Lots of us had childhood diaries or journals where we wrote our innermost secrets: our fifth-grade crush, our first kiss, that time we were so mad at our parents that we were absolutely, 100% running away (and got as far as the end of the street). As it turns out, the act and benefits of journaling as an adult aren’t all that different. We can still write down our innermost secrets. After all, we still might dream of running away some days, and our journals, like those childhood diaries, are meant to be private and for our eyes only.
What is Journaling?
Journaling is recording our thoughts or feelings, usually in written form. Voice recordings are an alternative journaling method, but this is commonly a written activity, like when we were kids. Only now, maybe our journals don’t have unicorns on them or our crush’s name encircled with a heart. Or perhaps they do. It’s your journal—you do you.1
Your journal entries can take on various forms, including structured journal entries that answer a specific prompt or more of a free-form, open-ended style where you write about whatever thoughts are in your head that day. Your chosen journaling style will depend on your needs and what you hope to get from your experience.
What are the Benefits of Journaling?
1. Journaling Can Improve Mental Health
Journaling benefits the writer’s mental and physical health if done consistently and purposefully. For example, a person suffering from anxiety and stress might journal to help them prioritize their stressors and work through their problems, fears, and concerns. By journaling, they can figure out what is bringing on the anxiety and stress in their life and then work on a plan to reduce those triggers.2,3
2. Journaling is a Tool for Practicing Mindfulness and Positive Self-Talk
Journaling is a mindfulness technique to train the brain to speak positively to oneself and keep negative thoughts at bay. If a journal prompt, for example, is to write down traits you like about yourself or list the ways you were successful that day, you are training your brain to focus on the good, not the bad, which will help your overall mental health.3,4
3. Journaling Can Help Reduce Stress
Doing journaling exercises like making a list of things you’re looking forward to, writing about your favorite childhood memory, or listing the people you are most grateful for can help calm the mind and clear those dark clouds away, allowing for a better perspective and a clearer mindset moving forward.3
4. Journaling Can Help You Learn More About Yourself
By expressing yourself and putting your thoughts down on paper, you might learn new things about who you are deep down. By writing, we can learn our preferences, pain points and triggers, fears, favorite things, and dreams.3
5. Journaling Can Improve Physical Health
Knowing that mental health is connected to physical health, journaling can also make the writer feel better physically. Because the truth is when our brains are cared for, the rest of our bodies usually feel better, too. Keeping anxious or depressive thoughts inside can make us feel physically ill, but if we can purge our minds and put those thoughts down on paper, the rest of our bodies enjoy a release of that negativity. Our heart rate and blood pressure can regulate. Headaches, back pain, or other ailments associated with stress and anxiety often subside.3
6. Journaling Can Help Those Who Get Sick
In an article for Greater Good Magazine, a publication from The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers report that patients who had suffered from viruses fared better after journaling about stressful events like a breakup or death than those who journaled about mundane topics like possessions.5
According to the article, “Based on blood samples taken before and after, writing about stress increased people’s antibodies—an indication that the immune system has more control over the latent virus in the body—compared to more mundane writing. Journaling “also seemed to help them gain a deeper understanding of their stress and see more positives to it.” 5
This is particularly relevant in the 21st century as we have endured a pandemic for the past few years that brought unexpected stress, uncertainty, and sickness worldwide. Any tip or trick that can help us face both the overwhelming impact Covid-19 has had on society and aid us in fighting the virus itself is a valued asset. Journaling could be just the tip or trick we need.
7. Journaling Can Help You Process Your Emotions
We’ve all had bad days. Some of us have trouble coping with anger, disappointment, jealousy, or frustration when those bad days hit. Turning to a journal to write about how we’re feeling is a healthy way to work through those emotions and let a lot of the negativity out in a way that won’t harm those around us.4
Another powerful and often debilitating emotion is grief, and journaling is an effective tool to help cope with how challenging it can be to grieve the loss of a loved one, a pet, the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job. Pouring your heart out onto paper regularly can often take some of the pain away as you work through the many stages of grief.4
8. Journaling Can Help You Decide Your Next Steps
Sometimes when we feel stuck in life, once we’ve written it all out, the path becomes more clear. “Even a simple list of pros and cons can provide deeper insight into your desires — certainly more so than a jumble of thoughts knocking around in your head,” according to Healthline.3
9. Journaling Can Help You Focus and Organize Better
It’s hard to keep our lives in order when our brains are a jumbled mess. But journaling every day can help clear those cobwebs and weed out the stuff we don’t need to be focused on right now, making space for the most important things.
As Grammarly explains, “Journals can simply be receptacles for to-do lists, future goals, spur-of-the-moment ideas, random insights you want to remember later, and more. By writing down this information, you can order your life better and hold yourself accountable even when you’re at your busiest.” 6
10. Journaling Can Help You Achieve Your Goals
You might have a lofty goal but feel overwhelmed about achieving it — that’s where journaling can help. The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences recommends journaling using the SMART method:7
- Specific: Make your goal as straightforward as possible.
- Measurable: Set milestones and benchmarks.
- Achievable: Ensure that your goal can be accomplished.
- Relevant: Ask yourself how achieving this goal will benefit you.
- Time-bound: Set a timeframe.
Why Does Journaling Work?
One reason journaling is effective is that it allows a safe space for a person to express their thoughts that they may not be willing or able to tell others. By writing down their thoughts, emotions, or maybe even confessions, they, in a sense, empty these intrusive thoughts from their head and make space for mental peace.5
Journaling can help us disclose emotions instead of hiding them, which is known to be harmful to our health. Also, the benefits of journaling include helping someone process trauma by giving the person writing a sense of control and a way to cope and work through painful memories.5
Writing in a journal helps track symptoms or triggers and could aid in the writer diagnosing or figuring out why they have physical or mental ailments. For example, a headache journal might help someone realize they always get a headache after eating a particular food, doing a specific activity, or not getting enough sleep. By journaling about their headaches, they can look back and find commonalities or patterns and hopefully find a path forward with fewer or no headaches.5
How Do I Get Started Journaling?
While there are no “rules” to journaling, here are a few suggestions to help you get started and succeed.
Have a Dedicated Location to Write
Dedicate a space, notebook, or device for all your journaling so it is in one place. This can be a notes app on your phone, a spiral notebook you snag from the closest dollar store or a beautiful leather-bound journal from your local bookstore. Whatever you choose, keep it accessible for your daily entries.
Make a Commitment to Writing Daily
Commit to writing at least a few minutes daily, finding a time that works for you. Some people like to journal first thing in the morning, others at night. Or maybe time during the day fits your lifestyle and schedule best. But make it a habit, set a reminder if you need to, and give yourself at least 5-10 minutes (more if you want!) to truly experience all the benefits journaling offers.
Use Prompts or Free-Write
For example, if your purpose for journaling is to cope with your anxiety, write about what has made you anxious that day. Write about your symptoms of anxiety that were tied to that event. If you had a full-blown anxiety attack, or a short moment of feeling anxious, describe it in your journal. However, maybe you aren’t targeting a specific topic, and you’d like your journal to be a free write of whatever is in your head — that’s okay too!
Journal in a way that makes sense for your life — on your phone, in a notebook you keep in the car, at bedtime, or first thing in the morning. Also, get a journal that makes sense for you, depending on the type of journaling you’re doing. The benefits of journaling should be to help you, not add more stress. So don’t worry about spelling mistakes or following rules if you are free writing. If it’s stressing you out, try another time of day or another method. Just give it a try and let it work its magic!