Spoken language is the primary medium of counselling and psychotherapy. The therapeutic value of written language has also been studied extensively, both to provide self-help information and to elicit personal reflection (Miller, 2014).
There are two main kinds of journaling. There is interactive journaling, and there is reflective journaling.
Interactive journaling is a guided writing process that combines both self-help information and personal reflection (Miller, 2014):
It has differed from usual therapeutic writing in two ways: (a) by integrating the presentation of treatment-relevant information in graphic-enhanced text to engage the reader, and (b) by offering frequent structured opportunities for the client to respond to and integrate material being presented.
Interactive journaling is very adaptable and can take many forms. Miller's account provides one form. You don't necessarily need to use "graphic-enhanced text" as he prescribes. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) provides the following description of interactive journaling within education (DPI, n.d.).
INTERACTIVE JOURNALS provides students with a space to record their thinking about vocabulary words. There are a variety of formats for interactive journals, some with more structure than others. Educators should choose the journal that is most appropriate for the needs of the classroom and should check students' interactive journals and provide feedback to students regularly. Each time students engage with a vocabulary word, they should revisit their interactive journals, modifying their entries with their new understanding.
The following image gives some examples:
The following citations were given regarding research:
- Beck, I., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, I. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.
- Graves, M. (2008). Instruction on individual words: One size does not fit all. In A. E. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about vocabulary instruction (pp. 56–79). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
- Marzano, R. & Pickering, D. (2005). Building academic vocabulary. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Interactive journaling as described by the DPI can be adapted for use in therapy where in person centred or integrative psychotherapy, the therapist and client should collaborate to choose the journal style that is most appropriate for the needs of the therapy. In pure psychodynamic therapy, the therapist will decide according to the requirements of the way the therapy is going.
Interactive journaling can be great for writing down what you are grateful for as suggested by @WinstonL. The client can either use the journal to review their thoughts within therapy by sharing it with their therapist, or the client can review it outside the therapeutic space by re-reading it, and modifying it as therapy continues.
Reflective journaling was made part of my training as a psychotherapist. Although it is a different model of journaling, it can incorporate some of the styling of interactive journaling, although the information is never altered.
Although used widely throughout counselling psychology and other training programs that incorporate experiential activities, reflective journals have sparse, fragmented and non-comparable theoretical bases to support their use (Hubbs & Brand, 2005). Although the term reflective journaling means something slightly different, referring to journals as paper mirrors within Hubbs and Brand's 2005 title is a good analogy on the idea of reflective journaling.
Reflective journals put in writing exactly what you are thinking right in that very moment in time regarding one or more specific topics. As differing, incongruent or altered thoughts are found, another entry is made referring to the previous thoughts and the entry puts down in writing and/or images how those thoughts have changed or are incongruent.
All the entries are there to be read through in self-reflection and introspection, allowing you to examine whether your thoughts actually are a true reflection of reality.
With introspection, you are learning about your currently ongoing, or perhaps very recently past, mental states or processes (Stanford University, 2019). During introspection, the reflective questions to ask yourself should be (Open University, n.d.):
- Strengths – What are my strengths? For example, am I well organised? Do I remember things?
- Weaknesses – What are my weaknesses? For example, am I easily distracted? Do I need more practise with a particular skill?
- Skills – What skills do I have and what am I good at?
- Problems – What problems are there at work/home that may affect me? For example, responsibilities or distractions that may impact on study or work.
- Achievements – What have I achieved?
- Happiness – Are there things that I am unhappy with or disappointed about? What makes me happy?
- Solutions – What could I do to improve in these areas?
Journaling is a very personal experience and can be very rewarding. You can do all this reflection and introspection alone, or you can do it with your therapist. Those suffering from stress, depression and trauma can look back at their entries and may choose to evaluate things with their therapist. Discussing the entries with your therapist can allow you to examine and reflect on them and work together to alleviate worries and anxieties.
Once that has been done, maybe another entry can made putting into writing the results of your evaluations at that time. Maybe you have uncovered prejudices you previously were not aware of. Write them down, and write how you feel about that. How do you feel you can change those views?
The whole process is ongoing and can be used just as part of therapy or it can even be used after therapy has concluded, as it counts towards your personal development. Your thoughts and their processes can often change over the years and reflecting back on those changes can show how you have developed your thoughts and beliefs.
Which is better?
Because journaling is a very personal experience, that is a very subjective question and depends very much on what you intend to get from your journal and how you wish to obtain it.
DPI (n.d.). Interactive Journals [Free PDF] https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/ela/bank/6-12_L.VAU_Interactive_Journals.pdf
Hubbs, D. L., & Brand, C. F. (2005). The paper mirror: Understanding reflective journaling. Journal of Experiential Education, 28(1), 60-71. https://doi.org/10.1177/105382590502800107
Miller, W. (2014). Interactive journaling as a clinical tool. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 36(1), 31-42. https://doi.org/10.17744/mehc.36.1.0k5v52l12540w218
Open University (n.d.). Self reflection https://www.open.ac.uk/choose/unison/develop/my-skills/self-reflection
Stanford University (2019). Introspection https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/introspection/