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Are there any science-backed benefits from journaling?

Did we use to talk about journaling as much as we do now? Diaries, of course, were kept by teenagers and great minds throughout history, but I don’t remember writing for the sake of your health and wellbeing being ‘a thing’. Journaling seemingly sprang up out of nowhere around seven or eight years ago, perhaps as a #selfcare recommendation on Instagram. Or maybe its popularity grew out of the dying days of Tumblr or the newly-emerging TikTok. Wherever it sprouted from, everyone these days wants to tell you about the benefits of journaling.

Including me. It wasn’t something I ever expected I would devote my mornings to, having probably assigned it to the same bin as meditation upon first hearing about it. ‘Who on earth would ever have time for such things?’ I can imagine myself saying as I rushed around in a perpetually busy panic of my own creation. Then the pandemic hit, and the enormous day-to-a-page diary I used to write meeting notes and scrawl reminders to myself sat untouched. For months. 

I’d always been the kind of person who tried to intellectualise my way out of experiencing my emotions. In therapy, I struggled to use feeling words, preferring to offer my hot take on the cause rather than describing what I experiencing inside. But like so many others, I found myself overwhelmed by my emotions in the summer of 2020 and with seemingly nowhere to put them. So, one day I started writing down how I was feeling in that diary – and I haven’t stopped since. 

In the three years since I started, I have journaled my way through multiple heartbreaks, the grief of losing two special friends, and the deep loneliness that comes from living abroad. On paper, I’ve continually unpacked the anxiety that comes from interacting with my family and also from deescalating friendships that were no longer a source of support. I’ve found a way to give words to the fear that overcomes me when I start a new relationship and the sadness that engulfs me when I reflect back upon my breakdown a decade ago.

Naturally, there have been lots of lovely moments as well but I really credit my morning journaling (and meditation) session as the reason I have been able to understand and accept what I’m experiencing. Rather than feeling like I’m constantly adrift in a chaotic swirl of emotions. Writing it down on a page (in my thankfully illegible scrawl) has often helped me capture what I’m feeling and let it go. Other times, it has helped me understand what I needed to express. Mostly, it has simply kept me company throughout my emotional adventures, both big and small.

Yet, despite appreciating the positive change it has brought to my life (and many others), I’ve always been curious to know if any of the benefits of journaling have been backed up by research. Has anyone ever thought to study the positive effects it has on our brain, body and mental health? It turns out, yes. Scientists are similarly curious about the way that writing down your feelings can impact your health and wellbeing. Here are some of the ones I thought were most interesting.

Benefits to your brain from journaling

Think of your brain as a messy attic, crammed with thoughts and feelings. Journaling is like opening a window and letting the fresh air in. It clears away the cobwebs, lets you untangle those jumbled thoughts, and even helps you spot patterns you’d miss otherwise. Here’s what the research says about the effect that journaling has on your brain.

James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, led a landmark study into journaling in 1986. Confronting a Traumatic Event. Toward an Understanding of Inhibition and Disease was one of the first studies to look at whether writing therapy could help us make sense of trauma. Pennebaker has since gone on to research this subject extensively, observing that through journaling, “our brains are freed from the enormously taxing job of processing that experience.” As a result, we can organise the event in our mind, ensuring that our working memory improves and we are able to cognitively function and sleep better.

A more recent experimental study from Michigan State University in 2018 found that “expressive writing may serve to “offload’ worries from working memory, therefore relieving the distracting effects of worry on cognition.” The study looked at students who suffered from anxiety, finding that those who journaled their feelings before a test were more efficient and used fewer brain resources than those who wrote about their daily activities. The researchers suggested that by putting our emotions onto paper, we could help our brain “cool down” from its worried state.

Finally, not only can journaling assist our cognitive and intellectual skills, but it can also improve our emotional intelligence as well. A dissertation study from the University of South Dakota in 2013 looked at how writing can help us understand and process emotions, thus making it easier to manage and control them and empathise with others. In turn, our ability to make decisions becomes more constructive and impeded less by nervousness and stress.

Benefits to your body from journaling

Feeling like your body’s doing a victory lap around the anxiety express? Journaling can act as a physical chill pill. It’s like a soothing massage for your insides, calming your fight-or-flight response and letting your muscles unclench. Letting all this tension go can also have some surprising effects on your body. Here’s what the scientists have discovered.

Pennebaker’s research has also looked at the physical impact journaling has. By helping us to regulate our emotions and our mind, “a whole cascade of things occur.” Meaning that there is a positive knock-on effect in our bodies when we write down how we feel. Firstly, we sleep better, which means we’re more likely to wake up refreshed and in a better mood. We’re naturally able to perform better at work and desire to socialise more.

This cycle can have a huge impact on our immune systems, boosting our overall health and wellbeing. An interesting finding from a systematic review conducted by the University of Calgary in 2022 was that spending time journaling can reduce the number of sick days we take off work. Similarly, a 2013 research trial from The University of Auckland found that expressive writing could help wounds heal faster, while a separate trial from the same institution found that levels of cortisol (our primary stress hormone) reduced after we’ve written about an emotional experience.

The boosting of our immune system through journaling could be especially important when battling terminal or life-threatening diseases. Pennebaker and fellow psychologist Joshua Smyth of Syracuse University have led various studies over the years to understand how writing about what they are experiencing has benefited the immunity of patients with HIV/AIDSasthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Such research found that journaling “had clinically relevant changes in health status… beyond those attributable to the standard medical care.”

Journaling for anxiety and your mental health

When you’re feeling stuck in your head, journaling is like a ninja warrior for your worries, slicing through them with self-awareness and understanding. You vent, you reflect, you see patterns you missed before, and suddenly, those monsters in your head shrink to grumpy gremlins. Here’s how journaling can be used to help you change the landscape in your mind.

While it’s still uncommon for expressive writing to be used as a tool to assist with the treatment of physical illnesses, it is widely used by coaches and counsellors to improve mental health. The benefits of journaling are widely appreciated as having a measurable impact on our overall wellbeing. Primarily because conditions like depression and anxiety usually involve negative thought patterns, but writing these down can help you to see them differently. You can recognise and process them objectively and respond to them without attaching emotion.

This ability to accept rather than criticise our mental experiences through journaling is supported by studies from the past twenty years, such as a 2005 study from the University of Notre Dame and a 2018 study from the University of Toronto. 

Interestingly, a 2007 trial study from the University of Texas at Austin showed that journaling is as effective as cognitive-behavioural therapy for reducing depressive symptoms in high-risk adolescents. Another meta-review of research from the University of Calgary in 2022, found that while journaling had a positive effect on both men and women being treated for anxiety, it had a stronger impact on women. It also found that writing every day for at least a month maximised mental wellbeing,

It’s also important to note that the benefits of journalling for mental health aren’t limited to those with depression and anxiety. A 2020 study from Rosalind Franklin University used a three-minute expressive writing survey with healthcare practitioners from a children’s hospital plus their patients and families to evaluate its effectiveness. The researchers found that it reduced stress within this emotionally charged environment. 

Research supports your journaling

Turns out, scribbling in a notebook really isn’t only the domain of angsty teens. As you can see above, science now confirms that journaling can be a one-stop shop for brain, body, and mental wellness. 

It lets you untangle those knotted anxieties and worries, finally giving them a voice so they stop tap-dancing in your head. And the benefits of expressive writing go even deeper than that, calming your body’s stress response, in turn improving your sleep mood and immunity. 

So grab your pen, unleash your inner thoughts, and start reaping the benefits of journaling.

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