What is Journaling?
Journaling is the process of writing down your thoughts, ideas, and feelings. When you journal, you express yourself and understand your thoughts and emotions more clearly. Some people use guided journals, others use a simple notebook or notes on their phone.
How does journaling help mental health?
Depression is a mood disorder that causes a range of severe and prolonged feelings including sadness, lack of interest, and negative thoughts. This health condition can make it hard to manage life and day-to-day tasks. While writing your way out of depression might not be possible, journaling may help lower symptoms of depression.
A 2013 study asked people with major depressive disorder to expressively write for 20 minutes, focusing on their deepest thoughts and feelings about a major emotional problem in their life. After three days of writing, they had lowered symptoms of depression compared to those who wrote about the tedious events of the day.
Journaling can lower your stress and its effects on your body and mind. A study showed that writing for 15 to 20 minutes 3 to 5 times over a 4 month period lowered blood pressure, improved liver function, and led to fewer stress-related visits to the doctor.
Several studies show that journaling can help different chronic illnesses. One study asked people with rheumatoid arthritis and asthma to write about their traumatic events or about neutral topics for 20 minutes for 3 days. After 4 months, those who wrote about their feelings and traumas had less disease activity and had more disease improvement. Journaling helped them get better and also stopped them from getting worse.
Another study tested emotional writing versus writing on neutral topics by people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). They wrote for 30 minutes for 4 days. The emotional writing group had a boost in their immune function, though it was gone after three months.
How often should you journal?
It’s best to write for 20 minutes every day. If you find that to be too overwhelming, or you’re just starting out, aim for 20 minutes 3 days a week.
You might feel writing is daunting, but you don’t need to be a professional writer to take up journaling. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, sentence structure, or any other writing skill. Simply write out your feelings. The goal of journaling is to recognize and express your thoughts and feelings.
How to start journaling
To get the benefits of journaling, include it in your daily routine. You can experiment with different times of the day and see what works. Some people like to write at the end of the day just before bed. Others like to journal in the morning while they drink their coffee or during the train commute.
Once you choose the best time, stay consistent. When you create a habit you're more likely to keep it up.
Set a timer for 20 minutes to help you write. Stay judgement-free in your writing. If you want to write a poem or a song, do that. If you want to write a list or a letter instead, do that.
Give yourself permission to write about your feelings and don’t attach negative emotions like guilt or shame to what comes out.
How to use different types of journaling
Different types of journaling can help with different focuses.
Expressive writing helps you express and process your emotions and helps you find a clearer internal understanding of what happened to you. This can help relieve overwhelming feelings and symptoms and can be done with your therapist.
In gratitude journaling, you write down things you’re grateful for. The key is to be specific, use detail, and go deeper. Gratitude practices are associated with a greater sense of well-being. It can help you feel better about your life, feel more optimistic, and encourage a greater sense of happiness.
Things to consider
While journaling is helpful, it isn’t a replacement for treatment or professional counseling. Sometimes you might find journaling to be too intense. You might be afraid of your emotions, or you might discover issues you don’t know how to handle. These are normal feelings a therapist can help manage. Professional counselors can support you and safely guide you through your emotions and teach ways to cope.
If you need help, make sure to talk to your doctor or therapist.
Mental Health Resources
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Advances in Psychiatric Treatment: "Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing."
Harvard Medical School Harvard Health Publishing: "Giving thanks can make you happier," "Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma."
JAMA: "Effects of Writing About Stressful Experiences on Symptom Reduction in Patients With Asthma or Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Randomized Trial."
Journal of Affective Disorders: "An everyday activity as a treatment for depression: The benefits of expressive writing for people diagnosed with major depressive disorder."
Mental Health America: "How to keep a mental health journal."
NIH National Institute of Mental Health: "5 Things You Should Know About Stress."
Psychosomatic Medicine: "Effect of written emotional expression on immune function in patients with human immunodeficiency virus infection: a randomized trial."
University of Michigan University Health Service: "Depression."
University of Rochester Medical Center: "Journaling for Mental Health."