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The Free, Healthy Activity You Still Haven’t Started Doing

If the term “journaling” brings to mind distinguished writers like Oscar Wilde or Jane Austen scribbling flowery, beautifully crafted sentences in a leather bound diary, stop right there. Journal writing is not meant to be poetry (though both could be considered paintings in words, and often bring on tears).

Expressive writing in a journal or diary, or whatever you want to call it, is about regularly recording your dreams and fears, joys and anxieties; to take that jumble of feelings in your head and commit them to paper (or app or website, like 750 Words). Journaling is about setting aside the time to recognize and acknowledge your hopes and frustrations and dreams, or to log day-to-day minutia. Once you get past the intimidation of a blank page, the act of penning your sorrows, victories, and everything in between can help you see your world more clearly. It’s the actual writing itself, not just the processing, or thinking things through, that seems to produce these results.

Although journaling is sometimes described as meditation or reflection, those words can make you question which parts of your life are worth documenting. The answer is, anything and everything. Your entries needn’t all be intuitive masterpieces, because not every day brings earth-shattering insights. Some days may be just a brain dump about binge-watching three damn seasons of Breaking Bad. And that’s fine.

The point is not to judge what you write, or attempt to project a falsely glamorous Instagram-like portrait. Journaling is a private conversation with yourself about how you’re feeling. Simple as that. It’s a powerful therapeutic exercise with loads of psychological and physical benefits, and the science to back it up. Here are a few of the good things.

Journaling Clears Your Head

There’s so much data about the mental and emotional benefits of journaling that many therapists recommend it to their patients. Research confirms that writing about stressful, emotionally-challenging events can lead to long-term improvement in mental health, including greater feelings of wellbeing, fewer depressive symptoms, and improved working memory. Journaling about painful emotions like anger and sadness lessens their intensity, which allows us to feel calmer in our own skin. The act of journaling also slows down a racing mind.

Studies have shown that stress can cause significant, and sometimes irreparable, damage to parts of the brain, including those central to memory and learning. The long-term effects can even change how our brain functions.

The act of writing accesses the left side of our brain, which is analytical and practical. So as soon as you pick up that pen (or start typing), your right brain — the creative spirited side — becomes untethered and is free to intuit and feel. Writing tends to remove the mental blocks, and once the thoughts start flowing, you’re better able to make sense of your circumstances — especially useful after a major life change or traumatic experience when our minds have been working overtime. Journaling, often called expressive writing by the experts who study it, not only clears your mind and cuts stress, it also boosts your confidence. Honestly recounting your triumphs as well as your missteps can pump you up to pick up the pieces and get on with your life.

When writing about personally stressful situations, one University of Iowa study showed that it does, in fact, matter what your write. Study participants who journaled about the facts of their situation, as well as the emotions they felt, had better emotional health outcomes. Researchers believe that cognitive processing, as well as emotional processing, led to a greater resolution of a stressful event.

Journaling Boosts Your Health

Your brain isn’t the only body part that benefits from journaling. The practice has very real health perks as well. According to Dr. James Pennebaker, a pioneer of writing therapy who’s spent the past 30 years researching the topic, there are a number of positive physical effects, including lower blood pressure, a strengthened immune system, and a healthier heart. A study published in 1998 suggests that journaling might even help you live longer:

“The most striking research on [journaling] has been done with markers of physical health and biological changes,” Pennebaker told Fast Company. “We know from multiple studies that there are enhancements in immune function, drops in blood pressure and other markers of stress, and improvements in sleep. People go to the doctor less [for stress-related issues]. Other studies have shown faster wound healinggreater mobility among people with arthritis. And the list goes on.”

While there are many physical benefits to stress management and learning to handle life’s discomforts, another means of encouraging physical (and emotional) wellbeing is by acknowledging the positive and the good in your life. Expressing gratitude for what’s joyful and heartfelt goes a long way to improving health. According to the American Psychology Association, gratitude journaling can bring about “better sleep, less fatigue, lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health” as well as reduced physical symptoms of illness.

Journaling Strengthens Connections with Family, Friends and Colleagues

You know what they say — the more you do something, the better you get at it. With journaling, it’s not about more perfectly polished sentences but rather that regular writing can help you process ideas and communicate more effectively. Your career and relationship conversations will be more valuable (and meaningful) when you have a better understanding internally of what you want to share externally. Self-reflection helps us better shape our own point of view, and appreciate others’. By taking the time to write your thoughts down, you’re training your brain to process them in ways it might not have before. This clarity brings about deeper and closer listening, with a more open mind. That means fewer misunderstandings and stronger connections with family, friends and colleagues.

Interestingly, Forbes reports that “among traders and portfolio managers…perhaps no psychological tool is more common than the journal…which can serve as a powerful learning tool.” In a business governed by fluctuating markets, developing resilience to setbacks is key, and “is reflected in the language we use. Resilient people are likely to use action-related terms, such as doing, working and make…words that are often used (or not) in describing goals and intentions” while journaling.

Our language expresses our realities, but can also help to shape fresh ones. For instance, writing about your experience may bring to the surface ideas that weren’t readily apparent. Regular writing can open the door to those opportunities every time you sit down.

If you think you don’t have time to log your daily musings, consider this: A study by Harvard Business School showed that reflecting for just 15 minutes at the end of your work day can improve performance, leading to a more successful career path. “When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy,” Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino told Fast Company. “That is, they feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn.”

Keeping track of your milestones not only boosts confidence, it also provides you with a list of accomplishments ready to be shared at a moment’s notice (handy when asking for a raise, a promotion or applying for new job). Or just to remind yourself how awesome you are. Studies have also shown that journaling improves your memory and sharpens problem-solving skills, which make for a desirable employee in any industry.

In today’s world of touch screens and apps, keeping a pen and paper diary may feel a little prehistoric. But according to Maud Purcell, a psychotherapist and journaling expert, there’s research to suggest that handwriting your thoughts in a journal is more effective then pecking your words out on a keyboard. Especially for the twenty- and thirty-somethings, she said, “When I can convince them to give good old-fashioned cursive a try, they’re amazed by the results; how much more quickly their handwritten journaling brings them peace and problem resolution.”

Both Pennebaker and Purcell agree that the most effective results come from writing regularly, and setting a time limit for each day you write. Given the hectic state of our schedules, even five minutes a day is fine to start. Pennebaker suggests working up to 15 to 20 minutes per day. The only rule is to keep it going, he says. And forget about punctuation or spelling! Just make it a stream of consciousness — let it flow!

The object is to write, not to think, said Purcell. Thinking gets in the way of our intuition, and defeats the purpose of journaling in the first place.

Psychiatrist Manish Saggar would agree: “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.” Over-thinking leads to suppressed thoughts, which can alter your perception, usually in a negative way. Also you might end up censoring yourself, which you shouldn’t do. “To be completely effective,” said Purcell, “you must feel free to write the things you wouldn’t even tell your best friend.”

Image via Unsplash

  • Victoria Fredericks

    I actually do keep a journal, and diligently at that! I have dozens of filled journals and notebooks dating back to high school and a few from my childhood. My only regret is that I went about 7-8 years without journaling much at all. It’s kind of like working out in that sense–you only regret what you don’t do! I’m a huge advocate of journaling anything/everything, from daily events, likes/dislikes, goals, and even lists. The only thing that will cripple you is expecting perfection or too much self-criticism. Great article!

    • Holly Trantham

      That’s great, Victoria! I do, too, except online — I use the site 750words.com and I love it!

  • My Strategic Dollar

    Keeping a Journal is therapeutic for many people. I feel like blogging is a great form of a journal and getting out my thoughts.