Dear Diary: the science-based benefits of journaling

We spend a lot of our time writing. Answering emails, filling forms, messaging with friends. Despite the advent of video and audio forms of content, writing is still a staple of communication on the Internet, with many magazines, blogs, and newsletters attracting millions of readers. But comparatively few of us write for personal purposes such as private reflection and emotional management.

When I asked our readers how many were keeping a journal of a diary, only 41% said they did. 21% said they used to, but no longer keep one, and 38% said they never kept one. Which is a shame, considering how beneficial journaling can be for our mental health.

Of course, journaling is not for everyone, and there are many other ways to reflect and relax, including meditation, going for a run, reading a book, or spending time practicing some sort of craft. But if you’ve never tried it, you’ll see it may be worth giving it a chance and see if it works for you.

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The health benefits of journaling

This amazingly thorough paper by Dr Karen Baikie and Dr Kay Wilhelm, which was published online by Cambridge University Press—I highly recommend reading it—lists 17 proven health benefits of journaling.

  1. Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor
  2. Improved immune system functioning
  3. Reduced blood pressure
  4. Improved lung function
  5. Improved liver function
  6. Fewer days in hospital
  7. Improved mood/affect
  8. Feeling of greater psychological well-being
  9. Reduced depressive symptoms before examinations
  10. Fewer post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms
  11. Social and behavioural outcomes
  12. Reduced absenteeism from work
  13. Quicker re-employment after job loss
  14. Improved working memory
  15. Improved sporting performance
  16. Higher students’ grade point average
  17. Altered social and linguistic behaviour

How does it work? Research suggests that confronting old emotions may reduce your physiological stress, but it’s probably not the only explanation. It’s also likely that the development of a coherent narrative helps you reorganise and structure old memories, making them less traumatic. Finally, even though the research is still unclear, writing on a regular basis may allow for repeated exposure to your old memories, which will help you get rid of your negative emotional responses.

I was amazed at the range of reasons why our readers were keeping a journal. “It gives me clarity, reflection, and feeling of control,” told me Ruth. “Writing in a journal daily has been a powerful way to be more introspective. It helps me sort out my thoughts and bring unconscious ones to light so I can work with them. A side bonus is the boost to my creativity,” explained Suzan. “Journaling centers and grounds me, allowing me to decide how I want to react to my written thoughts and feelings,” said Amy.

“I am all about processing all the emotions every day and writing is a great way to do that on a daily basis,” added Conni. It’s amazing for getting some perspective on my thoughts and feelings, a way to plan and reflect on goals, and to keep track of when and how I met people,” wrote Jonathan.

Beyond the mental and physical health benefits, I feel like journaling is a gift to your future self. When I was 16, we won a regional competition and I had the opportunity to take a trip to China with my school. I religiously kept a diary when I was there, writing my thoughts, questions, collecting tickets to the museums we visited. I have since lost this journal, and I wish I could read it today—to put myself back in the shoes of this 16-year-old girl who visited China for the very first time.

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How to build a journaling habit

Finding the time and the energy to keep a journal feels challenging for many of us. “I don’t [keep a journal], but I spend so much of my waking time writing, it’d feel too much like work” explains Paul Jarvis, author of Company of One and founder of Fathom Analytics. “I want to, but I’ve never managed to keep the habit” said another reader. If you’re serious about giving it a try, here are a few strategies you can use.

  • Use time blocking. Don’t wait to see if you have time to journal. Make sure to block dedicated time. It means adding it to your calendar, but also ensure you will be in the right environment to write. Is it early in the morning, before going to work? Is it late in the evening, when the kids are in bed? Is it on Sunday evenings, when the house is quiet? Block time and decide where you will be writing. It needs to be a comfortable, quiet place, which you will have access to on a regular basis. Having a dedicated place and time will make it easy to turn journaling into a ritual.
  • Pick a format. There are many journaling methods. I personally use a very simple one called Plus Minus Next journaling, but some people use free writing, bullet-point journals, or keep a gratitude journal. I even have a friend who writes one haiku every day. You can try a few ones, but ultimately, it’s better to decide on one you feel works for you, so it becomes easier to build a writing habit. This step includes deciding whether you will be writing on your laptop, on a mobile app, on a notebook, or any other method.
  • Be realistic. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Take your life and work constraints into account. Do you have three kids, a full-time job, and a parent to care for? Maybe journaling for one hour every day is unrealistic. “[I write] mostly a sentence a day” said Ruth when I asked readers about their journaling habits. Many of the benefits you will get from journaling come with consistency. Make sure you can stick to your journaling habit.
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Tools for journaling

Are you convinced and want to give journaling a try? Please keep in mind the tool doesn’t really matter and won’t affect how beneficial journaling is for you. What matters is you can stick to it. With that in mind, it can be good to experiment with different tools and see which ones make it easier for you to be consistent. Here are some of the ones I can personally recommend.

  • 750 words. This tool has been around for ages and is currently used by almost 500,000 people around the world. It’s completely online and private. It’s not blogging—you don’t need to title your entries and there are no sharing or commenting capabilities. It’s just a tool designed to help you build the habit of writing every single day. It also gives you some fun stats around how often you get distracted and how fast you write.
  • Note-taking apps. There are plethora of note-taking apps you could use for journaling, such as Evernote and Notion. My favourite lately has been Roam Research. I love how it allows you to seamingly create connections and find patterns between your journal entries. Here is a beginner’s guide if you want to get started.
  • A good old fashion notebook. Whether you are a fan of bullet-point journaling or another method—as I said, I personally use Plus Minus Next journaling—you don’t need fancy technology to keep a journal. People have been keeping a diary with a paper notebook for centuries and managed just fine. It can also be an opportunity to disconnect and reflect away from a screen.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of other journaling apps and tools out there. As with your journaling methods, just pick one. Don’t spend too much time comparing them. Whether you decide to write one sentence every day or to have a more structured approach, you don’t need a complex tool to build a journaling habit. And if you can’t stick to it, don’t beat yourself! Many people, including myself, do intermittent journaling.

For instance, I find myself much more inspired to journal when travelling, or when going through an emotionally difficult period. And that’s completely fine. Journaling is a tool you can use to better manage your mental health. As with any tool, you shouldn’t force yourself to use it just for the sake of it. Just remember it exists, it can be good for you, and that it’s not that hard to use it when you need it.

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