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The Benefits of Journaling Your Emotions

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

Monthly Journal Prompt:

The Task

Set a timer for five minutes and write down whatever feelings come up. I like to do this at the beginning and end of the day, but you must find the time that works for you. Use the wheel of emotions to expand your feelings vocabulary.  If there are any physiological responses to these feelings you can write that down too. For example, when I feel provoked I get a sensation that my chest is tight. When I feel peaceful my body feels light and spacious. You might not feel anything in your body and that's ok. If that's the case for you, stick with the first practice of labeling the emotions of that moment. As you notice your emotions change during the day, feel free to name the emotions out loud to yourself or write it down again. 

"This is awkward. I feel frustrated doing this." This was my first journal entry in an attempt to name my feelings. One problem was that I couldn't actually name more than five feelings. Another issue was that I didn't understand how labeling my emotions was going to help me. Luckily, since that first journal entry, I've learned a few things.

The Neuroscience to Why it Works Many of us have been taught to ignore or desperately contain and hide our emotions. This can result in feeling overwhelmed or it can express itself as an outburst onto others. Psychologist, Daniel Goleman notes that "Out of control emotions can make smart people stupid."  Neuroscientists have found that verbalizing or writing down difficult feelings actually decreases activation of the emotional center of the brain, the amygdala. The Amygdala is the watchtower of the brain, scanning for threats. When it is activated it sets off a series of biological responses to protect your body. This includes releasing stress hormones and narrowing your brain's cognitive processing ability. When the difficult emotion is named the activation of the emotional center is decreased and the area of the brain that is involved with reasoning and thinking has more activation. So, by naming fear you can dampen your emotional response and actually decrease the intensity of that fear.  So why name positive emotions?  Humans have to navigate through the negativity bias. This survival mechanism passed down through evolution means that negative events have a greater impact on our brains than positive ones. Not only do people tend to register negative stimuli more readily than positive ones, but we also dwell on these events. So in order to avoid getting stuck in a cyclone of negative thoughts and emotions we have to intentionally recognize pleasurable experiences. Neuroscientists have found that people who name positive emotions are unusually flexible, creative, integrated, opened-minded and effective in their thinking patterns. They also show increased speed and accuracy in their cognitive processing skills. When people name positive emotions the left lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) becomes activated. Activation of this area results in reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. New imaging studies lead researchers to believe that the left region of the PFC may be important in inhibiting activity in the amygdala and dampening response to negative events, and particularly in shutting off the negative response quickly once it has been activated.  When our brain doesn't have to attend to threats it can find creative solutions. Not only are we able to see more solutions, but our general wellbeing improves with a regular practice of focusing on positive thoughts and  experiences. 


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