The act of writing in a journal conjures up ideas of pre-teen girls, hiding all their pubescent secrets in a flowery book, with its own personal lock. But do these moody, young girls know something we don’t? Is their simple habit of writing down their feelings actually something that could help people of all ages? Extensive research by psychologist James Pennebaker says yes! In fact, Pennebaker claims that the benefits of journaling include stress relief, as well as potential effects on our physical health and immune system.
With that being said, it only makes sense for us to explore the world of expressive writing and see if there is something to this journaling thing!
Enjoy the Benefits of Journaling
If you’d like to benefit from journaling but aren’t sure how to begin, try our prompt-driven Travel Adventure Journal. In addition to guiding you through the writing process, there’s space for you to record your adventures. This book was specifically designed to help travelers to come up with ways to discover new places, interact with others, and record their memories.
17 Benefits of Journaling
1. Journaling Improves Immune Function
As stated above, Dr. Pennebaker’s research shows that if journaling is done correctly, it can strengthen our immune cells, the T-lymphocytes. T-lymphocytes are responsible for attacking and containing infection and play a role in fighting certain cancers. Pennebaker states that when patients journal, on a regular basis, about stressful events, in an effort to understand their feelings, it proves to ward off disease. It actually showed benefits in the healing process, as well. Patients with serious disease processes like asthma, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis were said to have shown improvement in this disease, while post-operative patients were even said to have faster wound healing. But how does it work? If you are thinking, the effects must be indirect in some way, you are correct. They happen via a segway with physical and mental health. Let’s talk about that a bit.
2. Journaling Decrease Stress and Improves Physical Health
The brain is the emotional center of the body. The health benefits of journaling and immunity are thought to be a direct reflection of decreased stress and cortisol levels in the body. Stress has been shown to decrease healing time and increase blood pressure, along with a myriad of other physical ailments. When stress and anxiety run rampant and are not dealt with, the brain is consumed and uses all its energy to contain the worry. This prevents it from dealing with other parts of the body, and the stress hormones it releases cause the rest of the body to be in chaos as well.
Many people find that when trying to solve a difficult problem, visualize a project, or remember something important, it helps to write it down. The reason is multi-fold. Writing allows your brain to see it visually, initiating your visual cortex. It activates your kinetic memory system with the physical act of writing and deepens understanding, as we take a concept, shorten it, reword it, and write our own interpretation. Why would understanding emotions be any different?
When we journal about stressful events, we firstly pull a negative thought out of the prison of our brain. We lay it out visually. We inspect it. This is called emotional confrontation, literally just confronting our emotions. Secondly, we shorten and reword it to express it in a way we can understand, known as cognitive processing. Thirdly, with daily journaling, we reread and analyze our own words, helping us understand the chaos that is raging in the brain. This provides a better grasp of how to handle stress. Rereading our writing and then writing again, can help us to progress past the worst-case scenario to a more balanced assessment of the probability of our stressors actually causing us harm. By naming the stressor, expressing our concerns around it, and rereading them to ourselves, we are able to increase our emotional intelligence and learn to work through difficult feelings.
According to Karen A. Baikie and Kay Wilhelm‘s article in Cambridge University Press, this kind of stress management has been shown to aid in the treatment of mental illnesses like PTSD and body image issues. It is also shown to help victims of traumatic events like natural disasters. The decrease of these stressors, and the reduced necessity for the brain to focus on them, allows the brain to deal with other tasks, including our physical health.
3. Journaling Helps With Memory
As discussed earlier, journaling activates several different types of memory “muscle.” While most people have a dominant learning style, it is very rare for a person to be a purely visual or auditory learner. Most of us do better if we have a mix of senses involved in the learning process. Common sense tells us that the more senses that are involved in a situation, the better we will remember it. Think about it. If you see something, you have a visual stimulus. That’s it. Unless it was particularly astonishing, you are unlikely to remember it. However, if you saw it, touched it, smelled it, and tasted it, you have substantially increased the sensory input to your brain associated with this piece of information or event, increasing your chance of remembering it.
Usually, when we first hear something, we throw it in our working memory, a short-term space for dealing with current information, but the goal is to get important information to our long-term memory. When writing, we activate our RAS, or Reticular Activating System. According to the University of Michigan, this part of the brain is where all senses, except for smell, join the nervous system. It is the area of the nervous system that links the subconscious and conscious parts of your brain. So, in short, writing something helps take the information from a subconscious act of hearing or seeing to a conscious act of contemplating the information. It brings the information to the forefront and signals the conscious areas of the brain to regard it as important.
By the way, according to Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, students who took notes verbatim on a laptop were substantially less successful on conception questions when tested than fellow students who took hand notes. They concluded that verbatim notetaking on a laptop decreases the processing of the information and can negatively impact learning.
4. Journaling Improves Communication Skills
We have already discussed that journaling helps to organize thoughts. This indirectly leads to better communication. Once a person has gone through the act of writing down difficult feelings, not only do they experience their own catharsis, but they now have a format for discussing those feelings with others. Writing, and then rereading, our thoughts allows us extra time to formulate how we would like to present this information to a loved one or necessary recipient. We generally think in a stream of consciousness, with several thought processes happening at once, not all rational or fully developed. This doesn’t work so well for conversation. No one wants to hear your word vomit. However, once we have written out our thoughts on a subject, they are much more organized and rational and will make sense to the receiver.
5. Journaling Can Improve Relationships
We all know that communication is one of the most important parts of any relationship. If you have ever attended corporate training, read a marriage book, or seen a therapist, you have likely been bombarded with the importance of effective communication. Therefore, it is no surprise that improved communication, through journaling, can also lead to improved relationships.
It’s not only a communication issue, though. It is really about increasing self-awareness. Daily journaling helps to identify intrusive thoughts and work out feelings around them before we confront our significant other or loved one with our hurt feelings. Do you have the same silly fight consistently? Well, airing your complaints on paper can help you find a solution. It might even dissolve the problem completely. Maybe, you just needed to vent! Or, maybe you need to talk about it. Either way, journaling beforehand can lead to more self-reflection. What was my part in this conflict? How do I really feel about this? Do I need to apologize? How can I grow from this situation? After some reflection, you are more able to have a level-headed conversation with your loved one. Self-awareness and acceptance make you a more confident and content person, which in turn, makes you a better partner.
6. Journaling Improves Sleep
The benefits of a good night’s sleep are numerous. Sleep is one of the most important components of clear thinking, energy, and even immunity. According to this research study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, journaling (specifically making a to-do list), before bed, helped the subjects sleep better. Daily life can become stressful for some, and thinking about all the things we have to do can overwhelm the brain at bedtime. The research showed that taking just five minutes to create a very detailed bullet journal of specific to-dos helped participants fall asleep faster. The more detailed, the better!
7. Gratitude Journaling Improves Overall Outlook
There are several different types of journaling, each with benefits at certain times in life. According to their research on Gratitude Journaling, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough have shown that people who write down what they are grateful for, in a weekly journal, complain of fewer physical ailments and have an overall more optimistic outlook than those who journaled complaints and anxieties. Adding this specific journaling practice to a well-balanced self-care regimen can help to focus our minds on the good parts of our lives, instead of dwelling on all the things that cause us anxiety! While not an excuse to ignore problems, it can serve as an auxiliary therapy to refocus intrusive and irrational anxieties and bring joy, as we dwell on the good stuff. If you are not sure how to start this process or aren’t a great writer, grab The Five-Minute Journal. It’s specifically curated to help you craft an effective gratitude journal in just five minutes.
8. Journaling Can Improve Productivity
Some of us have so much to complete each day that we don’t even know where to start. Add a propensity for procrastination or a little ADD into the mix, and it’s a recipe for getting nothing done! A whole list of projects may be rolling around in your brain, but without an organized method for conquering them, what actually gets accomplished is a half-day Netflix marathon or social media binge.
Bullet journaling, in particular, has become a social media craze, and for good reason! It can be just a bullet list of things to do, but that isn’t the most effective. The Bullet Journal is a creation by designer Ryder Caroll and is a free-flow journal designed to help you lay out your tasks, goals, and steps for achieving them. It not only incorporates writing but drawing as well. No, you don’t need to be an artist, but the journal encourages you to “track the past, order the present, and design the future,” in an artful and organized way. The program includes an App and an online community as well.
If that sounds a bit too fanciful for you, another bullet list journal for productivity is the Productivity Planner. This simple and well-designed book focuses on the Focus Time Technique, which breaks down your tasks into 30-minute focus times, with 5-minute breaks in between. Either way, lining out your day, specifying your goals, and having a detailed plan for accomplishing them can improve productivity and decrease stress around your daily tasks.
9. Journaling Improves Creativity
Journaling gets all those recurrent, annoying thoughts out of your mind, on paper, and out of the way. After a few days, you may see that you are no longer thinking about them so much. You either got sick of the self-talk and figured out a solution, or you realized perhaps they weren’t such big problems in the first place. Getting rid of some of these all-consuming, intrusive thoughts allows the brain to move on to other endeavors.
Since no one else reads your journal, your mind will be uninhibited by what others think. You can write, draw, or scribble freely, letting your brain wander through areas you would never explore in public. You can dream and brainstorm, writing down all your ingenious ideas, completely free of the judgment of others.
10. Journaling Improves Your Concept of Self
When conversing with others or writing for public view, we are generally very conscious of the way we present ourselves. However, with daily journaling, it is hard to keep up a front. You eventually, probably without notice, will lower your guard and begin to express your true words, without self-filtering. Rereading this material allows you to get in touch with your true self and get to know your own real thoughts and feelings better! Hopefully, this self-realization will eventually lead to increased self-acceptance.
11. Journaling Helps Track Progress and Achieve Goals
Whether you are doing a food journal to track weight loss and health, an open journal for mental health issues, or a bullet journal for productivity, daily journaling helps track your progress. There is no greater feeling than looking back on the week’s to-do list and seeing all the lines crossed through. There is no greater sense of accomplishment than reviewing an old journal and seeing that you crossed off every health or weight loss goal. On the flip side, an unfinished list, or incomplete tasks, can be motivators. They signal us to keep on going, or to revisit a goal we had forgotten or put to the side for a while. Reviewing our track record and list of accomplishments can increase confidence and produce pride in our achievements, leading to further goal setting. Journaling keeps us on track with our daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals, ultimately producing a more productive individual.
12. Journaling Preserves Memories
How often have you sat down and tried so hard to remember that funny thing your kid said, what town you ate that incredible pie in, or what show you saw on vacation that you loved so much? It happens to the best of us. At the time, we think, “oh, I will never forget this moment!” However, life happens. Everyday stressors and thoughts take up space, and before you know it, that thing you really wanted to hold on to is gone, or a vague, blurry concept at best. A well-detailed journal saves us from losing those happy memories. We can look back, and see in detail, exactly what happened. On the other hand, it is also a reminder of the hard times and how you have hopefully conquered that difficult area of your life. Looking back can help make us grateful for the strides we have made and remember all the hurdles we have overcome!
13. Journaling Increases Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking Skills
A specific type of journaling, called Reflective Journaling, has been shown to help with students’ critical thinking ability in fields such as nursing. Reflective journaling involves writing down observations, questions, critiques, and analyses of particular situations that occurred. The purpose is to cause the student to question their own actions, and the actions of others, in a particular situation. They analyze the facts and form conclusions that will guide future behavior in similar situations. Thinking themselves through all the possible scenarios and analyzing their own reactions produces a higher level of critical thinking skills.
14. Journaling Improves Reading and Writing Skills
Journaling can cause us to search for new words that appropriately represent our emotional state, increasing our overall vocabulary. In an effort to properly organize thoughts, it can also improve our writing skills, as well. Proper organization of thoughts is a key element to producing a well-written document of any kind. Have you ever read an article with good information, but it was just all over the place, and you couldn’t keep up? You more than likely, just gave up and went to read another one. You may find that while you explore thought organization, you inherently begin to better organize your writing style as well. The journaler can increase this effect by actively thinking about their writing process, beginning to organize daily writings into introductory, body, and conclusion paragraphs, focusing on proper grammar and punctuation.
It is good to note here that focusing on your writing style and composition could be counterproductive. It depends on what the goal of our journal is. If you are journaling for mental or emotional health issues, that takes priority. Don’t worry about your grammar. However, if you are journaling to get a better organizational grip on life, you may find that you can include some of these tricks to improve your reading, writing, and organizational skills.
Studies also show that those who excel in language and vocabulary score higher on IQ tests. So, in a roundabout way, journaling makes you smarter! IQ tests are pretty debatable at testing actual intelligence. However, journaling improves your vocabulary, which helps you ace that IQ test. You might not actually be smarter, but you can fool the test!
15. Journaling Leaves a Legacy
While you wouldn’t want anyone ever reading your personal or mental health journaling, some types of journals are wonderful keepsakes for families. Travel journals, for instance, are great keepsakes to eventually give your children and grandchildren. It gives them an insight into who their parents and grandparents were as people and into all the great adventures they once had. Journaling family moments and special times can bring warm memories and comfort to our offspring long after we are gone.
16. Journaling Can Decrease The Propensity For Bad Habits.
If you have ample free time in your day, you may find that you smoke more, drink more, or just spend too much time on social media. These can all lead to decreased physical and mental health. Keeping a journal, especially a bullet or productivity journal, can fill those minutes of spare time between work calls or projects. Using your spare time for something productive or for planning the next day can decrease the time we spend comparing ourselves to other’s profiles, reading things that anger or worry us, and intaking chemicals that we don’t need! Plus, after a few minutes in your journal, with tomorrow’s to-do list completed, you end up feeling accomplished and prepared instead of regretful!
17. Journaling Increases Mindfulness
Mindfulness, or the act of being present in the moment, is a buzzword in the mental health arena. Journaling daily experiences and events can help keep our minds on the here and now. That means you are not regretting the decisions of yesterday or reveling in bitterness over past hurt. You also are not worrying about the unknown of tomorrow. You are dwelling in the here and now and focused on the events of today. This concept is important because it helps us to savor every moment, and take each day as it comes and live it to the fullest.
Not Sure Where to Start?
Are you thinking, okay, journaling sounds like a good idea, but I have no idea where to start, or what to write? While you can purchase one of the previously recommended curated journals, it is not necessary. According to the Center for Journal Therapy, learning to W.R.I.T.E is easy! Just follow these 5 steps:
1. W- What– should you write about? It’s totally up to you. Write about what is happening today. Write about how you feel. What are you looking forward to today? What are your goals? What are you expecting? What worries you?
2. R-Review or Reflect before you start. They recommend closing your eyes and taking a second to focus your thoughts. You might start your writing with a feeling phrase, like “I am feeling”, or “I think”. You can also start with a time modifier, like “today”, or “At this time.”
3. I-Investigate- Time to start writing. Once you have started a sentence, just keep going. Write in a stream of consciousness. Whatever thought pops in, no matter how random or irrational, write it down. If you feel it or think it, write it down. If you get stuck or distracted, go back and read what you just wrote, and then continue the stream.
4. T-Time- One of the main reasons people don’t journal is that “they don’t have time.” Well, as we have already covered, journaling can be a great activity to actually improve your time management and productivity. So, taking a few minutes in the morning can be worth it, if it makes the rest of your day flow more smoothly. But how much time? Most experts recommend from 5-15 minutes. However, you can write as much or as little as you need to each day. Don’t press yourself to achieve some non-necessary goal, and don’t stop yourself if you really need to vent today. This is your journal. You do what you want. At first, you might try to give yourself a 5-minute time at least, until you get used to the process and get better at it. Set an alarm if it helps!
5. E- Exit- Don’t just stop your journal. Take some time at the end of your writing to re-read what you wrote and reflect on it for a second. Write one or two sentences analyzing your thoughts and feelings on what you have just written. You might be really surprised at what you notice. Once you begin to really journal, depending on your mental state, you may write quickly and almost subconsciously. Going back to review what you have written today, or in the few previous days, can be a great way to track your emotional progress. Do you still feel that way? Has it changed? What do you notice? You might start this wrap-up sentence with something like, “I notice,” or “Upon re-reading this.”
You don’t need to stick to this format forever, but it can be a simple and effective way to get a good start. As you progress as a journaler, you will come up with your own flow. You will no doubt research and look at other journals. You will come across other methods and find useful questions to include. There are no limits or rules. However, this simple method will give you some structure to get started with!
Journaling has been proven scientifically to help us manage emotions, along with improving mental and physical health. While it might seem like a daunting task to start, or may even seem frivolous to you. It’s worth a try, right? Give it a shot, and let us know in the comments if you have noticed any personal advantages to keeping a journal!
While a great tactic, journaling isn’t the only way to deal with stress. For more information on how to manage stress and increase productivity, check out our guide to Meditation for Productivity.
Often times our job is the element of life that causes the most stress! If you are dealing with frustration and stress on your job, check out these awesome tips for physical and mental wellness in the workplace.
Frequently Asked Questions
The benefits of journaling can be both physical and mental. It can improve your immune system, communication skills, and sleep quality, and may even boost your productivity!
One of the benefits of journaling, if done appropriately, is stress relief. By writing thoughts down and analyzing them, the journaler can better assess and address situations.