independent-study program.
Journal therapy is a type of expressive therapy used to help the writer better understand life issues so that they can cope with them or fix them. The benefits of expressive writing include long-term health benefits such as better self-reported physical and emotional health, improved immune system, liver and lung functioning, improved memory, reduced blood pressure, fewer days in hospital, fewer stress-related doctor visits, improved mood and greater psychological well-being. Other therapeutic effects of journal therapy include the expression of feelings, which can lead to greater self-awareness and acceptance and can in turn allow the writer to create a relationship with his or herself. The short-term effects of expressive writing include increased distress and psychological arousal.
Many psychotherapists incorporate journal "homework” in their therapy but few specialize in journal therapy. Journal therapy often begins with the client writing a paragraph or two at the beginning of a session. These paragraphs can deal with how the client is feeling or what is happening in his or her life. These paragraphs set the agenda for the session. Journal therapy then works to guide the client through different writing exercises and afterward the therapist and client discuss the information revealed in the journal. In journal therapy, the therapist often assigns journal “homework” that is to be completed by the next session. Journal therapy can also be provided to groups.
Journal therapy consists of many techniques or writing exercises. In all journal therapy techniques, the writer is encouraged to date everything, write quickly, keep writings and always tell the complete truth. Some of the journal therapy techniques are as follows:
- Sprint: In the sprint technique, catharsis is encouraged by allowing a writer to write about anything for a designated period, such as for five minutes or for ten minutes.
- Lists: In the list technique, the writer writes any number of connected items in order to help prioritize and organize.
- Captured moments: In the captured moments technique, a writer attempts to completely describe the essence and emotional experience of a memory.
- Unsent letters: The unsent letters technique attempts to silence a writer’s internal censor. This technique can be used in a grieving process or to get over traumas, such as sexual abuse.
- Dialogue: In the dialogue technique, the writer creates both sides to conversation involving anything, including but not limited to, people, the body, events, situations, time etc.
- Feedback: The feedback technique is important to journal therapy, in that feedback makes the writer aware of his or her feelings. This allows the writer to acknowledge, accept and reflect on what they have written before (thoughts, feelings, etc.)
Throughout the entire journal writing process, a safe, quiet and private environment should be made. This environment should contain items that make the writer feel good, music, candles, coffee, cigarettes or etc. This environment works to empower the writer and associate good feelings with journal writing. To transition into writing, a journal writing session can be started with a drawing or sketch. After journal writing, something active should be done, such as run, walk, stretch, breath etc., or something enjoyable should be done, such as take a bubble bath, bake cookies, listen to music, talk to someone, etc., so that positive feelings are associated with journal writing.
- Adams, Kathleen. "Journal Therapy." The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines. New York City: 1999.
- Epple, Dorothy. "Journal Writing for Life Development." Advances in Social Work. 8.2 (2007): 288-304.
- Baikie, Karen A., and Kay Wilhelm. "Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing." Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 11.5 (2005): 338-346.
- Thompson, Kate. "Journal therapy writing as a therapeutic tool." Trans. Array Writing Cures: an introductory handbook of writing in counseling and therapy. Gillie Bolton, Stephanie Howlett, Colin Lago and Jeannie K. Wright. New York City: Brunner-Routledge, 2004. 72-84.
- Adams, Kathleen. The Way of the Journal: A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing. 2nd ed. Baltimore, Maryland: The Sidran Press, 1993. 6-12.