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  • Writer's pictureSteve Watts

Re-wiring the brain - the role of journals in changing our mind sets

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

'On the way home from choir practice I experience an epiphany as I realised that my journaling practice was re-wiring my brain and changing my mind set.'

Sunderland Recovery College course member

The students have now reached week four of the Journaling for Wellbeing course and the benefits of journaling are becoming more and more manifest. The explanations of their experiences are quite profound.

When I am asked about the best place to write a journal I suggest somewhere quiet without distractions. One course member visits Waterstone's cafe, orders a cuppa, gets out her journal and pen and starts writing. Despite the hustle and bustle of the cafe, she says there are fewer distractions than at home. Given that JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in an Edinburgh cafe, this seems like a good idea. This is also a place where I spend time reading and writing and a quick scan of the cafe shows a multiplicity of uses with laptops, text books, newspapers, study files, pencil cases and books of all genres laid out on the tables.

One of the purposes of writing a gratitude journal is to shift the mind's focus from negative to more positive thoughts. One course member had noticed that she was now focussing much more on the positives, and when the negatives appear, she refocuses on the positives.

This experience aligns with positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson's (2013) research at the University of North Carolina, which suggests that 'feeling positive emotions, compared to negative ones, helps to broaden out minds to encompass a wider range of thoughts and potential actions' (Hayes, 2018, p24). It is quite common to hear people talking about being in a downward spiral of thoughts and emotions, but Fredrickson's research indicates that focussing on the more expansive positive thoughts leads to an upward spiral. This is known as Fredrickson's broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions (Hayes, 2018, p24).

One adage I have shared with the course members is to 'ink it don't think it' and use the journal as a space to confide and express themselves. One course member said that she uses her journal as a space to express her anger rather than taking it out on herself or those around her. She said that her journal was the best counsellor.

Ullrich and Lutgendorf (2002) have written about the effect of emotional disclosure in expressive writing on available working memory. In their study subjects who wrote about a negative personal experience reported improvement in their available working memory capacity, as well as a decline in intrusive negative thinking. The study concluded that 'expressive writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thinking about a stressful experience, thus freeing working memory resources.' Thomas (2019; p19) suggests that 'many of us experience pressure on our short-term working memory when we are busy, preoccupied, stressed, confused, emotionally upset and unwell.' Releasing working memory by expressing her anger in her journal is perhaps one reason why the course member sees her journal as the best counsellor.

'My journal is the best counsellor.'

Sunderland Recovery College course member


Fredrickson, B (2013) Positive Emotions Broaden and Build. Advances in Experimental Psychology Social Psychology Vol 47: p 2

Hayes, M (2018) Write Yourself Happy: The Art of Positive Journaling. Gaia: London

Thomas, A (2019) The Journal Writer's Companion. Exisle: Chatsworth, Australia

Ullrich, PM and Lutgendorf, SK (2002) Journaling about stressful events: effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Annals of Behavioural Medicine 24:3 pp244-50

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