Benefits of Journaling: The Science and Philosophy Behind Keeping a Diary
by Intelligent Change — 9 min read
Understanding the benefits of journaling has come a long way over the past few years and there’s a myriad of reasons why anyone should utilize journaling as a form of self-expression, decompression, and practice of daily gratitude. In this article, we will guide you through them.
Oh, and the best part? There are no gatekeepers or stereotypes in the world of journaling and no barriers to entry.
It’s really for everyone and anyone.
So, why should you keep a journal? What are the benefits of journaling?
Health Benefits of Journaling (Based on Science)
Let’s start with one of the main three pillars of life: health.
It may seem hard to believe that writing a journal improves your health, but it’s true! If you kept a diary under your mattress as a teenager, you may remember how nice it felt to liberate all of your emotions on a piece of paper. Well, science now shows there is something to it.
What Does Journaling Do to Your Brain?
Let’s start this journey with our well-being headquarters—the brain. How does journaling impact the brain? An experimental study conducted at Michigan State University revealed that expressive writing can help our brain ‘cool down’ in the state of worrying.
On a neurological level, being worried is like you’re constantly multitasking. You’re trying to focus on one thing, but a portion of your cognitive efforts are always wasted on suppressing those worries, making it hard to stay fully present.
This experiment was conducted with college students suffering from anxiety. They were split into two groups and tasked with a ‘flanker test’ that measured their response speed and accuracy. Before approaching the task, one group had an 8-minute session of expressive writing about their deepest emotions, while the others journaled about their daily activities.
Both groups performed equally well on speed and accuracy tests, however, the expressive writing group was more efficient and used fewer brain resources, as measured with EEG (detecting electrical activity in your brain).
The study showed that the act of expressive writing can clear your mind’s worries and free up resources in your brain that could be put to use on other tasks.
For example, when participants looked at an angry face image, their amygdala (the brain’s emotional region) activity increased. However, once they began associating words with images, their emotional reaction reduced greatly. Professor and researcher Matthew D. Lieberman from UCLA explained that putting feelings into words is like hitting a break when you see a yellow light. Every journaling session lowers your brain’s reactions, making them less intense, and allows your feelings to become more elaborate.
Another important effect of journaling on the brain is memory improvement, but we will tackle that one in a later section.
Benefits of Journaling for the Immune System
Now that you know that expressive writing impacts our nervous system, you can already make the assumption that it affects all of our functions, directly or indirectly, including the immune system. But, how does this happen?
After conducting a series of research about journaling, the famous psychologist James Pennebaker concluded that journaling can help strengthen our immune system. He believes that journaling works as a stress-relief tool, by reducing the impact of stressors on our immune-system cells.
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.
All these research results show us that there are significant health benefits of journaling. Expressive writing can help enhance our immune system and positively impact our brain.
However, the effect is certainly indirect. There is something that happens in between. That ‘something’ is the mental health effects of journaling.
Benefits of Journaling for Mental Health
The above experiments, whilst making claims of physical health benefits, show us the power that mental health has on our whole system.
Maybe those that preached “It’s all in your head” have a point.
Whilst this doesn’t mean that people’s problems are imaginary, it does put emphasis on the importance of resolving issues within and escaping the dungeon of our own minds. If you’re faced with a math problem, would you rather solve it on paper, or in your head? We assume it’s easier to see a solution after writing it down. Why would some of our mental problems be any different?
The exact mechanism by which expressive writing works is still unknown.
People usually think that it’s the cathartic effect that’s beneficial, however, many psychologists agree that catharsis is not enough. The mechanisms that are considered as beneficial are:
Emotional confrontation: confronting our inhibited emotions can help reduce stress and tensions;
Cognitive processing: journaling about events and emotions helps us create a coherent narrative about them, resulting in a better adaptation and multiperspectivism;
Repeated sessions: journaling on a daily basis can help us overcome negative emotional responses, as we become more and more able to reflect on our lives from various perspectives;
Simply put, when you keep a journal you improve your emotional intelligence. That means gaining the ability to name, elaborate, manage, and control your emotions, as well as empathize with others. Consequently, your way of thinking becomes much clearer, your decisions become more constructive, and you feel less nervous and stressed out. All this makes you a healthier person.
So far, science has shown that the benefits of journaling are visible in a many mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, body image distortions, suicidality, as well as in some temporary conditions like sadness over a breakup, being a victim of a natural disaster, or experiencing bereavement.
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.
So far, we’ve mostly covered how journaling can help us release what’s negative within us so we can become healthier, but let’s not forget that this practice can be focused on positive experiences as well.
Positive moments are equally worth our attention and journaling time, if not even more.
There is one type of journaling we especially appreciate that is focused solely on the positive things in life, and it’s called gratitude journaling.
Benefits of Journaling about Gratitude
You probably know what’s it like to complain to your journal, right? Or you’ve written about your crush when you were younger (or even now!). Or how your mom gets on your nerves sometimes.
But, have you ever tried confiding to your diary about all the things you like about your life? The things you’re grateful for?
For example, it’s evening. You’re all set in your bed with a journal in your hands. Take a deep breath and try to remember your day, morning to evening. What are the first things popping to your mind? We assume it’s those that cause anxiety. But, were there any events that can mitigate that anxiety? A nice neighbor who stopped by to bring you flowers from their garden? Or your mom who called to ask you about your day?
It’s so easy to forget these moments.
However, 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.
However, if you’re a beginner in gratitude journaling, or you simply prefer structure over free writing, we recommend acquiring a curated gratitude journal, such as The Five Minute Journal.
The 5 Minute Journal is a simple, structured, curated guide that only takes 5 minutes of your day. It can help you shift your mind to a state of optimism and focus on the good things in life while you’re working on becoming the best version of yourself.
Though we can say that the mental health benefits of journaling are also psychological benefits, we think that these terms do differ to some extent. What we mean by ‘the psychological benefits of journaling’ are the cognitive, social, and organizational improvements that can be achieved not only through extensive and expressive writing, but also through short journaling sessions or by using a simple planner.
Benefits of Journaling for Memory
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.
To sum it up—journaling helps you free up space in your own memory while enhancing your operating capacities at the same time. How neat, right?
Benefits of Journaling for Relationships
As we mentioned already, keeping a journal can help you self-reflect, elaborate feelings, and gain more profound insights into various events that happen in your daily life.
So, journaling makes you more self-aware. That works for relationships as well. Here’s how.
For example, imagine one of your best friends has just ditched you for the third time this month to grab coffee. You may be feeling anger, sadness, or even fear (from being abandoned).
These emotions are valid, but they could also be a tad bit irrational. If you keep these feelings locked inside, they will probably grow, and your interpretation of the situation might take the irrational road.
Writing down the situation and your thoughts may help you take into account that your friend might be going through something themselves. Journaling can help you put some distance between you and your possibly self-destructive thoughts of a situation, and help you gain perspective, clarity, and empathy.
Journaling about relationships doesn’t have to be focused on a single relationship, or a specific situation. You can still work on your relationships through journaling by asking yourself some more abstract questions:
What do I find the most rewarding in my friendship with Sarah? Why?
How do I feel about John and him constantly being late? How does that affect me? Is something going on in his life that I could help with?
What are the five things I can’t stand about my mother, and what are the five qualities that I appreciate?
We will once more repeat that journaling is beneficial to you, and your sense of self, and as you progress and develop your personality, your relationships will improve as well, both with yourself and others.
Benefits of Journaling for Productivity
Do you often wake up with an unclear idea about your tasks for that day? So, you snooze a couple of times before actually remembering that you need to go to the bank ASAP? It happens.
Or perhaps, you’re more of a task procrastinator. You sit staring blankly at your laptop, the project document is opened in another tab, while you’re in your fourth straight hour of watching Vice documentaries.
If you’d like to cut the procrastination habits and gear yourself towards better performance, journaling is the first step to reaching that goal.
Journaling for productivity doesn’t have to last longer than 10 minutes per day, but it can have immense benefits on your organization, daily structure, and performance.
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.
However, sometimes, this is not enough. Besides motivation and knowing what to do and how to do it, you also need discipline. One of the best techniques geared towards achieving discipline is having focus time. This technique gives you undivided attention on a single task during several 30-minute sessions with 5-minute breaks in between.
In order to help you achieve all this, we’ve designed a curated Productivity Planner, based on the focus time technique. The Productivity Planner is a finely structured journal designed to help you organize your goals by priority and importance, and focus your mental energy on the most meaningful tasks ahead.
Many successful people use our Productivity Planner as their main tool for preventing procrastination and losing sight of their obligations. Find out more about this on our blog.
As you can see, not only are there various types of journaling, but you can also benefit from this activity in so many ways. Journaling is not just about free-form expressive writing, it’s also about making lists, plans, writing about gratitude, or filling out a planner.
Science has shown that journaling can only bring you good things: improvements to your mental and physical health, memory, relationships, and productivity. What’s most important—it doesn’t cost anything. All you need is a notebook and pen, or a journal app, and some motivation.
Is there a way to keep the enthusiasm and feel happy at the workplace in times like these? Of course–the answer is mindfulness. If you’d like to learn how to be mindful at your desk, prioritize your mental health and maintain emotional well-being at work, continue reading this article.
If you feel like your relationship is going through a rough patch, or you’d simply like to further strengthen your bond, improve communication, and implement a positive change, consider starting a new healthy habit–practicing gratitude as a couple.