Journaling - Dr. Axe

It’s not uncommon for teenagers to keep diaries that they use for self-reflection and help blowing off some steam. Far fewer adults seem to engage in a regular journaling practice, and research suggests this may be a big missed opportunity.

If you’re looking for ways to boost positivity in your life and relieve stress — perhaps by practicing more gratitude or gaining more self-awareness about your thought patterns — look no further than the power of journaling.

The New York Times described journaling as “one of the more effective acts of self-care,” while also pointing out that it’s happily one of the cheapest. So what’s all the fuss about? How does journaling work to improve your mental health?

Let’s look closer at how keeping a journal can help you to think more clearly, make better decisions, sleep more soundly and much more.

What Is Journaling?

What exactly is meant by “journaling”? As the name implies, the definition of journaling is simply “to write in a journal or diary.”

Some therapists describe journaling as the healthy act of expressing your deepest thoughts and feelings by putting them into words. This allows you to make better sense of your inner life and can therefore be used to support your mental and emotional health.

Research overall suggests that to tap in to writing’s healing potential, it’s important to use journaling as a means of better understanding and learning from past experiences and emotions.

Benefits of Journaling

What are the benefits of journaling? According to the latest research, journaling may contribute to you feeling happier overall in some of the following ways:

1. Improves Mindfulness to Reduce Stress

PositivePsychology.com relates journaling to “having a relationship with your mind.” If you sometimes feel like your “mind is racing” and you’re having a hard time making sense of your feelings, journaling is an excellent tool for gaining clarity, decreasing denial and avoidance, and boosting your well-being.

Clearly identifying how you feel helps reduce stress since it provides some space between your thoughts and reality, similarly to how mindfulness meditation works. You can use a journal to better recognize that every thought you have is not a fact and that your thoughts are always changing and are sometimes unrealistic.

2. Supports a Healthy Immune System

Did you know that suppressing negative, trauma-related thoughts can actually compromise immune functioning by provoking stress?

According to the American Psychological Association, “for years, practitioners have used logs, questionnaires, journals and other writing forms to help people heal from stresses and traumas.” Since a writing practice can help turn down chronic stress, it’s been shown to support a stronger immune system, better sleep, protect against inflammation and certain chronic diseases (like asthma and arthritis), reduce pain, and more.

One researcher also explained to Greater Good Magazine that “expression of emotions concerning stressful or traumatic events can produce measurable effects on human immune responses,” potentially making treatments and vaccines more effective.

3. Boosts Self-Awareness and Helps Identify Negative Thoughts Patterns

Much like cognitive behavioral therapy, journaling can be used to uncover ingrained beliefs and harmful thoughts that can contribute to anxiety symptoms and depression.

Once you become aware of repetitive thoughts that are not doing you any good, you can learn to replace them with more realistic and affirming ones. This helps you cultivate more positivity and self-esteem, which is another way to reduce stress that can exacerbate disease symptoms.

In one 2006 study, young adults who spent 15 minutes journaling per day saw the biggest reductions in symptoms like depression, anxiety and hostility, more so than others who drew or wrote to-do lists. Journaling as a form of emotional expression seemed to be especially helpful for those who reported being distressed before the study and was helpful for people brand new to writing down their feelings.

4. Clarifies Your Purpose and Meaning in life

Some studies have found that keeping a journal can boost one’s ability to learn from mistakes and negative experiences, while also giving more structure to ambiguous, anxious feelings. Journaling has also been shown to be effective in helping people manage symptoms of depression and support those dealing with PTSD by decreasing brooding and rumination, two contributing factors of depressive symptoms.

Writing can be an effective way to organize our experiences into a sequence, allowing us to see causes and effects that help us find meaning. This tends to lead to improved self-confidence, a greater sense of purpose and control, and potentially even a higher IQ and improved memory, according to some studies.

5. Can Help Improve Your Relationships and Communication Skills

Stuffing down feelings such as anger and disappointment can often lead to troubles in relationships, which is why disclosing them in a journal can be a good strategy for improving your communication skills. By letting go of pent-up feelings, you’re more likely to be patient and understanding when confronting others about issues you’re experiencing.

Gratitude journaling has been shown to make people generally friendlier, more open and more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors, which can enhance and expand their social support networks.

If you feel uncomfortable bringing up deep topics with others, sharing your journal entries is another option for expressing your emotions, which can be a very cathartic and a great way to gain support.

How to Journal

How do you start journaling? There have been lots of different methods put forward by various authors, therapists and self-help gurus. You can also find plenty of writing prompts in books, apps and online to help you begin exploring your experiences and emotions.

Some people prefer to write in a paper journal/book, while others find that keeping a document on the computer is easier. Choose whichever option appeals to you most and helps you stay consistent, whether that means journaling daily, weekly or somewhere in between.

One way make journaling a part of your daily life is to “anchor it” to another habit you already have, such as drinking coffee in the morning or getting into bed at night.

Here are some of the most popular types of journaling practices, each with its own unique twist:

  • Expressive Writing — Write continuously for 20 minutes about your deepest thoughts and emotions. Feel free to touch upon memories of childhood, past relationships, your career or whatever else comes to mind. Try to do this for at least four days in a row at first to begin gaining insight, then at least a couple times a week.
  • “Morning Pages” — This is a daily journaling practice that originated in the popular self-help book “The Artist’s Way.” You do this type of writing first thing in the morning by completing three, single-sided, 8.5-x-11 pages of paper with whatever thoughts come to mind, in any order. This should take about 30 minutes or potentially even less the more you do it.
  • Bullet Journaling — This type of writing has been described as equal parts day planner, diary, and written meditation.  It was created by a designer named Ryder Carroll and is intended to help organize your life. You create sections to log your daily to-do’s, monthly calendar, notes, long-term wants and goals. Entries are tagged with bullet points, dashes and other graphics to help keep you accountable.
  • Gratitude Journaling — This method involves writing down things that you are grateful for, ideally every day. You can choose how many to write depending on your level of commitment, such as five to 10 things daily. It’s best to switch up the things you jot down and write in detail, which helps it to be more impactful. To stay consistent, choose a time of day to complete your entries, such as before bed or first thing in the morning.
  • Bible Journaling — This type of journaling involves lettering, drawing, painting and crafting to help bring God’s word to life. To start, find a verse that you are familiar with, and then reread the verse multiple times, considering what the words on this page mean to you. Then express the meaning with art and words however you see fit.

Other ways to use a journal include writing:

  • angry letters that you don’t intend to send but help you vent
  • letters of gratitude that you do intend to share
  • to-do lists that describe steps you can take to reach your goals
  • lists of meaningful quotes or passages

Other Tips and Prompts

The Center for Journal Therapy website recommends keeping the acronym WRITE in mind when journaling:

  • W – What do you want to write about? Think about what is going on in your life currently.
  • R – Review or reflect on it. Take a few moments to be still, calm your breath and focus.
  • I – Investigate your thoughts and feelings through your writing, which can help you to keep going deeper.
  • T – Time yourself to ensure that you write for at least five minutes.
  • E – Exit strategically and with introspection. Read what you have written, and take a moment to reflect on it.

Here are other tips and prompts from journaling experts:

  • Look for meaning/lessons — Journaling for therapeutic benefits is about more than simply venting and complaining. You’ll get the most from a writing practice if you purposefully look for meaning in negative and traumatic events. While it’s important to allow yourself to feel all the different emotions that come up while journaling without judgment, try to keep your focus on organizing a story and finding lessons.
  • Switch up the topics — Try to touch upon different areas of life in order to prevent yourself from rehashing the same difficult feelings over and over in writing. As one researcher explains this concept, “People who talk about things over and over in the same ways aren’t getting any better…There has to be growth or change in the way they view their experiences.”
  • Pay attention to language/word choices — Some studies have found that journalers who use cause-and-effect words such as “because,” “realize” and “understand” seem to gain more from the practice, likely because these words help form a coherent story that allows for lessons to be learned.
  • Adding drawings — If you’re a creative type and like doodling, consider adding drawings and sketches to your journal to help you express even more emotion.
  • Consider sharing with a therapist — While journaling can be done in the privacy of one’s own home, without help from anyone else, many people can benefit from sharing their writing with a therapist (or trusted friend) who could provide feedback and help track the writer’s progress.

Risks and Side Effects

Why might journaling be bad in some cases? This type of self-help tool seems to work better for some people than others.

For those who have a history of trauma, writing about past events may initially trigger distress and anxiety. Oftentimes this will get easier with practice, but it might be best to begin with help from a therapist if you’re worried about your reaction.

If you find that you’re not getting much benefit from journaling, try trouble-shooting to figure out what’s not working before giving up.

Are you committing to a practice that is too frequent or intense? Are you being very regimented but might enjoy free-form, expressive writing more?

Picking up a journaling book can be helpful if you feel stuck, so explore your options before calling it quits.

Conclusion

  • Journaling is the practice of writing in a journal or diary (on paper or digitally) in order to express your feelings and make sense of your thoughts.
  • Dozens of studies suggest that benefits of journaling can include reducing stress and anxiety, improving immune function, facilitating learning from past experiences, finding more meaning and purpose, improving gratitude and self-esteem, and improving relationships.
  • There are lots of different methods of practicing, including bullet and bible journaling, morning pages, and expressive/free-form writing. Choose whichever option helps you to sick with the practice, whether that means writing for 30 minutes in the morning or just five minutes before bed.