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July/August 2017 Issue

Technology Trends: The Benefits of Digital Journaling
By Susan A. Knight
Social Work Today
Vol. 17 No. 4 P. 6

Journal writing isn't new, but, as is the case with so many other areas, the practice has been impacted by technology. A growing number of individuals are choosing to go digital with their writing, making use of the many online journaling tools and platforms available.

A key benefit to those online tools and platforms are the features they provide for categorizing entries and searching through them. Kathleen Adams, MA, LPC, a psychotherapist and founder/director of the Center for Journal Therapy and its professional training division, the Therapeutic Writing Institute, notes that digital formats offer "the capacity to index, tag, sort, and locate entries through the use of specific search terms," making them an attractive alternative to traditional journal notebooks. She also notes the options provided for security and safe storage, which can serve as an added bonus for writers: "Digital journals can be password-protected and discreetly stored on a flash drive, in the cloud, or on any of a number of very good journal software and apps."

But just how well does digital journaling stand up to traditional journaling with pen and paper?

Keyboard vs. Handwriting
Adams, who has specialized in clinical journal therapy since 1988, cites a 2014 digital journaling study, "The 30-Day Digital Journaling Challenge." Coauthored by Adams and published by the Center for Journal Therapy, the study found that digital journaling was largely afforded the same benefits as writing by hand, with no sacrifice of emotional expression. For instance, two-thirds of the study respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "My typewritten entries this month expressed my innermost thought and feelings."

Furthermore, writing by keyboard was actually preferred by men, with nearly one-third of male respondents indicating that they were uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with handwriting. For men who have reservations about writing by hand in a traditional notebook, the availability of online tools could help to make journaling activities a viable option.

Many people appreciate the ease and speed with which they can capture their thoughts in a digital format. Unlike a journal notebook tucked away at home, people have their devices with them wherever they go, and most people type considerably faster than they write. There are journaling apps that sync across platforms, so users can record entries on the device that is most convenient at any given time (e.g., they can use their tablet at home and their smartphone when they're out on the go).

"Anything that makes journaling easier is a benefit, simply because one is more likely to write," says Susan Borkin, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of The Healing Power of Writing: A Therapist's Guide to Using Journaling With Clients. "For many people, cellphones, tablets, and laptop computers are ubiquitous, therefore [making it] easier to capture thoughts and feelings in the moment." Borkin, who has specialized in the therapeutic use of writing since 1978, emphasizes that the convenience and availability of tools is key to actually writing. This sentiment is confirmed by the many journal writers who say they wouldn't write as regularly or as extensively were it not for the ease and availability of online access.

Digital journaling tools usually contain a range of features that create a richer experience for the user, such as support for voice dictation, and automatic recording of date, time, location, and weather details. Most of these tools also allow for the integration of additional media, such as photos and graphics, into digital journal entries. Borkin says that this is extremely valuable in terms of facilitating creative self-expression. "Digitally, being able to use photos, images, or even coloring only serves to enhance the creative process. In a sense, images beget more images, expanding our thinking and possibilities."

Cognitive Reprocessing, Healing, and Empowerment
Journaling offers many benefits, Borkin explains, one of which is the opportunity to engage in cognitive reprocessing. She explains that stressful and traumatic memories are unprocessed; these memories are frequently disorganized and fragmented. Journal writing serves as a tool to help bring a new perspective to these memories by allowing the individual to process them in an organized way as opposed to just replaying them. The individual is then able to experience a cognitive shift with respect to the traumatic experience.

"Writing about such experiences provides a shift in the narrative," Borkin explains, "closing the loop on random thoughts and circular thinking. For example, a man remembering negative interactions with his father can begin to shift his perspective in realizing the difficulties of his father's childhood." This can serve as a vital step on the path to healing and ultimately attaining closure around past events.

Nancy S. Scherlong, MSW, LCSW, PTR, CJT, M/S, is a psychotherapist, writer, and certified journal therapist, and the founder and director of a multimodal expressive arts practice, Wellness Metaphors. "One of the primary ways in which writing helps and writing heals," Scherlong says, "is by externalizing and being able to examine what was previously held internally. By being able to pace one's own experience (through pacing one's writing), greater mastery can be achieved in stressful circumstances."

Borkin cites personal empowerment as another benefit that comes from expressive writing. "Using a free-form technique, for example, can develop self-trust and clarity." She describes exploratory and stream-of-consciousness writing, in which the individual writes in a free and unplanned fashion. This type of writing frequently results in surprises or a new awareness, which can provide the impetus to make changes and embark on a new course of action.

Journaling as an Adjunct to Therapy
Therapeutic writing has long been recognized for its ability to improve treatment outcomes when used as an adjunct to traditional talk therapy. "As an adjunctive therapy, journaling can be a subtle, yet powerful tool," explains Borkin, citing the ability of writing to help regulate emotions. "It takes energy and physical effort to repress emotions. Journaling can free emotions as well as provide a sense of mastery." She offers, as a case example, a woman who writes about an experience of rape. "In writing about the experience, she can potentially reframe her self-blame and helplessness to the knowledge that she was not at fault and did the best she could under the circumstances."

Borkin advises that integrating journaling into a treatment plan can also be an efficient use of resources and time for the therapist. "Having a client write a biographical statement," she says, "can quickly provide the therapist with a tremendous amount of information about family history and past trauma."
A digital format makes it easy for clients to share something such as a biographical statement, or any other type of journal entry, with their therapist, and entries can be forwarded to the therapist in between therapy sessions via e-mail.

Adams shares her approach for using journaling with her clients: "My typical approach is to construct three or four journal prompts out of content from the individual session. I offer these to the client at the end of the session for at-home work." She explains that clients are taught to write "reflections"; the client then e-mails the reflection to her so she can review it. "It takes almost no time to read the paragraph or two of reflection and send back an affirmative message. A printout of the reflection allows me to place it in my chart notes and incorporate the content into the next session, as appropriate."

Scherlong has been using therapeutic writing in her social work practice for more than 20 years. "Over one-half of my therapy clients and three-fourths of my coaching clients keep some type of journal while working with me," she says. This journal, she explains, serves as a "container" for the work that gets completed between sessions. It also serves as "a crucible for collaboration within the framework of the session itself. Together we can gauge progress and growth and earmark matters of future concern."

Scherlong continues, "Social work is all about context—people in the context of their circumstance and time. Using writing as an adjunct to the therapy or coaching process provides the perfect personal record of change and transformation."

Not Just for Clients
It's worth noting that journaling, whether on paper or digitally, isn't just a tool to be used with clients as part of their therapeutic work; it can also be useful in the context of social work education and training. "I think the expressive arts have much to offer our students as well," Scherlong says. "Writing provides learners of all stages a chance to 'self-supervise' and reflect, honing their practice and self-awareness, growth that is essential in becoming an effective and ethical clinician."

As for social workers who aren't already using journaling in their work, Borkin encourages them to be open to how it may be utilized. "Don't be intimidated to try journaling with your clients," she says. "You already have the clinical skills; journaling is just an additional tool." She also offers this piece of advice to social workers who are newly exploring the use of journaling with their clients: "Try journaling for yourself. As you feel more comfortable with it, you'll find it much easier to get your clients to journal as well!"

— Susan A. Knight works with organizations in the social services sector to help them get the most out of their client management software.