Writing about stressful and traumatic events can significantly benefit our physical and emotional health.
In fact, studies show that time spent journaling about our deepest thoughts and feelings can even reduce the number of sick days we take off work (Sohal, Singh, Dhillon & Gill, 2022).
Research suggests that journaling can help us accept rather than judge our mental experiences, resulting in fewer negative emotions in response to stressors (Ford, Lam, John, & Mauss, 2018; Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).
This article explores the numerous benefits of journaling and introduces guidance and techniques to support clients as they attempt to express how they feel and think.
Before you start reading, we thought you might like to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based exercises will equip you and those you work with, with tools to manage stress better and find a healthier balance in your life.
This Article Contains:
Why is Journaling Good For You?
Journaling is a widely used non-pharmacological tool for coaching and counseling and the treatment of mental illness. Two forms of journaling are particularly commonplace in psychotherapy (Sohal et al., 2022):
- Expressive writing
Typically performed over three or four sessions to access the client’s innermost feelings and thoughts; focusing on the emotional experience than events, people, or objects.
- Gratitude journaling
Involving a focus on the positive aspects of life through capturing situations, events, and interactions for which we are grateful.
Keeping a record of personal thoughts and feelings is particularly helpful in supporting mental health by (WebMD.com, 2021):
- Reducing anxiety
- Breaking away from a nonstop cycle of obsessive thinking and brooding
- Improving the awareness and perception of events
- Regulating emotions
- Encouraging awareness
- Boosting physical health
The positive effects of journaling can even be felt when not performed daily – helping the individual better understand their needs and boosting their wellbeing (Tartakovsky, 2022).
Research on Journaling
Studies show that by capturing our thoughts and feelings on paper, “participants often reveal a considerable range and depth of emotional trauma” (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005, p. 339).
Indeed, while the experience of writing can be upsetting, clients report they find it valuable and meaningful and, ultimately, a valuable part of the acceptance process.
In fact, based on client self-reports, research suggests a wide range of physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits from expressive writing (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005):
- Lowered blood pressure
- Improved lung and liver function
- Less time spent in hospital
- Better moods
- Improved psychological wellbeing
- Fewer depressive and avoidance symptoms
- Reduced stress-related visits to the doctor
- Less work absenteeism
- Less time out of work following job loss
- Higher student grade averages
Not only that, but research into gratitude journaling suggests that “study participants who regularly drew their attention to aspects of their lives that made them feel blessed increased their positivity” (Fredrickson, 2010, p. 187). However, a caveat exists. Recording what makes us feel grateful every day can become monotonous, even zapping positivity. A few days a week may be sufficient.
The Psychology Behind Journaling
“Research has consistently linked the habitual tendency to accept one’s mental experiences with greater psychological health” (Ford et al., 2018, p. 2). Study findings suggest that accepting our feelings is linked to better psychological health and positive therapeutic outcomes, including improved moods and reduced anxiety.
And this is where journaling can help. It can promote acceptance–and mindful acceptance in particular–which is a valuable and effective way of getting unstuck, freeing ourselves to move forward (Forsyth & Eifert, 2016).
While the exact mechanisms involved in journaling that confer physical and mental health benefits are not clear, the following psychological processes may be involved, to a greater or lesser degree (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005):
- Emotional catharsis
An emotional release of unconscious conflicts through venting negative feelings.
- Increased cognitive processing
Time spent creating coherent narratives of what has happened.
- Repeated exposure
Increased and prolonged exposure to stressful events may lead to a reduction in harmful thoughts and feelings.
- Emotional inhibition
Actively inhibiting negative emotions takes a considerable effort, further stressing the body and mind. Confronting them may support cognitive integration and further understanding.
For each suggestion, there is supporting and contradictory evidence. The benefits of journaling seem apparent, yet the mechanisms beneath are yet to be fully understood (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Tartakovsky, 2022).
5 Surprising Benefits of Journaling
Journaling is a popular therapeutic intervention used in many different disciplines and psychological approaches.
Easy to implement and get started, it can benefit clients experiencing different mental health issues (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Ford et al., 2018):
Journaling for Anxiety
Journaling has proven popular and effective for treating clients experiencing anxiety, possibly because of an improved acceptance of negative emotions and a more helpful emotional response to stress (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Ford et al., 2018).
One meta-review of research studies suggests that journaling may be a more effective treatment for anxiety in women than men (yet both groups have a positive effect) and that doing so for longer than 30 days may maximize mental wellbeing benefits (Sohal et al., 2022).
Journaling for Depression
Research suggests that expressive writing and gratitude journaling can reduce symptoms of depression, providing an effective intervention for clients receiving treatment in therapy.
As with anxiety, such interventions also appeared more effective when lasting longer than 30 days. While benefits may not be as great as for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), journaling still appears to be a valuable intervention (Sohal et al., 2022).
Journaling for Stress Management
Journaling can support coping and reduce the impact of stressful events – potentially avoiding burnout and chronic anxiety. Studies link writing privately about stressful events and capturing thoughts and emotions on paper with decreased mental distress.
When journaling for stress management, processing our emotions in written form may even increase the likelihood that we reach out for social support. This, in turn, leads to emotional healing and improved resilience to stress (WebMD.com, 2021).
Journaling for Reflection
When stressed or consumed by negative thoughts, it’s difficult to view our situation objectively. Writing in a journal can help us create the space and distance needed to reflect on what has happened, where we are, and what is ahead.
Journaling may create sufficient cognitive defusion–looking at thoughts rather than being in them–to create the separation needed to accept our feelings and commit to the changes we need to make (Tartakovsky, 2022).
Journaling for Recovery
Research suggests that journaling, particularly expressive writing, can help those experiencing or recovering from the emotional trauma associated with PTSD (Sohal et al., 2022).
Another innovative approach combined journaling with visualization and appeared to offer lasting support to war veterans (Mims, 2015).
Other findings confirm journaling as a valuable and effective intervention for recovery from addiction.
A 2022 paper highlighted the ability of journaling to support the recovery of women in residential treatment for substance use disorders. Results showed that the intervention “helped participants to recognize what was positive about recovery, to achieve meaningful short-term goals, and to experience a sense of optimism and pride in their accomplishments” (Krentzman, Hoeppner, Hoeppner, & Barnett, 2022, p. 1).
6 Ways to process your feelings in writing – Therapy in a Nutshell
How to Journal for Optimal Mental Health
Despite the clear benefits of journaling for easing distress, we are often less willing to capture how we feel on paper when we are struggling the most.
After all, it’s not always pleasant. We are revisiting thoughts and emotions that we may have been avoiding. In fact, we may feel sad, upset, guilty, or anxious immediately after time spent writing. And yet, in the long term, journaling offers us better psychological and physical health (Newman, 2020).
The following guidelines should ease the first-timer into the process and make it less daunting (Newman, 2020; WebMD.com, 2021; Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005):
Guidance for mental health practitioners working with clients:
- Expressive writing can be set as homework, between, or immediately before or after sessions.
- Encourage the client to find somewhere quiet and peaceful, away from distractions.
- Set a goal of writing three or four times a week – potentially on consecutive days.
- Carve out 30 minutes–even during a busy day–with 20 for writing and 10 for reflection and composing.
- Let the client choose what they want to write about, for example, a stressful or traumatic event.
- Do not impose a structure on their writing – encourage them to choose their own format.
- Clarify that what the client writes is private; it will only be read if they choose to share.
- Do not judge what they capture and choose to offer up for discussion – and keep feedback to a minimum.
Guidance for the client:
- Pick the time of day that suits you best to write in the journal; setting a regular time is helpful but accept that it may be necessary to be flexible.
- Start by expressing your feelings, allowing yourself time to name each one. Then move on to observing your thoughts and any patterns of thinking that might characterize you.
- Start small. Begin by writing for only a few minutes on a subject of your choice – perhaps the day’s events or something that has been troubling you.
- Create and express what you want from life and how you feel. There are no rules, and there is no wrong way of doing this.
- Do not worry about spelling and punctuation – no one is here to judge you.
- Choose a medium that suits you. Use a journal app, write on paper, use a computer, or record your spoken thoughts.
- Accept that, at times, you may feel upset as you write. And that’s ok. Take a break if you need to. While this process will not fix all your problems, it will help you learn more about yourself.
We should explain to the client that expressive writing can sometimes lead to short-term distress despite the long-term benefits. Clients should be encouraged to stop writing if they find no benefits or the practice is too distressing (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).
Getting Started – Journaling Prompts
The following provides a typical example of expressive writing instructions that can be modified and tailored to the situation and the needs of the client (modified from Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005, p. 338):
“For the next four days, I would like you to write down how you feel and think about your most traumatic experience or a significant emotional issue that has profoundly impacted you.
If you can, try to let go, capturing your deepest emotions and thoughts, including how you relate to those closest to you, your past, present, and future, and how you have been and would like to be. Feel free to carry one topic across multiple days or, if you prefer, choose a new one for each.
Your writing will remain confidential, so please do not worry about spelling, grammar, or style. You are not being judged so try to write honestly and openly.”
Specific and individual prompts can be helpful for clients if they are new to journaling or are struggling to get started. Begin by answering one or more of the following questions (Tartakovsky, 2022; Newman, 2020):
- How do the changes in your life make you feel? And how are you handling changes at work, at home, and in relationships?
- What are you most anxious or uncertain about? Where is that coming from, and how are you coping?
- What three things are you most grateful for today, or what three good things have happened to you today?
- What are your favorite memories from your own or your children’s lives?
- Name something you fear and why?
- What do you enjoy doing and why?
- How would you describe yourself from the perspective of someone close to you?
- What would your very best day look like and why?
- How would a difficult situation be handled if you were being your very best self?
- If you woke up tomorrow having everything you truly wanted, what would it look like?
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many journaling resources available for therapists providing support to clients wanting to address mental health issues.
Gratitude often plays a large part in journaling. Why not download our free gratitude pack and try out the powerful tools contained within, including:
- Experiencing Awe
Feelings of awe can arise in response to experiences that appear vast (including landscapes, such as the sea, mountains, and night sky) and can profoundly impact our gratitude. Ask the client to recall a time when they experienced awe and to write about their experience in detail.
- Fostering admiration in couples
Maintaining fondness and respect in a relationship can help support the love within a couple. This exercise encourages positivity within the relationship and helps form a strong emotional bond.
Other free resources include:
- Gratitude Journal
Use this worksheet Gratitude Journal as a prompt to help clients capture those aspects of their lives for which they are most grateful.
- Self Esteem Journal for Adults
Use this sheet to note down meaningful daily activities and reflect on them to enhance client self-knowledge.
- Self-Love Journal
These ten self-love prompts encourage emotional expression, mood boosting, and de-stressing within the client.
More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:
- Journaling Through Grief in 40 Days
Losing someone special from our lives is one of the most distressing human experiences. Journaling through grief allows the individual to step back and reflect on what they have been going through from multiple perspectives.
The 40 days of journaling also provide a lasting record of their journey for later reflection.
- Strength journaling
Personal strengths can be reinforced and developed through attending to them and exploring the ways in which one has used them in real, everyday life.
Use the seven days of prompts to write about what has gone well and the strengths that may have played a role in the successful outcome.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others manage stress without spending hours on research and session prep, this collection contains 17 validated stress management tools for practitioners. Use them to help others identify signs of burnout and create more balance in their lives.
A Take-Home Message
Journaling as an intervention has many benefits, supporting physical and mental wellbeing, resilience, and greater emotional awareness and understanding.
To begin with, clients may be uncertain regarding revisiting difficult emotions or situations. And yet, with support and confirmation that their innermost thoughts and feelings remain private, they will grow more confident in capturing their deepest thoughts and better able to manage their anxiety and stressful situations.
Journaling encourages space from negative or self-critical thinking, allowing the client to see that what they think and feel is not who they are but something they are experiencing.
Journaling allows the client to see that what they think and feel is not who they are but something they are experiencing. It provides a space where a client can view their negative or self-critical thinking as just that – thoughts.
With practice, journaling can help process emotions–even ones that have been avoided or held back–and lead to a better understanding of how to proceed.
If your clients are not already doing so, task them with capturing how they think and feel in written form through either expressive writing or gratitude journaling. The client does not need to spend a great deal of time on it every day; even twenty minutes, three to four times a week, will have a positive and lasting effect.
Encourage them to reflect on what they have written later on, becoming better at understanding that difficult feelings will pass, and it is not the situation or specific stressors that cause us difficulty but our perception of them.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free.
- Baikie, K., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346.
- Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2018). The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 1075-1092.
- Forsyth, J. P., & Eifert, G. H. (2016). The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias & Worry Using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
- Fredrickson, B. (2010). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to release your inner optimist and thrive. Richmond: Oneworld.
- Krentzman, A. R., Hoeppner, B. B., Hoeppner, S. S., & Barnett, N. P. (2022). Development, feasibility, acceptability, and impact of a positive psychology journaling intervention to support addiction recovery. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-19.
- Mims, R. (2015). Military veteran use of visual journaling during recovery. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 28(2), 99-111.
- Newman, K. (2020). How journaling can help you in hard times. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_journaling_can_help_you_in_hard_times
- Sohal, M., Singh, P., Dhillon, B. S., & Gill, H. S. (2022). Efficacy of journaling in the management of mental illness: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Family Medicine and Community Health, 10(1).
- Tartakovsky, M. (2022, February 22). 15 benefits of journaling and tips for getting started. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/benefits-of-journaling
- WebMD.com. (2021). How journaling can help ease anxiety and encourage healing. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/mental-health-benefits-of-journaling