What is Cognitive Journaling

Writing for most people might not seem like fun, but what if you could write your way to happiness and self-awareness? Also, more and more people are interested in understanding why they act the way they do. As a result, is it possible for cognitive journaling to become the holy grail for the twenty-first-century mental craze?

Cognitive journaling is a hybrid system that combines the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and elements of journaling to control negative thinking that lead to negative emotions. The hybrid framework of cognitive journaling allows people to increase self-awareness, challenge their negative assumptions and explore new ways of thinking to generate more positive thoughts or at least cope with an inevitable situation.

Have you ever experienced times when you entertain negative thoughts and somehow analyze your thoughts relative to the situation critically? There is almost a 70% chance that those negative thoughts were unrealistic and all in your head. Well, that’s why this article will enlighten you on what cognitive journaling is. Let’s get started!

What Is Cognitive Journaling?

Cognitive journaling is a relatively novel field of inquiry that combines principles from psychology (cognitive behavioral therapy—CBT) with the practice of journaling as a therapy to help overcome negative thoughts.

Dr. Richard Ragnason discovered it toward the end of his psychiatry residency. This unique field of study aims to increase self-awareness, encourage people to challenge their assumptions (usually illogical), and embrace new ways of thinking that are self-nourishing and positive.

According to Dr. Ragnason, writing your thoughts in a journal allows you to observe your thinking. Sadly most people only write for the sake of it. Essentially, journal writing only encourages you to find more reasons to continue thinking the way you are. Here is what we mean!

Suppose you failed a test and went on to write in your journal about how sad and ashamed you feel for failing the test. Traditional journaling allows you to expand these negative feelings into self-loathing and inferiority, leading you to believe that you have dull brains.

You might add that the course material is impossible, you cannot learn, or your teachers are unfriendly. However, cognitive journaling allows you to critically observe your thinking by asking thought-provoking questions to challenge your previous belief about why you failed the test. Then by applying the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, you can begin exploring new thoughts that help improve your situation. You can now see with fresh eyes that your study methods were wrong, you missed a couple of classes, studied only two days before your exams etc.

Dr. Ragnason aimed to empower people with the skills to remain objective with their thoughts and feelings as they write them down in their journals and overcome unhelpful thinking habits.

Therefore cognitive journaling is the practice of writing your negative feelings in your journal to identify any inconsistencies or discovered patterns that negatively affect your mood leading you down the rabbit hole of unhappiness (downward negative spiral).

Traditional journaling allows you to write the events of the day or situations around you for the heck of it—to get things off your chest. However, with cognitive journaling, you write things down to observe and check for negative thought patterns in your behavior.

The essence is to re-examine how you interpret situations around you and challenge those negative thoughts so that you can replace them with positive and uplifting ones. It is not a one-time practice, but an ongoing one since negative thinking is a habit. As a result, it would require another pattern to phase it out.

This is why you can not practice cognitive journaling only once but must be consistent to reap the benefits. The long-term goal of practicing cognitive journaling is to get to the point where you no longer have to identify negative thought patterns after they occur. Instead, you become mentally proactive so that you can sense them before they happen.

CBT as a Precursor to Cognitive Journaling

CBT is an abbreviation for cognitive behavioral therapy. It is a treatment process in the field of psychotherapy designed to assist people with understanding the feelings behind their behavior.

Human emotions are linked to their behaviors. Therefore you act the way you do or behave in a certain way because you feel a certain way.

For instance, if you feel excited to see an old friend, you could give them a tight hug. In other words, your action or behavior (tight hugging) seemed from your feeling (excitement).

Additionally, your thoughts or mental voice is linked to your emotions which then affects your action or behavior that also affects your thinking—it works like a cycle!

The Significance of Cognitive Journaling

Understanding the significance of cognitive journaling takes away the tendency to take it for granted as a form of regular journaling. Here are two critical reasons that make cognitive journaling so significant today.

It Broadens Your Perspective.

Writing about your thoughts and feelings on paper to critically analyze them allows you to see things with fresh eyes. This is why you can easily discard your unhealthy thoughts and pick up healthier ones, often realizing the previous thoughts were unnecessary.

It Gives You the Power To Change Your Beliefs.

People with negative thoughts often feel helpless, expecting some miracle to snap them out of such debilitating patterns. However, cognitive journaling supplies the energy you need to snap yourself out of such negative thinking patterns, giving you a feeling of empowerment.

Aims of Cognitive Journaling

Now that you know why cognitive journaling is so significant for today’s living, it is safe to say that the aims of cognitive journaling as a novel practice are threefold:

  1. Systematic analysis helps people objectively describe internal (mental and emotional) and external (your reactions and behaviors) situations as they happen.
  1. To enable people to observe and identify the practical links between situations and their thoughts, emotions and beliefs.
  1. To teach people to challenge their thinking, exposing them to functional and logical thoughts will allow them to feel and behave better and positively.

In other words, we can conclude that the goal of cognitive journaling is to empower individuals to rise to the challenge of becoming their own therapists through teaching them critical and objective thinking—you can call it a mental health and wellness DIY (do it yourself).

The Science of Negative Thought Patterns and How Cognitive Journaling Helps.

You may be surprised to learn that science has discovered the link between your brain and negative thoughts. According to scientific research, it is due to an imbalance in elevating and depressing neurotransmitters (nervous chemicals) in your brain. Essentially your brain rests on a delicate balance between these two classes (elevating vs. depressing) of neurotransmitters.

For instance, GABA(Gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a depressing or inhibitory chemical with vital brain functions. Conversely, Glutamate is another chemical that precedes GABA in the metabolic pathway of generation and is an elevating or excitatory chemical. These brain chemicals are responsible for allowing and preventing negative thoughts.

Research conducted by a group of scientists at Cambridge University led by Dr. Michael Anderson, a professor of neuroscience, revealed that GABA is responsible for balancing brain chemicals and keeping out unwanted or intrusive thoughts.

The research went further to explain why people with some mental health challenges like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and some elements of severe paranoia continuously struggle with intrusive thoughts—to the point that it is believed that they can’t help it, and honestly they can’t!

So, GABA and Glutamate work together to maintain the neurochemical balance in the brain.

Thought control (thought inhibition) is made possible by sufficient GABA concentrations in the brain.

In other words, if you had insufficient amounts of GABA, you would be unable to suppress unwanted thoughts. This led to a significant breakthrough in treating and managing problems like schizophrenia, where thoughts go wild due to hallucinations, intrusive memories, etc.

The science of negative thought patterns and brain response exposes us to the knowledge of how vital it is for humans to have power or control over their own thoughts. It is just like physical restraint.

Imagine this: you can perform several actions such as running, jumping, dancing, and several other reflexes, but trying to execute these physical abilities almost simultaneously or in quick succession at every instant would be crazy.

Instead, you must stop being hyperactive to avoid being hysterical. It is the same level of restraint you exhibit with your thoughts when you have balanced levels of these neurotransmitters (GABA and Glutamate), and that is how stopping unwanted thoughts through thought control works.

How To Boost GABA Levels for Better Thought Control

If insufficient GABA levels are why intrusive thoughts cannot be stopped, it makes sense to seek ways to boost them.

According to Dr. Anderson’s research, increasing GABA levels holds a potential solution to this neurochemical imbalance that prevents people from being able to suppress unwanted thoughts.

While there are not yet concrete scientific ways to artificially achieve and produce more effective medication for mental health patients, there are natural ways to increase brain GABA levels.

These natural ways are pretty effective and can also serve as a means to preserve your natural abilities to control your thoughts and maintain your mental health, especially in today’s fast-paced society capable of driving one crazy with stress.

Here are four effective methods you should incorporate into your daily life.

Natural GABA BoostersExplanation
Physical exercise  It allows you to increase your heart rate, which has been discovered to increase brain GABA levels. If you are concerned about your fitness level, physical exercise, as little as a brisk 30-minute walk or running a few times a week, is sufficient.
Eating healthy  The importance of proper dieting cannot be overemphasized. Ideally, you should avoid eating processed foods and more of what the earth naturally provides.   Additionally, foods rich in glutamic acid help boost GABA levels because glutamic acid is a building block of GABA.   Examples of such foods include but are not limited to: Bananas, citrus, potatoes, spinach, broccoli, lentils, liver(beef) etc.
Practicing meditation    Meditation helps you quiet your mind when you focus on your breath. Also, deep breathing in meditation practice may increase GABA levels.
Practicing Yoga    Yoga practice helps you maintain focus in the present moment through adopting controlled postures which may help boost GABA levels.

How Cognitive Journaling Stops Negative Thinking

Now that you understand the basics of cognitive journaling, its significance, aims and how it relates to brain activity and thought control, it is time to explore its efficacy in stopping negative thinking. Here is how.

Dr. Ragnarson, whom you met earlier in this article, helped expose the weakness in regular journaling—opposing attempts at challenging your default thinking by reinforcing your need to maintain internal thought stability.

This is why negative thinking rarely ends when it begins because your mind continues to find supporting claims to retain the thought and, over time, form a pattern or vicious cycle. There is not much to make you alarmed by this premise as it is your natural, default human way of being (your body endeavors always to maintain a consistent internal environment).

It is almost as though humans, by default, hate change when ironically, change seems to be the only constant thing in the universe!

Essentially, your mind, like your entire body, struggles to maintain its internal consistency. That is how you can perceive and make sense of the world around you.

Nearly no one wants to alter their deeply entrenched mental programming—which probably took several years (if not your entire existence) to form.

So cognitive journaling provides the leeway to successfully alter previous disserving thoughts and make room for new serving ones.

The process follows a threefold path to change:

1. Mentally describe emotional and mental events around you objectively.

2. Document what links you find between your emotions, thoughts and the situation.

3. Use the result to challenge how you think and seek ways to begin feeling better by changing your thoughts.

What You Should Know To Practice and Benefit From Cognitive Journaling

Even though cognitive journaling seems like an easy self-help practice, it isn’t. You should practice it under a licensed professional, with careful supervision, especially if you are dealing with apparent mental health distress.

Experienced psychotherapists often use the ABC model of cognition to help patients with their problems. It is a critical aspect of practical cognitive journaling responsible for most successful therapies.

The ABC Model of Cognitive Journaling?

The details of cognitive journaling will be incomplete without discussing the ABC model of cognition. Essentially, the ABC model is a handy tool for exploring the deepest recesses of your beliefs to question them and create new ones.

The ABC model is also one of Dr. Ragnasons postulates to describe the cycle of life experiences as involving three factors:

  • The Activating Event:This refers to any situation or event that triggers your emotions or thoughts.
  • The Belief: This involves what you make of the situation—your mental and emotional interpretation of the situation.
  • The Consequences: This refers to the result of the initial stimulus and your interpretation (your action or behavior).

Nearly every life experience follows the ABC model.

Here is a brief example.

ABC ModelCase OneCase Two
AYou suddenly feel sick while on an important task.Your neighbor is having a loud party at home.
BYou think it might affect your ability to deliver the job, so you feel worried and anxious.You think of how much you need some quiet to finish your article and so feel infuriated.
CYou panic, spend more time worrying and fail to communicate your situation on time to your team.You clench your fists, storm out of your door and go banging on your neighbor’s to keep it down.

Understanding that the ABC model is consistent in analyzing life situations is essential. Yet, there can be different consequences to the same activating event (A), which will depend on your belief. If we take our initial examples with the same (A), we can have the following:

ABC ModelCase One: Scene OneCase One: Scene Two
BYou think it might affect your ability to deliver the job, so you feel overwhelmed and discouraged.You think it might affect your ability to deliver the job, so you feel concerned and hopeful.
CYou give up and quit your job.  You report to your team, ask for an extension or assistance and focus on your treatment and recovery.


ABC ModelCase Two: Scene OneCase Two: Scene Two
BYou think of how much you need some quiet to finish your article, so you feel frustrated.You think of how much you need some quiet to finish your article, so feel distracted.
C You clench your teeth, shut down your computer, scream into a pillow and fall asleep.    You put on noise-canceling headphones or wear headphones with your favorite soothing work-friendly playlist and focus on your work.

Now, you can see how powerful cognitive journaling is for changing negative thoughts to positive ones if you think objectively. The ABC model of cognition empowers you with self-motivating positive thoughts that allow you to take charge of your life instead of feeling like a victim or acting in ways that are out of control.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Journaling a Form of Therapy?

Journaling is a form of therapy (therapeutic journaling). It involves regular journal entries concerning personal situations and events that affect your emotions, such as anger, frustration, anxiety, grief, joy, gratitude, etc. As a form of therapy, it helps people deal with difficult situations and find coping mechanisms.

Is Journaling Superior to Conventional Therapy Sessions?

Journaling and conventional therapy sessions help the human mind cope with stressful, upsetting, or traumatic situations. Journaling is not superior to therapy as both mental care forms are unique. Therapy involves a specialist, while journaling can be done alone.

Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Help Negative Thought Patterns?

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people with negative thought patterns by identifying and recognizing triggers such as negative self-talk that set the negative cycle in motion.

Final Thoughts

Cognitive journaling, like any other form of journaling, helps you search through your feelings and acts as a mental reset for people dealing with self-sabotaging and defeating thoughts. By identifying. And recognizing these triggers, you can live healthier, happier, more positive lives for yourself and your loved ones. Hopefully, this piece helps set you on the right path.