OUTCOMES OF AN INTEGRATED JOURNALING AND MINDFULNESS
PROGRAM ON A US UNIVERSITY CAMPUS
IRINA KHRAMTSOVA, PATRICIA GLASCOCK∗
The goal of the present study was to implement and investigate a positive psychology program
based on journaling and mindfulness on a US campus. As a result of this program, there was a
statistically significant increase in mindfulness among the participants. Qualitative analysis of verbal
responses revealed that all participants perceived the sessions as beneficial for relaxation, peace of
mind, and increase in positive thoughts and emotions. Thus, journaling and mindfulness techniques
can be successfully incorporated into college life to increase psychological well-being of student
population, reduce stress, and improve overall college atmosphere.
Cuvinte-cheie: jurnalizare, atenţie/grijă, stare psihologică de bine, sporirea gândurilor şi
Key words: journaling, mindfulness, psychological well-being, enhancing positive thoughts
Mindfulness in its very general meaning can be defined as a state of paying
attention in a non-judgmental way and being aware of the here and now of our
experience. It is the opposite of mindlessness, or running your life on an
“automatic pilot”, and being unconscious of what is going on inside of you and in
the external world. “Mindfulness is a lifetime’s journey along a path that ultimately
leads nowhere, only to who you are” (Kabat-Zinn, 2009). In its more narrow sense
it usually means “mindfulness meditation”, or a specific method of learning to
consciously pay attention to our inner world and not being distracted by the
constant brain chatter, which is characteristic of being mindless (Shapiro, Schwartz
& Santerre, 2002). For the purposes of the present study we will use the term to
mean both the state of being mindful and various techniques used to achieve this
state. We intentionally avoided or limited the use of the word “meditation” as it
may have invoked some negative connotations associated with New Age or
Buddhism and may have been misinterpreted by the participants of our study.
∗ Arkansas State University, USA.
Rev. Psih., t. 56, nr. 3–4, p. 208–218, Bucureşti, iulie – decembrie 2010
2 Journaling and Mindfulness Program 209
We chose to introduce mindfulness sessions on a university campus for
several reasons. First, hundreds of empirical studies demonstrated the beneficial
effects of mindfulness in treating depression, anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia,
substance abuse, heart disease, eating disorders, etc. ( for a review see Zinn-Kabat,
1990; Shapiro & Carlson, 2009; Newberg & Waldman, 2009).
The reason that we believed that our students needed to be introduced to
mindfulness is based on the statistics for US students in general and for Arkansas
State University students in particular. The national estimate is that fifty percent of
all college students reported feeling so depressed in the past year that their daily
functioning was negatively affected (Kadison & DiGeronimo, 2004; Half of Us,
2008; The Jed Foundation, 2010). The past ten years the American College Health
Association has surveyed college students and reports that stress is listed by college
students as the number one barrier to academic success (American College Health
Association and National College Health Assessment, 2009).
Through informal assessment and regular needs assessment surveys conducted,
ASU students’ report stress to be a major problem in their lives, matching the
national statistic. They also name stress as one the main reasons to seek services at
the ASU Counseling Center.
Each semester the ASU Counseling Center provides a depression and anxiety
screening for students. Typically, about a total of 400 students participate with
approximately 30 percent meeting the criteria for clinical depression, general
anxiety disorder or co-morbid depression and general anxiety disorder. The above
statistics demonstrate the need for students to learn more healthy ways of coping
with academic and life challenges. However, only about 25 percent of those
meeting the criteria seek professional help because of the stigma attached to
counseling, that is, embarrassment that others may find out, fears about being labeled
crazy, and concerns about confidentiality (Tartakovsky, 2008; Ross, Niebling &
Heckert, 1999). We hoped that our mindfulness sessions would not cause any
negative associations in the participants.
Second, with the growth of positive psychology, more research has been
conducted on positive effects of mindfulness in healthy populations that include
enhancing compassion, peace of mind, joy, forgiveness, and improving memory
and cognition (Newberg & Waldman, 2009). As a result, mindfulness has been
described as one of the key interventions for achieving happiness and long-lasting
psychological well-being. It has been included in all of the major books and
textbooks on positive psychology (Baumgardner & Crothers, 2009; Compton, 2005;
Haidt, 2006; Snyder & Lopez, 2007).
Finally, cultivating mindfulness has many advantages over more traditional
and popular ways for treating mental and physiological problems and for
increasing well-being (e.g., medicine, massage, exercise, or traveling). It is cheap,
does not require special equipment, can be done almost anywhere and by people of
all ages and cultures, alone or as a group. Haidt (2006) compares it to a pill that is
all natural, costs nothing and has numerous positive side effects.
Irina Kramtsova, Patricia Glascock 3 210
Mindfulness is usually associated with Buddhist tradition and is becoming
more and more popular in the Western world yet it is not fully taken advantage of
despite its numerous benefits. It is quite uncommon in certain parts of this country,
especially in the Southern states known as the “Bible Belt” dominated by the
culture of Protestantism because it is viewed as a part of a belief system different
from Christianity. Our university is located in one of the Bible Belt states, thus, the
fundamental research question was whether our positive psychology project based
on mindfulness will even be successful on our campus. (As was stated above, when
designing this project, we were careful to avoid terms like “meditation” and used
more neutral nonsectarian language like “mindfulness”).
There are different types of mindfulness techniques that may fit individual
preferences and one’s level of proficiency in this skill. The most common is
mindfulness meditation where “an attempt is made to attend nonjudgmentally to all
stimuli in the internal and external environment but not to get caught up (ruminate
on) any particular stimulus” (Shapiro, Schwartz & Santerre, 2002, p. 633). It is
usually done in a sitting position, but can also be practiced while walking, dancing
(e.g., Sufi dervishes), and doing almost any kind of a routine activity like eating.
Although it sounds easy, it is an extremely difficult task for an inexperienced
practitioner whose untrained mind habitually will try to distract him/her from
focusing on the here and now by weaving stories and running “reverberating loops
of negative thought and emotion” (Taylor, 2006).
Because the majority of the student population at ASU is not familiar with
the practice of mindfulness meditation per se, we chose to use gentler techniques
that would gradually and slowly teach them to first become more consciously
aware of the workings of their mind, then learn to focus on positive thoughts and
images, and finally introduce them to a few minutes of silent mindful meditation.
Thus, we chose a quiet and pleasant location in one of the rooms of the Student
Union where the participants can sit in a comfortable chair and be exposed to a
variety of mindfulness exercises: following suggestions for guided meditation and
visualization, focusing on breathing, listening to music or nature sounds, and/or
repeating positive affirmations.
In addition to mindfulness methods per se, another component of our sessions
was journal writing, which served as a preliminary stage to mindfulness and helped
students prepare their minds for the subsequent mindfulness exercises. The reason
that we incorporated journaling into our study was two-fold. On the one hand, in
terms of their benefits they have lots in common: journaling helps focus on one’s
inner world, increase positive thoughts and decrease negativity. In addition to
numerous psychological benefits, it enhances physical health (Pennebaker, 1997)
and academic performance, for example, it helps high-school students become
more active in their pursuit of learning (Scherer, 2002). On the other hand,
journaling shares several advantages listed above for mindfulness: it is cheap, does
not require special equipment, can be done almost anywhere and by people of all
ages and cultures.
4 Journaling and Mindfulness Program 211
The two types of journaling (based on their content and objectives) that we
incorporated into our study were gratitude and reappraisal. Research by positive
psychologists revealed that writing about positive events – “three good things in
life” – increases happiness and decreases depressive symptoms for six months
(Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005). Thus, on a good day we encouraged our
participants to write about their positive experiences. However, when one is upset
and cannot really feel positive, it helps to acknowledge these feelings and to be
honest with oneself (Niederhoffer & Pennebaker, 2002). According to Pennebaker
(1997), it is not just the act of writing about an upsetting event and letting off the
steam that has positive effect but rather making sense out of it. Thus, we suggested
to our participants that on a day when they were upset, they honestly share their
thoughts and feelings in a confidential writing and then try to change their attitude
about what happened (if possible).
And finally, we attempted to use two biofeedback techniques in our study in
order to provide the students and ourselves with some empirical data that would
demonstrate how efficient the practice of journaling and mindfulness would be. All
of our participants were offered a Biodot skin thermometer (Biodot Skin
Thermometers, 2008) that measured skin temperature and provided some visible
feedback on the level of stress or relaxation. Some of our participants experimented
with EmWave Personal Stress Reliever (emWave Personal Stress Reliever, 2010),
a device that shows the effects of stress and/or relaxation on one’s body by
measuring and displaying subtle changes in one’s heart rhythms.
2. PURPOSE OF THE PRESENT STUDY
Previous mindfulness studies are valuable in terms of demonstrating the
benefits of mindfulness and describing in detail its theoretical principles and
specific techniques. Many of these studies were conducted on the participants of
formal mindfulness programs who had strong incentives to participate (e.g., they
expected to receive health benefits from the program) or were intrinsically
interested (Newberg & Waldman, 2009). Some of the studies involved very
experienced meditators who had already achieved high levels of mindfulness (e.g.,
Buddhist monks). Our study was an attempt to bring mindfulness techniques into
the mainstream in the area of this country where mindfulness has not been
traditionally popular. We planned to investigate whether the above techniques
would work with population who was not familiar with mindfulness and its
benefits and who did not receive a strong incentive for participation. Our study
may also contribute to mindfulness research by adding journaling as a preparatory
stage to mindfulness exercises per se.
There were two major goals for this project: theoretical and practical, that is,
to contribute to the advancement of psychological science by collecting and
analyzing data on the effects of mindfulness interventions; and, to enhance mental
health and cognitive growth of our student body and to prevent stress, burnout, and
depression by using the above interventions.
Irina Kramtsova, Patricia Glascock 5 212
Thus, we intended to answer the following questions:
1. Will mindfulness sessions be successful on the campus of Arkansas State
2. Will the level of mindfulness of participants be increased as a result of
attending at least 5 sessions involving journaling and various mindfulness
techniques described below?
3. What would be additional benefits of attending the sessions?
4. Which aspects of the sessions and techniques used would be considered as
Our preliminary answers to the first two questions were affirmative. We
expected that the sessions would be somewhat successful as measured by the
attendance of the participants and their positive evaluation of the sessions, and that
there would be a moderate increase in their mindfulness. Questions 3 and 4 were
Forty seven participants attended at least one of the twenty five mindfulness
sessions conducted during the fall semester of 2009. The majority of them learned
about these sessions from their psychology instructors. Additionally, recruitment
was conducted through electronic announcements in the ASU Daily Digest and
through flyers displayed on the university campus. The sessions were advertised as
a positive psychology research project involving mindfulness, journaling, and the
use of biofeedback devices. Participation was not limited to students only – faculty
and staff of the university were invited to the sessions as well. In spite of the
extensive advertisement of the sessions, the majority of the participants were
students in one of the author’s classes who received extra credit if they attended at
least 5 sessions.
Out of the 47 participants who came to sessions at least once, less than half
(N = 20) were able to come to 5 sessions or more and to fill out both pre- and post-
test surveys. The most common reasons for drop-out were related to conflicts in
schedules and limited time for attending the sessions. Thus, only 20 participants’
responses were included in the final analysis of the results. Most of them were
females (N = 14), Caucasian (N = 14), seniors and juniors (N = 18) majoring in
education (N = 14) with an average age of 27.63. All of them were students.
3.2. APPARATUS, MATERIALS, AND MEASURES
The most commonly used biofeedback device was Biodot Skin Thermo-
meters (Biodot Skin Thermometers, 2008) that represent small self-adhesive circles
of micro-encapsulated liquid crystals of a thermal range, gauged to the variance of
6 Journaling and Mindfulness Program 213
skin temperature. These devices monitor skin temperature and change color
accordingly. When we are stressed, blood is directed more to internal organs
leaving our hands cold. When we are relaxed, the blood is redirected to the
extremities causing the hands to become warmer. Biodots are very easy to use and
provide a visual indicator of one’s degree of stress or relaxation.
During the initial sessions we attempted to use a more sophisticated and
sensitive device that produces a more reliable measure of relaxation. EmWave
Personal Stress Reliever (emWave Personal Stress Reliever, 2010) is a handheld
device that shows the effects of stress and/or relaxation on one’s body by
measuring and displaying subtle changes in one’s heart rhythms and breathing
patterns, which are visible on a colorful LED display. Because of its sophistication,
it required more extensive training, which we could not provide to all participants,
than the use of a biodot. It was fully mastered only by one person who consistently
used it during the sessions.
At the beginning of the study each participant received 3 one-page documents
through electronic mail: General Instructions for the session, Topics for Journaling,
and a file explaining what mindfulness is about. The first file described each of the
3 parts of the sessions: journaling, mindfulness, and discussion. It also explained to
the participants that they would be expected to sign an informed consent if they
were willing to participate in the study and to fill out a pre-and post-test. The
second file recommended two topics for journaling, that is, gratitude and
forgiveness, and suggested a set of questions to respond to for each of the topics. It
was recommended that on an average day when a participant was in a neutral or
positive mood, it would be appropriate to write about experiences for which he/she
felt grateful. On a day when one was upset, the recommendation was to describe
the situation the way it was, and if possible, to change one’s perception of it and
look at it as a difficult lesson to learn. Finally, the last document briefly introduced
the participants to the main principles and components of mindfulness.
At the beginning of the study all participants filled out a questionnaire on
mindfulness called MAAS (Brown & Ryan, 2003) and completed a section on
demographics. The MAAS (Mindful Attention Awareness Scale) is a 15-item measure
of one’s ability to pay attention to present-moment experiences. The respondents
indicate how frequently they have the experience described in each statement using
a Likert scale ranging from 1 (almost always) to 6 (almost never). It consists of
such items as “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the
present.” The internal consistency (alpha) of the scale is .82. The pre-test surveys
were sealed in envelopes and the name of the participant was written on each
envelope so that pre- tests could be later matched with the post-test surveys. The
envelopes were then stored in a secure cabinet in the office of one of the authors.
Irina Kramtsova, Patricia Glascock 7 214
After having attended their last session (or at least five sessions) the
participants filled out the MAAS scale again and responded to additional questions
about the effects of the sessions. Then each participant opened his/her own envelope
that contained the pre-test, destroyed the envelope, and stapled both surveys
together. This procedure ensured the anonymity of the data.
The mindfulness sessions took place during the fall semester of 2009 (from
early September to the last day of classes on December 7) in one of the rooms of
the Student Union of Arkansas State University. They were offered twice a week
around noon time. The participants could attend any of the sessions offered but
they only received extra credit if they attended at least 5 sessions. Each session
lasted 30 minutes and consisted of 10 minutes of journaling, 10 minutes of
mindfulness, and 10 minutes of group discussion of the results including sharing
biofeedback data received from biodots and emWave. The sessions were usually
conducted by both authors: Khramtsova was responsible for distributing the
surveys, collecting data, and introducing the topics for journaling whereas Glascock,
who is a licensed counselor, distributed the biofeedback devices and led the
participants in the 10-minute mindfulness exercises. Most of the sessions had to
start with a short introduction because new participants joined the group during the
Participants were introduced to and instructed in the use of a variety of
exercises as tools to assist with mindfulness practice so that they could find some
activities that worked better for them in learning to practice mindfulness
(Charlesworth & Nathan, 1982; Davis, Robbins-Eshelman & McKay, 2000;
Henderson, 1983). During the first sessions, participants were taught to become
aware of their breathing and how to use breathing as a focus of their mindfulness.
Diaphragmic or abdominal breathing (i.e., using the diaphragm to breathe deeply)
was one of the foundational skills taught because many of the other activities built
on it. Controlled breathing or inhaling and exhaling to a certain count were taught
to help participants learn to pace their breathing. Another foundational technique
taught was body scanning, that is, using inner awareness to direct attention to
various parts of the body to check for stress or muscle tension in order to relax and
let go of the tension. Body scanning and abdominal breathing were used as part of
the mindfulness or relaxation activities during each session.
Other techniques introduced at certain sessions were Progressive Muscle
Relaxation, Self-Hypnosis “Warm Blanket Visualization”, Visualization, Guided
Imagery, Autogenics, and Silent Meditation. “Progressive Muscle Relaxation” required
participants to purposely first tense muscle groups and then relax them noticing the
difference between the tension and relaxation. “Self-hypnosis” was the process of
8 Journaling and Mindfulness Program 215
offering oneself suggestions describing positive emotions, feelings or sensations
(e.g., imagining one’s body covered by a warm blanket). “Autogenic” was a similar
process where participants practiced concentrating on verbal commands leading to
calmness of mind and physical relaxation. “Visualization” and “Guided Imagery”
involved creating positive mental pictures to help refocus the mind and relax the
body. “Silent Meditation” was explained as assuming a nonjudgmental, neutral,
passive approach to oneself and one’s environment by focusing on one sensory
input, word, thought, feeling, sound or symbol (e.g., focusing on a candle flame).
The first research question about how successful the mindfulness project
would be on a university campus can be answered in the affirmative. It was
moderately successful: 47 participants attended the sessions at least one time and
20 students stayed for at least 5 sessions (M = 6.7 sessions, SD = 3.57) with 30%
continuing for more than 5 sessions.
The hypothesis about the positive effect of the project on students’ mind-
fulness as measured by the MAAS was confirmed: there was a statistically
significant increase in mindfulness between pretest (M = 3.55, SD = .83) and
posttest (M = 3.95, SD = .96), t(19) = –2.19, p = .04 (two-tailed).
As for other benefits of the sessions, qualitative analysis of verbal responses
revealed that all participants evaluated both journaling and mindfulness as positive
experiences. All participants found them enjoyable and helpful for relaxation,
peace of mind, better focusing and concentration, getting rid of negative thoughts
and for increasing positive thoughts and emotions. Some of the typical comments
were: “I usually came to the sessions very stressed about school. It was my time to
block all of that out of my mind and just relax”. One student wrote that he/she did
not initially expect these sessions to be helpful but went only to get an extra credit,
yet the sessions were so helpful that the student continued attending even after the
5 required sessions. Another student shared that he/she would share about the
sessions with his/her family because they were so helpful.
The majority of the students reported that they practiced mindfulness outside
of the regular sessions – on average two or three times a week. Six participants
indicated that they mostly practiced mindfulness in their daily living when they
were especially stressed and anxious, for example, when they had tests and
quizzes. Two wrote that they did it mostly before bedtime to relax. Two admitted
that they would like to practice it more but could not find time.
There was almost nothing that the students disliked about the sessions: the
most typical complaints were about difficulty staying focused and not being
distracted by one’s negative thoughts, and about occasional distracting sounds in
and outside the room. Two participants suggested allowing more time for
journaling, yet one wrote that we allocated too much time for this activity.
Irina Kramtsova, Patricia Glascock 9 216
The most popular topics for journaling were appreciation of positive events
(chosen as the most common or common by 15 participants) and writing about
negative events (N = 10). On average participants wrote more than a page on
weekly basis (M = 1.79, SD = 1.66) and the majority engaged in journaling 1–3 times
a week outside of the sessions.
All of the mindfulness exercises were found to be helpful, especially focusing
on breathing and visualization (each was named as the top two choices by 13 people),
and muscle relaxation (named by 9).
Limitations of the study and future directions
The present study was limited in several ways. Because our study involved a
relatively small and homogeneous sample consisting mostly of Caucasian women
majoring in education, the results of the study may not generalize to other groups
of population. There was no control group involved and because this was an
exploratory study, we formally measured only one characteristic and how it changed
from pre- to post-test, by administering the MAAS scale. The other results were
derived by the answers to open-ended questions.
Several problems were encountered with the use of biofeedback devices
related to lack of time for appropriate training of the participants. Initially we had
planned to allow all participants to use emWave devices because they provide more
accurate feedback than the biodots. However, later we had to switch to the biodots,
which are easier to use and provide more easily interpreted feedback. We found the
emWave machines to be more distracting than helpful to the participants who were
not sufficiently trained in using them and who could not always turn off the
beeping sound produced by the machines as a form of reinforcement for achieving
a certain level of relaxation. Even though we initially planned to collect data from
the biofeedback devices, as we proceeded with the study, we realized that we could
not keep track of the data from emWave and biodots because of the lack of time.
Thus, the limitation that can be addressed by the future studies is keeping record of
the biofeedback data from the biodots and emWave machines, which was not
consistently conducted by the current research, and thus, could not be included into
The results of the study support our hypothesis that journaling and mind-
fulness techniques can be successfully incorporated into college life. These
activities increase psychological well-being of student population, reduce stress,
and improve overall college atmosphere, which confirms findings from previous
studies (Oman, Shapiro, Thorese, Plante & Flinders, 2008).
10 Journaling and Mindfulness Program 217
Additional evidence for the success of the project comes from the fact that
the majority of the students continued practicing skills learned during the sessions
in their daily living and that some of them (30%) attended more sessions that was
required for extra credit.
Also, our informal talks with the participants of our study during the
discussion time or outside of sessions confirmed that the sessions helped them
reduce stress and feel better (e.g., one student stated that she wished she had been
exposed to these techniques years ago because they helped her to perform better
academically and to feel better).
Although we did not consistently record data from the biofeedback devices
used in the study the majority of the participants reported during the discussion
time that the color of the biodot changed and indicated higher level of relaxation
after the session.
The student who attended 19 sessions and regularly used the emWave
machine to monitor his success learned to increase the coherence between this
breathing and heart rhythm as a result of the sessions. He believes that it was
“clearly a learned skill”, which is consistent with previous research which
demonstrated that mindfulness can be cultivated (Shapiro, Oman, Thoresen, Plante
& Flinders, 2008). However, the student was not convinced that it was due to the
use of this device. In his own words:
I have no real way to measure any benefits of using the device. Clearly I was
able, with practice, to improve my ability to accomplish the task, but whether or
not that translates into any psychological or physiological benefits, I am unable to
say. I believe I am somewhat more aware of tension and find myself stopping and
taking a few deep breaths periodically to relax and I believe that has been
beneficial. To the extent the emWave has contributed to this (vs. the general
training I received by coming to the sessions), I can’t say.
To conclude, in spite of all of the methodological limitations discussed
above, the study findings support the efficacy of mindfulness and journaling
training for psychological well-being on a university campus.
Primit în redacţie la: 17. V. 2010
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Scopul prezentului studiu a fost implementarea şi investigarea unui program de psihologie
pozitivă bazată pe jurnalizare şi introspecţie/grijă într-un campus american. Ca rezultat al acestui
program a reieşit o creştere semnificativă statistic în ceea ce priveşte grija/atenţia printre participanţi.
Analiza calitativă a răspunsurilor verbale a relevat că toţi participanţii au perceput sesiunile ca fiind
un beneficiu pentru relaxare, linişte şi minte şi că se înregistrează o creştere în ceea ce priveşte
gândurile pozitive şi emoţiile. De aceea, tehnicile de jurnalizare şi de grijă/atenţie pot fi încorporate
cu succes în viaţa de colegiu pentru sporirea stării psihologice de bine a populaţiei de studenţi, pentru
reducerea stresului şi îmbunătăţirea atmosferei generale din colegiu.