The Power of Creative Journaling by Carolyn McDonald, Chief Allied Health Professions Officer, Scottish Government and Honorary Professor Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh @Carolyncahpo @QMUniversity

Carolyn McDonald, Chief Allied Health Professions Officer, Scottish Government and Honorary Professor, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

Growing up as a teenager in the 1970s there was no such thing as digital technology.
No tweeters, bloggers, TikTok or the like – just plain old pen and paper. A popular
Christmas gift back then was a small hard back colourful diary with a lock and key – a
place to document all those teenage secrets within, but growing up in a house with
five sisters there was no way I was going to chance writing anything in mine!

However from the time I was a student I was encouraged to reflect on practice during
placements to support learning and development of professional reasoning skills to
improve academic growth. This continued right the way through my career thereafter.

The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) describes reflection as a process
which helps you gain insight into your professional practice by thinking analytically
about any element of it. The insights developed, and lessons learned, can be applied
to maintain good practice and can also lead to developments and improvements for
both the professional and their service users.

Whilst many of you reflect in person through the supervision process I wonder if you
might consider reflective journal writing in the New Year as a means of writing your
way to success.

The Science Bit

So there is a fair bit of science behind creative journaling.

As AHPs we all learn about the brain as an undergraduate but a group of us who
worked in children’s’ services in the 1990s wanted to learn more so organised for
Gretchen Dahl Reeves, an occupational therapist teaching in paediatrics and
neuroscience in Eastern Michigan University to come over and run a week-long
functional neuroscience course in the anatomy department of Edinburgh University.
What a fabulous experience that was, one we will never forget – we learned so much.

So think back to the anatomy of the brain and more specifically the prefrontal cortex
(PFC) which is divided into medial and lateral. The mPFC is involved in self-regulation,
memory and emotional processing and the lPFC in sensory processing, motor control
and performance monitoring. One of the most important roles of the prefrontal cortex
is executive functioning such as planning, decision making, problem solving, making
long term goals, changing your behaviour when situations change, focussing your

There are lots of studies that show evidence of the positive impact of creative writing
and journaling.

One such study at Michigan State University revealed that expressive writing can help
our brain “cool down” in the state of worrying. On a neurological level, being worried
is like you’re constantly multitasking. You’re trying to focus on one thing, but a portion
of your cognitive efforts are always wasted on suppressing those worries, making it
hard to stay fully present.

This experiment was conducted with college students suffering from anxiety. They
were split into two groups and tasked with a ‘flanker test’ that measured their response
speed and accuracy. Before approaching the task, one group had an 8-minute session
of expressive writing about their deepest emotions, while the others journaled about
their daily activities.

Both groups performed equally well on speed and accuracy tests, however, the
expressive writing group was more efficient and used fewer brain resources, as
measured with EEG (detecting electrical activity in your brain).

The study showed that the act of expressive writing can clear your mind’s
worries and free up resources in your brain that could be put to use on other

To Journal or not to Journal

So the science behind creative writing is there and we know through reflective practice
that we have a need to professionally reflect upon our work related experiences.

There is so much going on in the current climate right now we probably all have many
thoughts and issues whirling round our head at any given time. Sometimes the thought
of everything happening at once can be more overwhelming than any one event itself.
Reflective journal writing can help with that.

Journaling assists your brain to cultivate ideas and not simply think in isolation. It also
links your emotions to your life and work, helping promote clarity and insight.
Through journaling practice, people report having a deeper understanding of
themselves and it brings with it improvement, development and growth.

How to use Journaling for Work

In my opinion there are no rules. There is lots written on it and you can read articles
or buy books on journaling but that is not what I am advocating. Do what feels right as
this is for you alone. It can be lists, sentences, mind maps, artistic drawings or flow
charts – anything that suits you and this might change as you develop further. Harness
your creativity and be energetic about it – but don’t see it as a chore.

You can document insights from your day – what were you grateful for? Who deserves
your thanks as they maybe provided a lightbulb moment for you (perhaps an AHP
unicorn in the making?!). Is there anything you might do differently? Anyone needing
your help you need to reach out to?

Brainstorm your goals. Written goals can act as a filter and guiding light for what
opportunities to pursue. They are a reminder of how far you have come and what you
have achieved.

I read that journaling is the key to becoming a better manager, a better teammate and
a better version of yourself.

Science has shown that journaling can only bring you good things: improvements to
your mental and physical health, memory, relationships, and productivity. What’s most
important—it doesn’t cost anything. All you need is a nice notebook and pen, or a
journal app if digital is your thing and a dash of motivation.

It may not come easy to you as it doesn’t to me, but I urge you to give it a try. Find a
quiet space with a cup of coffee – morning or evening, whichever suits you best and
restart the new year any time you see fit.

The benefits might surprise you.


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