Journaling has been widely recognized as a therapeutic form of self-expression, and many health benefits have been tied to the practice. As researchers and psychologists continue to study expressive writing, they’ve asked questions like these:
- What makes journaling so powerful?
- Why do people who engage in journaling enjoy better health?
- How much journaling is needed to produce results?
While there are still many unanswered questions, the evidence is clear that journaling offers a wide range of health benefits. John Pennebaker, a professor and researcher at the University of Texas, was among the first to notice that writing about upsetting experiences can lead to significant health benefits. He found that short 15- to 30-minute writing sessions over a period of three or four days improved overall mood and indicators of well-being.
Pennebaker also found that those who experienced trauma but kept it a secret were more likely to experience health problems, such as sleep disturbances, relationship problems, and poor performance at work.
One reason for this may be that keeping secrets requires a lot of intention and energy, which may also lead to higher levels of stress. For this reason, journaling appears to provide a safe, private outlet for the disclosure of secrets.
Research has uncovered other health benefits as well:
- Fewer visits to the doctor
- Increased t-helper cell growth
- Improved antibody response
- Improved self-awareness
- Lowered heart rate
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Improved mood
- Reduced rumination
- Increased life satisfaction
- Improved self-regulation
- Reduced blood pressure
- Decreased symptoms of distress
- Reduced relational tension
- Lower absenteeism from work
Writing Therapy: A Self-Healing Tool
Writing therapy has been described as “a process of investigation about personal thoughts and feelings using the act of writing as an instrument, with the aim of promoting self-healing and personal growth.”
Upsetting life events like divorce, loss, relationship conflicts, injury or illness, and trauma not only disrupt emotional well-being, but they can also result in physiological and biological changes. Left unaddressed, these changes can lead to more serious health conditions.
As research continues to shine a light on journaling, this simple technique can be used as a form of self-healing and self-care.
Here are some of the most recently identified health benefits linked to journaling:
Stress and Anxiety
Stress is associated with a wide range of chronic health conditions. Evidence shows that prolonged periods of stress can suppress immune function, interrupt sleep patterns, trigger changes in the stress hormone cortisol, and disrupt neurotransmitter function.
For example, researchers have found that people who have experienced trauma often struggle with recurring thoughts and memories related to those experiences. One study involving people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showed that expressive writing improved mood and post-traumatic growth. Some researchers believe this is due, at least in part, to changes in cortisol levels that occur with journaling.
While most people understand that bottled-up emotions can take a toll on health, managing stress can be challenging. When used as a therapeutic tool, journaling can help diffuse strong emotions by providing an outlet for troubling thoughts. Translating our thoughts into words helps us better understand them and find meaning within them.
Grief and Loss
Journaling can also help us make sense of heartbreaking losses, whether they are anticipated or unexpected.
For most people, the grieving process evokes a wide range of emotions, including shock, anger, and sadness. And some people grieve longer than others. Those who get “stuck” in the healing process tend to experience more health problems. In fact, lingering in grief has been linked to higher rates of suicidal thoughts, higher blood pressure, and higher rates of cancer, heart problems, stroke, smoking, and alcohol consumption.
Expressive writing provides a safe container to unravel painful memories. Translating troubling thoughts and memories onto the pages of a journal can help us define our emotions and accept them as part of the healing process.
Some research suggests that expressive writing can help reduce symptoms of depression, especially in people who have a tendency to ruminate—replaying painful events in your mind over and over again.
Grief journaling can include poetry, freestyle writing, or even writing letters to lost loved ones. In this way, journaling helps open the emotional flood gates and eases the grief journey.
When our immune system isn’t functioning well, it leaves us more vulnerable to illness. While it’s normal to experience stress from time to time, prolonged periods of stress can suppress immune function and increase health risks.
Some evidence suggests that expressive writing can help support immune function. And when viewed as a mindfulness technique, journaling appears to share some of the same health benefits as meditation.
In one study, patients with HIV infection showed improved immune response after journaling, specifically through increased t-helper cell growth and improved antibody response.
Other findings indicate that engaging in brief journaling sessions can strengthen immune function and result in fewer days off due to illness.
Healing and Recovery
Some research indicates that journaling may accelerate physical healing. When stress suppresses immune function, it also slows down the recovery process. While the mechanisms behind the effects of journaling remain unclear, there appears to be a link between expressive writing and improved recovery times.
In one study that included 40 adults, 76% of those who participated in journaling showed improvements in recovery after a surgical procedure. Likewise, expressive writing has been shown to improve wound healing in older adults.
One possibility that has been proposed is that journaling appears to improve sleep quality, which is known to support immune function.
Simple Journal Prompts to Improve Your Health
Journaling can either be unstructured or structured. With unstructured writing, there are no rules or guidelines. Instead, you can choose from a variety of writing techniques and allow your thoughts to guide your writing process.
If you struggle to come up with topics to write about, structured writing offers prompts to help guide you. Here are some examples of journal prompts to help you focus on your health:
- My biggest concern about my health is…
- One negative thought I keep having is…
- I feel anxious when…
- Describe the emotions that come to mind when you think about your health.
- The most challenging loss I’ve faced is…
- I’m worried about…
- I’m most grateful for…
- What is your most important health goal right now?
- What are your greatest sources of stress right now?
- Describe your health one year from now.
If you’re wondering why journaling is so effective, you’re not alone. The answer isn’t yet clear. Some researchers believe that journaling encourages the healthy processing of traumatic events, which helps us uncover meaning behind our suffering. Others think journaling works simply because it increases self-awareness, helping us see our experiences from a different perspective.
But whatever the reason behind its effectiveness, one thing is clear: journaling can be good for your health. In fact, some psychologists now view writing therapy as a cost-effective and accessible alternative to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
If you’re feeling a little resistive to exploring expressive writing, it might be worth giving it a try anyway. Some research indicates that writing may work best when you do not want to do it. The best part is, therapeutic writing is simple, and it doesn’t require any special skills or knowledge.
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Information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be interpreted as providing or replacing medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Author bio: STACY FISHER, RDN, LD, CDCES is the founder of LivingUpp, a lifestyle design company that teaches women how to use a self-care planning system to create more ease and better health.
She is a registered dietitian and lifestyle coach with 20+ years of experience in the healthcare industry, where she’s worked with large companies such as Dell, Boeing, and Nike. Stacy is the author of The Lifestyle Design Planner, a flexible life organizer for high-achievers who value self-care and simplicity.