The Surprising Health Benefits of Journal Writing

From breast cancer to depression, journal writing can be therapeutic for patients in a variety of ways because unexpressed feelings can lead to stress and hostility, which affect emotional and physical wellbeing.

Doctors often suggest that people who are grieving write to express feelings to the deceased person. Patients who suffer from conditions such as bipolar disorder—in which emotions fluctuate dramatically—may benefit from having a written record of how they were feeling over time.

Doctors have employed journaling exercises with people who were bogged down by depression. Generating lists of accomplishments and things one enjoys can allow one to achieve a much more positive perspective.

When someone is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, journal writing can become an outlet for expressing powerful emotions. That can be especially important for women, who tend to be caretakers and often are reluctant to verbalize their emotions to family and friends. And beyond that, journaling can help the writer to set priorities, which is valuable during energy-sapping treatment regimens such as chemotherapy.

Diet diaries

For dieters, food journals “allow you to see what you’re doing, and then problem solve,” says Cathy Nonas, a registered dietitian and author of  “Outwit Your Weight” (Rodale Books, 2002). “If you write it down, not only do you have a better idea of [what you’ve consumed], but you can do something about it,” she continues.

In fact, Nonas cites a National Institutes of Health trial that showed self-monitoring via food journals was one of the most effective weight-loss strategies among dieters who lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for more than a year.

Therapeutic effects

There is scientific support for the therapeutic effects of journal writing on conditions ranging from anxiety to arthritis. Psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin has led numerous research studies demonstrating that writing about a painful life event can lead to health benefits including improved immune function, lower blood pressure and fewer trips to the doctor’s office. And among a group of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients who participated in journal-writing exercises at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, nearly half achieved clinically significant improvements.

Still, journal writing is not for everyone. Even journaling advocates concede that some people are better off expressing themselves via art or music or simply by talking to a friend. Nor should it be a substitute for psychotherapy. Many people may try journaling, but after a while find it is no longer helping them move forward emotionally. This may mean that they should seek formal counseling.

For those willing to give it a go, however, journal writing may be a great first step along the path to healthy self-enlightenment. Writing a journal truly allows someone to read her own mind and her own heart and soul.

The write stuff: Tips for getting started

Want to take a crack at journal writing, but don’t have a clue about how to get those first words from your brain to the blank page? Here are some recommendations from journaling pros.

  1. Buy yourself a pretty notebook or an inexpensive cloth-covered journal for easy inspiration.
  2. Don’t worry about grammar and punctuation. This isn’t a freshman composition class, and no one is grading your entries.
  3. Set aside 15 or 20 minutes in your day on a fairly regular basis.
  4. Periodically review what you’ve written to gain more insights into yourself.
  5. Don’t hold back. Journals are most often written for “an audience of one [the writer],” says journaling guru Kathleen Adams, director of the Center for Journal Therapy in Lakewood, Colo. So there’s no reason to censor your emotions.