You might be surprised to learn that one of your best wellness tools is actually a journal. Journaling offers an array of benefits, from alleviating stress to boosting self-discovery.
“Journaling is mindfulness in motion,” says Lisann Valentine, shamanic life coach. It shines a light on the priceless things in your life that you may not always recognize.
Here are six more extended benefits of putting pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard — plus how to start and maintain this helpful habit.
“Journaling can be a great pressure relief valve when we’re feeling overwhelmed or just have a lot to do internally,” says Amy HoytPhD, founder of Mending Trauma.
Some research confirms this. For example, in
- write three things you are grateful for
- write your life story in six words
- write down three wishes you have
A 2018 research review suggests that writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings can help:
- reduced distress
- increased well-being
In the same study, after one 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 carried away with their dire stories. Writing down your thoughts, however, “creates space and distance to consider them more objectively,” says Sabrina RomanoffPsyD, clinical psychologist in New York.
This distance is formally called cognitive defusion, a useful concept in 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 emphasize this separation while journaling, try adding this sentence: “I feel like…”
Many people spend their days not noticing their emotions or actively pushing them away. The problem? Your emotions have a way of still surfacing and affecting your actions – with or without our awareness.
Journaling gives you the opportunity to process your emotions in a safe and contained space. Name the specific emotions you feel and accept them
Writing down your thoughts and feelings about a situation is the first step to understanding the best course of action. Once you’ve calmed down a bit, you may find that your emotions are trying to tell you something:
Maybe your anger is a sign you need to set a higher limit with somebody. Or your sadness drives you to reach out and strengthen your bonds.
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 than a jumble of thoughts racing through your head.
Think of yourself as a puzzle: every day you discover a different piece or pattern. Journaling provides a well-deserved break to help us reconnect with ourselves and rediscover who we are. When we write, we learn about our preferences, weaknesses, fears, favorites, and dreams.
We are constantly evolving. Keeping a journal helps us to listen, to witness these changes and simply to know ourselves better.
Discover more tips to start your journey of self-discovery.
Whether you’re completely new to journaling or coming back after a long hiatus, try these tips for creating a lasting habit.
Take a micro step
At first, 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 big, drastic changes can feel dangerous and we may give up.”
She suggests setting a timer for just one or two minutes a day for your journaling session.
Choose the simplest tools
Since everyone is different, start with the easiest method to incorporate into your routine, says Romanoff, such as:
- write in a blank document on your laptop
- use a note-taking app on your phone
- put pen to paper
Try free writing
Start by taking several deep breaths, taking note of your immediate surroundings, and writing down anything that comes to mind, says Lori L. CangillaPhD, Pittsburgh-based psychologist, avid journal writer, and member of the International Association for Journal Editors.
If you blanked out, Cangilla notes, “describe that experience until something else comes up in your journal.”
let it all out
Write down all the thoughts and feelings that arise, without censoring yourself. “It’s your diary, so you can be as mean-spirited and direct and honest as you want,” says Cangilla.
To resist the temptation to edit, try to write as fast as possible, she adds.
Anchor your journal
If you like structure, keep a journal at the same time each day. For example, says Valentin, write down your thoughts when you first wake up or process the night before bedtime.
You can also anchor your journaling into a well-established habit to increase your chances of sticking to it. For example, log:
- before or after a night prayer
- when you’re in the driver’s line
- during a TV commercial break
Connect the dots
To sharpen your self-awareness, you can write down your feelings around a specific, day-to-day situation. For example, you could simply write:
- That’s what happened today.
- I get those feelings about it.
- I think of these thoughts.
Avoid re-reading painful entries
Cangilla advises against revisiting the raw details of difficult situations. If you feel like you’re not done with a situation, she says, you can refocus on:
- what you are grateful for in the situation
- how you will apply what you have learned
Explore a prompt
Prompts are a powerful way to get to know you better. They’re also great for when you’re not sure what to journal about.
Try these ideas Lori RylandPhD, LP, Psychologist and Head of Clinic at Pinnacle Treatment Centers:
- Write down your best childhood memories or your children’s life.
- Get out into nature and write about the experience.
- Describe something you are afraid to do and why.
- Describe something you enjoy doing and why.
- Describe yourself, including your personality and your roles at work and at home. Next, describe yourself from the perspective of a close friend or family member.
- If you wake up tomorrow having everything you want, what does that look like? Where are you? Who are you with? What are you doing with your time?
If you’re journaling about a disagreement, try to write with empathy. Consider the other person’s perspective and the motives behind some of their actions, Romanoff says.
Putting yourself in their shoes can help you clarify the situation, reduce resentment, and maybe even find a solution.
Journaling has a range of benefits. The simple act of writing for a few minutes a day can help you reduce your stress, improve 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.
In the end, the wonderful thing is that it’s all up to you.
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, has been writing for Psych Central and other websites for over a decade on a wide range of topics. She is the author of the mental health journal “Vibe Check: Be Your Best You” (Sterling Teen). She is particularly passionate about helping readers feel less alone, overwhelmed and more empowered. You can connect with Margarita on LinkedInor look what she writes to him website.