There are many good strategies and tools available today to enhance our well-being. Perhaps the most underappreciated is the power of keep a journal.
Though diary-keeping has been a popular practice at least since the 10th century by women in the Japanese court, its therapeutic effects were first studied by James Pennebaker in 1986.
A number of research studies have described in detail the benefits of journaling. The following in a brief summary of that research.
How Journaling Works
Journaling works on two different levels, having to do with both our feelings and our thoughts.
First, it’s a way of disclosing emotions rather than stuffing them down, which is known to be harmful for our health. So many of us have secret pain or shame that we haven’t shared with others, swarming around our brains in images and emotions. Through writing, our pain gets translated into black-and-white words that exist outside of ourselves.
On the thinking level, writing forces us to organize our experiences into a sequence, giving us a chance to examine cause and effect and form a coherent story. Through this process, we can also gain some distance from our experiences and begin to understand them in new ways, stumbling upon insights about ourselves and the world. While trauma can upset our beliefs about how life works, processing trauma through writing seems to give us a sense of control.
“Journaling is a tool to put our experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and desires into language, and in doing so it helps us understand and grow and make sense of them,” says Joshua Smyth, a distinguished professor of biobehavioral health and medicine at Penn State University, who coauthored the book Opening Up by Writing It Down with pioneering journaling researcher James Pennebaker.
Kinds of Journaling
Do you keep a diary in good times or bad? According to researchers James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth, most journalers tend to fall squarely in one of the two categories: Either they write regularly until adversity hits, then can’t continue; or they only put pen to paper when they’re feeling down.
A practice called Expressive Writing, one that has been the subject of hundreds of studies in the past thirty years shows that writing about your deepest struggles can have a positive impact on health and well-being.
In a new edition of their book Opening Up by Writing It Down, James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth survey the scientific history of Expressive Writing, its benefits, and how to make it work for you. When you feel stuck, this powerful writing practice can get all those painful thoughts and feelings out of your head, starting the process of healing.
The basic instructions for Expressive Writing go something like this: Write continuously for 20 minutes about your deepest emotions and thoughts surrounding an emotional challenge in your life. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie it to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved, or even your career.
To get the most out of this exercise, it helps to carve out quiet time and space to go deep. The goal is to gain insights and see new connections among your feelings, not to just vent with a pen. Although study participants sometimes write about big traumas and shameful secrets—from child abuse to their experiences at war—you can also write about whatever is frustrating or preoccupying you at the moment.
For example, here are some variations on Expressive Writing that Pennebaker and Smyth recommend:
- Writing for Problem Solving: Write for 10 minutes about a personal problem, then read your writing and identify the key obstacles you’re facing. Write about those obstacles for another 10 minutes and again read your writing. Finally, write for 10 more minutes synthesizing what you’ve learned.
- Before bed, journal about your worries and concerns—you might find that youfall asleep faster!
- Write down the word “Stress,” and do a word association: What word or topic does it bring to mind? What word or topic does that new one bring to mind? Do this successively and then see if you can gain insight into what stress means to you.
Although the traditional advice is to write for 20 minutes, four days in a row, research suggests that even writing for a few minutes can be beneficial. Pennebaker and Smyth do recommend trying at least two sessions, even if you only wait 10 minutes in between, because that break time allows your brain to process and integrate. Although some people choose to explore the same issue over and over, finding new angles every time, others write about different topics during each session.
How Does Journaling Contribute to Well-Being
Journaling has been used for many centuries as a way to reduce anxiety and depression, but the real research has only been conducted into this over the last 10 years.
Physical Health Benefits
Hans Schroder, Jason Moser, and Tim Moran published a study in the journal Psychophysiology in which they study the brains of participants when writing about upcoming stressful tasks. They concluded that simply writing about their feelings helped them perform the tasks more efficiently
“Worrying takes up cognitive resources; it’s kind of like people who struggle with worry are constantly multitasking — they are doing one task and trying to monitor and suppress their worries at the same time,” Schroder said. “Our findings show that if you get these worries out of your head through expressive writing, those cognitive resources are freed up to work toward the task you’re completing and you become more efficient.”
For the study, college students identified as chronically anxious through a validated screening measure completed a computer-based “flanker task” that measured their response accuracy and reaction times. Before the task, about half of the participants wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the upcoming task for eight minutes; the other half, in the control condition, wrote about what they did the day before.
While the two groups performed at about the same level for speed and accuracy, the expressive-writing group performed the flanker task more efficiently, meaning they used fewer brain resources, measured with electroencephalography, or EEG, in the process.
Moser uses a car analogy to describe the effect. “Here, worried college students who wrote about their worries were able to offload these worries and run more like a brand new Prius,” he said, “whereas the worried students who didn’t offload their worries ran more like a ’74 Impala — guzzling more brain gas to achieve the same outcomes on the task.”
While much previous research has shown that expressive writing can help individuals process past traumas or stressful events, the current study suggests the same technique can help people — especially worriers — prepare for stressful tasks in the future.
“Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard on upcoming stressful tasks, which is what worriers often get “burned out” over, their worried minds working harder and hotter,” Moser said. “This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head.'”
But in the long term, we can expect to cultivate a greater sense of meaning as well as better health. Various studies have found that people who do a bout of journaling have fewer doctor visits in the following half year, and reduced symptoms of chronic disease like asthma and arthritis.
Other research finds that writing specifically boosts our immune system, good news when the source of so much stress today is an infectious virus.
One older study even found that journaling could make vaccines more effective. In the experiment, some medical students wrote for four days in a row about their thoughts and feelings around some of the most traumatic experiences of their lives, from divorce to grief to abuse, while others simply wrote down their daily events and plans. Then, everyone received the hepatitis B vaccine and two booster shots.
According to blood tests, the group who journaled about upsetting experiences had higher antibodies right before the last dose and two months later. While the other group had a perfectly healthy response to the vaccine, the authors write, journaling could make an important difference for people who are immune-compromised or for vaccines that don’t stimulate the immune system as well. “Expression of emotions concerning stressful or traumatic events can produce measurable effects on human immune responses,” write the University of Auckland’s Keith J. Petrie and his colleagues.
Journaling could also boost our immune system once we’ve been infected with a virus. In another study, researchers recruited undergraduate students who tested positive for the virus that causes mononucleosis, which persists in the body after infection and has the potential to flare up. Three times weekly for 20 minutes, some wrote about a stressful event—like a breakup or a death—while others wrote about their possessions.
Based on blood samples taken before and after, writing about stress increased people’s antibodies—an indication that the immune system has more control over the latent virus in the body—compared to more mundane writing. It also seemed to help them gain a deeper understanding of their stress and see more positives to it.
It’s not only that expressive writing lowers our chances of getting ill, but it also increases the chances of fighting a number of serious diseases. Some of them are:
- Lessening the impact of rheumatoid arthritis, asthma.
- Aids in recovery from cancer.
- quicker postoperative recoveries.
- faster healing of wounds among seniors.
If this is not enough to convince you to pick up the pen and paper or download a journal app, a 2005 study showed that writing about traumatic events, distress, and overall feelings, can lower our chances of getting sick, while journaling 15-20 minutes per day, over a 4-month period, is enough to lower blood pressure and achieve better liver functionality.
In terms of brain activity, there has been many insights into what happens when your brain is involved in journaling. UCLA psychologists conducted research into this and how expressive writing associated with journaling can improve cognitive functions and improve anxiety.
The study looked into the brain imaging of people during journal therapy. Their research revealed that association of written words help to make an experience or trauma less intense. During the test, patients were shown an angry face, which in turn caused a region of the brain called the amygdala to increase in activity. The amygdala is used to activate alarms in your body to protect yourself. Even when the people were shown these same images subliminally, their amygdala responded.
But once candidates in the study began to associate words directly with the images, their brain’s emotional reaction is reduced. There is a reduced response from the amygdala and you begin to activate the prefrontal region of the brain. Researcher and professor, Matthew D. Lieberman of UCLA rounded this off well by stating this process is “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the break on your emotional responses.” Each time you journal, your brain’s reaction can be less intense making it easier to express important or trapped feelings that can lead to better treatment.
Shannon Taylor and Lauren Locklear published a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests “employees who keep a gratitude journal exhibit less rude behavior and mistreatment of others in the workplace.”
“Gratitude interventions are exercises designed to increase your focus on the positive things in your life. One intervention involves writing down a list of things you are thankful for each day,” says Shannon Taylor, “That simple action can change your outlook, your approach to work, and the way your co-workers see you.”
“While organizations spend quite a bit of time and money to improve employee behavior, there are not a lot of known tools available to actually make the needed changes,” Locklear said. “We found the gratitude journal is a simple, inexpensive intervention that can have a significant impact on changing employee behavior for the better.”
For two weeks, study participants spent a few minutes a day jotting down the things, people and events they were grateful for — and as a result, their coworkers reported that they engaged in fewer rude, gossiping, and ostracizing behaviors.
“Gratitude exercises are becoming increasingly popular products to improve employee attitudes and well-being, and our study shows managers can also use them to foster more respectful behavior in their teams,” Taylor says.
Christina M. Karns, director of the Emotions and Neuroplasticity Project in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon published a study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, finds that regularly noting feelings of gratitude in a journal leads to increased altruism.
The study sought to determine whether personal altruistic traits could be increased with a writing intervention.
Initially, participants were assessed through questionnaires and brain scanning by magnetic resonance imaging. During their first run through the MRI, the participants viewed transactions in which a sum of money was donated to a local food bank or routed to themselves.
“We found that across the whole group at the first session, people who reported more altruistic and grateful traits showed a reward-related brain response when the charity received money that was larger than when they received the money themselves,” said Karns.
Results of functional MRI, which measures the metabolism of oxygen in active brain cells, showed that altruism-related activity increased in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area deep in the brain associated with altruism in previous studies, including one led by study co-author Ulrich Mayr that found increases in pure altruism as people grow older.
Next, to test the journaling intervention, the 33 women, ages 18-27, who participated in the study were randomly assigned to two groups. In one, 16 wrote daily in an online journal, responding to prompts with questions related to gratitude. The other 17 received neutral daily prompts not focused on gratitude.
Three weeks later, the participants returned for functional MRI scanning as they repeated the questionnaires and viewed transactions of money going to the food bank or themselves.
“We found that activity recorded in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex shifted in the people in the gratitude-journaling group,” Karns said. “This group, as a whole, increased that value signal toward the charity getting the money over watching themselves get the money as if they were more generous toward others than themselves.”
Research on positive thinking and practicing gratitude previously has shown benefits to improved health and general well-being, but the new research, Karns said, was designed to explore gratitude with a philosophical perspective. This perspective emphasizes more than gratitude’s benefit to oneself, focusing on the downstream benefits of gratitude to others in society.
To do that, she used a variety of questionnaires to discreetly explore the participants’ feelings about altruism, combining then with the transaction-viewing exercise developed by the co-authors for use in earlier studies.
The new study’s results indicate, Karns said, that the part of the brain that supports feeling a reward is flexible, allowing for changes in values of a “neural currency” linked to feelings of altruism. “Our findings suggest that there’s more good out there when there is gratitude,” Karns said.
Whether the changes brought about by gratitude journaling endure and are realized more generally are open questions, Karns said. For example, the study focused on only women to reduce variables related to gender.
“I would like to do a longer-term study with more people to see how this holds up in the real world,” she said. “I would love to have a large enough sample to see if there are gender differences and how they manifest. Does this feeling last? How often do you have to journal to be most effective?”
Not only is the journal your personal ‘external hard disk’ with all of your thoughts, opinions, events, or ideas stored in one place, but it can also improve your own memory.
Writing improves our ability to temporarily store and use various information, or better say, it improves our working memory. Working memory is much more than the ability to memorize a phone number for longer than 10 minutes. It’s about extending our capacities to receive new information, retrieve the existing knowledge, connect them, and work with them. The process of writing means constantly employing our working memory which is essential for performing any given task.
How to start a journaling practice
While you can journal in many different ways, one of the most well-studied techniques is called Expressive Writing. To do this, you write continuously for 20 minutes about your deepest thoughts and emotions around an issue in your life. You can explore how it has affected you, or how it relates to your childhood or your parents, your relationships or your career.
Expressive Writing is traditionally done four days in a row, but there isn’t anything magical about this formula. Studies suggest you can journal a few days in a row, a couple times a week, or just once a week; you can write for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes; and you can keep journaling about the same topic or switch to different ones each time.
Research shows that practicing and expressing gratitude has immense benefits on mental and physical health, or better say, our overall well-being. Leading researchers in the field, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, have found that daily gratitude journaling can improve the quality of our sleep, strengthen our relationships with others, influence personal joy, as well as lower the symptoms of physical pain.
Simply put, writing about gratitude helps us refocus our minds on all the things that are positive in our lives. There are no rules about keeping a gratitude journal. You can use a blank notebook and write expressively, but you can also create bullet lists, or specify what you’re grateful for in two or three sentences.
Tips for Journaling
A 2002 study does suggest that journalers should beware of rehashing the same difficult feelings over and over in writing.
In the experiment, over 120 college students journaled about a stressful or traumatic event they were experiencing, like troubles at school, conflicts with their partner, or a death in the family. They were instructed to write for at least 10 minutes, twice a week, over the course of a month. Some students wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings—including how they try to make sense of the stress and what they tell themselves to cope with it—while others wrote about their feelings only.
During the month, the group who wrote about feelings and thoughts experienced more growth from the trauma: better relationships with others and a greater sense of strength, appreciation for life, and new possibilities for the future. They seemed to be more aware of the silver linings of the experience, while the group who focused on emotions expressed more negative emotions over time and even got sick more often that month.
The point here is that the most effective journaling moves from emotions to thoughts over time. We start expressing our feelings, allowing ourselves to name them; after all, jumping to thoughts too quickly could mean we’re over-analyzing or avoiding. But eventually, we do start to make observations, notice patterns, or set goals for the future.
In addition to writing, you might also consider adding drawings to your journal. In a 2003 study, people either journaled, made drawings, or journaled and drew about a negative experience from the past that still upset them, like relationship troubles or loss. According to surveys before and after, the group who wrote and drew saw the biggest improvements in their mood after three weekly, 20-minute sessions. Drawing without writing actually made people’s moods worse, though. The researchers speculate it may have dredged up difficult feelings without offering a way to process them.
Here are some tips on how you can start journaling:
- Try to write every day and make it easy: keep a pen and paper handy at all times.
- Write whatever feels right: remember, it’s your private place to discuss whatever you want. There is no right or wrong.
- Look at your writing time as personal relaxation time when you wind down and de-stress.
- When you write in a journal, provide an opportunity for positive self-talk and identify negative thoughts and behaviours.
- Focus on your inner voice and find a soothing and relaxing place inside yourself.
- Track any symptoms day-to-day, recognize triggers and learn how to control them.
- Know that you are doing something good for your mind and body.
Benefits of Journaling for Productivity
Here are some of the things you can do to boost your productivity through journaling:
- List your yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily goals and tasks;
- Break them into steps, so they become more achievable;
- Organize them by priority;
- Think about the personal benefits of every goal achieved, and write it down.