7 health benefits of journalling and how to make it an effective habit
- Journalling regularly can help you relieve stress, anxiety, or depression.
- Gratitude journalling can also improve mood, while grief journalling may help you cope with trauma.
- To reap the health benefits of journalling, try to do it at least two to three days a week.
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Keeping a written record of your thoughts, feelings and the events of your daily life has long been believed to improve your psychological well-being, and there's a growing body of research suggesting that it can also benefit your physical health as well.
"Journalling is a meditative exercise that can help you sort out your emotions and prioritise pieces in your life," says Melissa Divaris Thompson, a licensed holistic psychotherapist. "It can reduce anxiety and depression and also help you understand yourself on a deeper level."
Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist and wellness expert, says there are several mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health benefits that can come from journalling, depending on the intention behind it.
For example, she notes that gratitude journalling may offer a boost in mood, self-compassion, and appreciation for life in general, whereas grief journalling may help with processing anger, sadness, and disbelief while moving toward acceptance.
Here's what you need to know about the health benefits of journalling and how to make it a habit.
1. Reduces stress
Research suggests that journalling is an excellent stress management tool — in fact, a small 2018 study revealed that emotion-focused journalling was associated with both decreased mental distress and increased well-being.
"Once reduced to writing, stressors can often be better understood and appreciated," says Manly. "After venting, the person can then view the stressors in a more detached, objective fashion. This can lead to the creation of better stress management and coping techniques."
2. Calms anxiety
A small 2018 study found that when adults — who were experiencing elevated anxiety symptoms — journalled about traumatic experiences for 15-20 minute intervals, they experienced decreased anxiety, fewer depressive symptoms, and less overall mental distress, as well as increased well-being, in just one month.
"When we journal, we can often unravel the hidden fears that lead to intermittent or chronic anxiety," says Manly. "Certain types of journalling can also include learning to notice anxiety-inducing triggers."
3. Relieves depression
A 2013 study revealed that when people with major depressive disorder wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding an emotional event for 20 minutes a day for three days, they showed a significant decrease in their depression scores.
"When a journal is dedicated to allowing for sad or angry thoughts, the thoughts are more likely to be processed rather than remain stuck inside," Manly says.
4. Improves memory
Research suggests that by allowing you to cope more effectively with stress, journalling can also free up your cognitive resources for other important mental processes.
For example, a small 2001 study of students found that writing about their deepest thoughts and feelings about going to college improved their short-term memory, which was associated with higher GPAs both immediately after the experiment and in the following semester.
5. Strengthens the immune system
Manly says that journalling can be a relaxing exercise that decreases the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline — which is noteworthy, given that overproduction of these hormones can suppress your immune system.
This may help explain why research has demonstrated a link between journalling and improved immune response in a small study of 2004 HIV patients, whose lymphocyte counts increased after the intervention of "emotional writing" or journalling.
6. Increases optimism
According to a 2003 study, maintaining a weekly journal specifically dedicated to gratitude was associated with greater improvements in overall optimism.
"By having a journal devoted to appreciating the positive elements of life, the focus is taken off of what is not going right in favour of the blessings in one's life," says Manly.
7. Helps to cope with trauma
Studies indicate that journalling may be an effective therapeutic tool for survivors of trauma.
One small 2008 study revealed that people with post-traumatic stress disorder who participated in expressive writing activities experienced significant improvements in their mood, and reductions in stress hormone responses when dealing with traumatic memories.
Are there any cons to journalling?
The goal of journalling is generally catharsis and healing. But if it leads to any negative thought spiraling or increased depression, Manly highly recommends taking a step back and seeking the support of a therapist.
Manly also tells Insider that if your journalling is focused purely on negative thoughts or events, you may become stuck in unproductive or destructive thought cycles that can worsen certain issues.
For example, a small 2013 study of recently divorced people revealed that when participants journalled about their deepest feelings and thoughts for 20 minutes a day, they made far less progress in dealing with their emotions than those participants who just wrote about their daily activities.
How to journal effectively
Since you may be disclosing highly sensitive information in your journal, experts agree that it's crucial to have a secure space to store it so that you're free to be emotionally honest without fear of judgement.
Thompson also advises designating a specific place for journaling — ideally one that's quiet — where you can think and reflect regularly.
Here are a few of Manly's top tips for journalling:
- Prioritise convenience: The most important thing is that your journal is easy to access — otherwise, you may not be likely to stick with your practice. So, whether you prefer typing on your computer or writing in a notebook, Manly says it's important to find what works best for you.
- Set aside a specific time: Manly says having a set time for this practice in your schedule — such as first thing in the morning or right after your workday ends — can make it easier to form a habit around journalling. However, she advises against journalling about anything triggering for several hours before bedtime, as your psyche needs time to process thoughts and feelings to promote better sleep.
- Don't self-edit: According to Manly, journalling is not about perfection, it's about feeling free to write without stressing about grammar. Resist the urge to look back at what you wrote while you're journalling, and treat it as more of a stream-of-consciousness writing exercise.
- Experiment with different forms of expression: Journalling is all about having a free-flowing space to release whatever's on your mind, so Manly says you should feel free to sketch images, use coloured pencils to highlight feelings or thoughts, or find other ways to express yourself beyond just traditional writing.
According to experts, the best way to reap the benefits of journalling is to engage in it consistently — at least two to three days per week if a daily practice is not realistic.
Over time, you may find that journalling leads you to greater personal insights about your current relationships, problems, stressors, and coping mechanisms.
"Many people find that they are able to unconsciously sort out problems as a result of journalling," Manly says. "Even after the journalling is completed, the mind still works behind the scenes. As a result, minutes, hours, or days after the journalling took place, an epiphany may result."
If journalling ever starts to make you feel worse, experts advise shifting gears by focusing your writing on more positive topics — such as what you're proud of, what's going well in your life, and what you're grateful for.
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