You may be surprised to learn that one of your best wellness tools is actually a journal. Journaling offers an array of benefits — from easing stress to sparking self-discovery.
“Journaling is mindfulness in motion,” says Lisann Valentin, a Shamanic life coach. It shines a spotlight on the invaluable things in your life that you might not always recognize.
Here are six other wide-ranging benefits of putting pen to paper — or fingers to keypad — along with how to start and actually sustain this helpful habit.
“Journaling can be a great pressure releasing valve when we feel overwhelmed or simply have a lot going on internally,” says Amy Hoyt, PhD, founder of Mending Trauma.
Some research bears this out. For example, in
- write three things you’re grateful for
- write the story of your life in six words
- write three wishes you have
A 2018 research review suggests that writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings may contribute to:
- fewer stress-related doctor visits
- lower blood pressure
- improved mood
- greater well-being
- reduced distress
- increased well-being
In the same study, after a month, participants reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. After the first and second months, participants reported greater resilience.
When negative or worried thoughts arise, it’s easy to get caught up in their catastrophic stories. Jotting down your thoughts, however, “creates space and distance to consider them in a more objective way,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York City.
This distance is formally called cognitive defusion, a helpful concept from acceptance and commitment therapy. “The idea is that you are not your thoughts, emotions, or physical symptoms; instead, you are the context in which they occur,” says Romanoff.
In other words, if your thoughts aren’t serving you, you don’t have to believe them. Instead, you can use journaling to see your thoughts as separate from you.
To further underscore this separation as you’re journaling, try adding this phrase: “I’m having the thought that…”
Plenty of people move about their days either not noticing their emotions or actively pushing them down. The problem? Your emotions have a way of still popping up to the surface and affecting your actions — with or without our awareness.
Journaling gives you the opportunity to process your emotions in a safe, contained space. Naming the specific emotions you’re experiencing and accepting them
Writing down your thoughts and feelings about a situation is the first step in understanding how best to proceed. Once you’ve calmed down a bit, you might find that your emotions are trying to tell you something:
Maybe your anger is a sign that you need to set a stronger boundary with someone. Or your sadness is nudging you to reach out and strengthen your connections.
Seeing your concerns, questions, and emotions in black and white gives you a clearer picture of your needs. 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.
Think of yourself as a puzzle: You get to discover a different piece or pattern every single day. Journaling provides a much-needed pause to help us reconnect to ourselves and rediscover who we are. When we write, we learn our preferences, pain points, fears, favorites, and dreams.
We are constantly evolving. Journaling helps us to listen, bear witness to these changes, and simply get to know ourselves a whole lot better.
Whether you’re completely new to journaling or returning after a long hiatus, try these tips for building a sustainable habit.
Take a micro-step
At the start, try not to bite off more than you can chew. As Hoyt explains, “micro-steps are less likely to be rejected by the brain, whereas large sweeping changes can feel unsafe, and we may give up.”
She suggests setting a timer for just one or two minutes a day for your journaling session.
Pick the simplest tools
Since everyone is different, start with whatever method is easiest to incorporate into your routine, says Romanoff, like:
- writing in a blank doc on your laptop
- using a note-taking app on your phone
- putting pen to paper
Try free writing
Start by taking several deep breaths, noticing your immediate surroundings, and writing whatever comes to mind, says Lori L. Cangilla, PhD, a Pittsburg-based psychologist, avid journal writer, and member of the International Association for Journal Writing.
If you’ve drawn a blank, Cangilla notes, “describe that experience until something else comes forward in your journaling.”
Let it all out
Write whatever thoughts and feelings arise, without censoring yourself. “It’s your journal, so you can be as petty, blunt, and honest as you wish,” says Cangilla.
To resist the temptation to edit, try writing as fast as possible, she adds.
Anchor your journaling
If you like structure, journal at the same time every day. For example, says Valentin, write your thoughts when you first wake up or process the day before bedtime.
You can also anchor your journaling to a well-established habit to make it more likely you’ll stick with it. For example, journal:
- before or after a nightly prayer
- when you’re in the car rider line
- during a commercial break on TV
Connect the dots
To sharpen your self-awareness, you can jot down your feelings around a specific situation, day to day. For example, you might simply write:
- This is what happened today.
- I’m experiencing these feelings about it.
- I’m thinking these thoughts.
Avoid re-reading painful entries
Cangilla advises against revisiting the raw details of difficult situations. If you feel you aren’t done with a situation, she says, you can refocus on:
- what you’re grateful for in the situation
- how you’ll apply what you’ve learned from it
Explore a prompt
Prompts are a powerful way to get to know yourself better. They’re also great when you aren’t sure what to journal about.
Try these ideas from Lori Ryland, PhD, LP, a psychologist and chief clinical officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers:
- Write your favorite memories from childhood or your children’s lives.
- Go out into nature, and write about the experience.
- Describe something you fear doing and why.
- Describe something you love doing and why.
- Describe yourself, including your personality and roles at work and home. Then describe yourself from the perspective of a close friend or family member.
- If you wake up tomorrow having everything you want, what does this look like? Where are you? Who are you with? What are you doing with your time?
If you’re journaling about a disagreement, try writing with empathy. Consider the other person’s perspective and motives behind some of their actions, says Romanoff.
Putting yourself in their shoes may help you gain clarity on the situation, reduce resentment, and possibly even find a solution.
Journaling has a range of benefits. Just writing a few minutes a day may help you reduce stress, boost your well-being, and better understand your needs.
Journaling provides a concrete method for learning who we are and identifying what we need.
To create a lasting journaling habit, start with several minutes — or more, depending on your preference. In your journal, you can explore something that’s bothering you, write about the present moment, or play with a prompt.
Ultimately, the wonderful thing is that it’s totally, completely up to you.
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, has been writing for Psych Central and other websites for more than a decade on a wide range of topics. She’s the author of the mental health journal “Vibe Check: Be Your Best You” (Sterling Teen). She’s especially passionate about helping readers feel less alone and overwhelmed and more empowered. You can connect with Margarita on LinkedIn, or check out her writing at her website.