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6 Science-Backed Ways Journaling Keeps You Healthy (and Happy)

Here's why putting pen to paper is an exercise that can benefit your physical and mental health.

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Did you have a diary that you kept under lock and keep while growing up? Jotting down your thoughts and emotions on those blank pages may have saved you some teenage angst. 

It turns out journaling has some big health benefits. Research links expressive writing with reduced stress and anxiety, enhanced immunity, better health and happier mood. When you’re letting words hit the page (or even the blank screen of your computer), you’re giving yourself an outlet that can have a positive impact on your well-being from head to toe and the inside out.

Here are six science-backed reasons you should start a journaling practice.

1. Expressive writing reduces stress 

Tamping down worries or unresolved conflict creates stress, and research shows releasing those pent-up emotions on paper eases tension and lessens anxiety. In one study, just 20 minutes of expressive writing over a four-month period significantly lessened stress and anxiety. Expressing your troubles on paper before bed also promotes restful sleep. And while just the act of writing has measurable benefits, reading your thoughts aloud and processing them with others further enhances the positive effects of journaling.

2. Journaling supports a healthy immune system

Actively inhibiting thoughts and feelings is hard work and, over time, it can undermine the body’s defenses. That can negatively impact your natural immunity. 

Research links emotional disclosure via writing with significant benefits in immune system functioning, and purging your troubles on paper may even enhance the body’s ability to fight existing infections. In one study of college students with mono, those who journaled showed a more robust immune response against the infection.

3. Writing sharpens your brain

Writing down your thoughts and worries reduces mental clutter, frees up cerebral real estate and wakes up right-brain creativity. Inhibiting your thoughts and emotions does the opposite – and it also impacts the biochemical workings of the brain and nervous systems. 

Research links expressive writing with better comprehension, memory and cognitive functioning. Journaling also reduces intrusive and avoidant thinking about a stressful experience, thereby freeing up working memory resources. In one study, students who wrote about a negative personal experience showed greater improvements in working memory and a decline in intrusive thoughts.

4. Journaling keeps you physically healthy

Long-term inhibition of thoughts and emotions disrupts immune function and impacts the heart, vascular, brain and nervous systems, increasing the risk of both major and minor diseases. However, if you let those pent-up feelings and ruminations out through some kind of expressive writing, you could potentially see your health improve.

Research links expressive writing (like journaling) with fewer illness-related visits to the doctor, lower blood pressure, better lung and liver function, and significant improvements in longer-term physical health. In one study of patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis, those who wrote about stressful life experiences showed clinically relevant changes in just four months.

5. Expressive writing boosts self-confidence

Facing your fears or worries, even if just on paper, can lead to greater clarity and a sense of control over your life. Studies show journaling benefits overall emotional health, promoting confidence and enhancing self-identity. Other research suggests an expressive writing practice helps emphasize positive patterns of growth and development, supporting a sense of personal power and boosting self-confidence. 

6. Writing promotes a happy, balanced mood

A regular practice of expressive writing eases anxiety and depression, lifts your mood and enhances your emotional well-being. Research shows writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events leads to measurable improvements in psychological health and overall mood. In one study, participants who completed 15-minute journaling sessions only three times a week experienced less depression, anxiety and mental distress, and greater well-being.

Simple steps to start journaling

Ready to write it out? The habit of getting your thoughts and emotions down on a piece of paper can really pay off. But there are a few rules that can make your journaling practice more successful. If you’ve never journaled, try these easy tips for starting (and sticking with) a daily writing practice. 

Invest in the right tools

A beautiful journal is more inspiring than a beat-up spiral notebook; find one you love, with big, open pages to invite more fluent writing. Choose a pen with a comfortable grip and feel; rollerballs and gel ink pens have a smooth, continuous flow of ink that encourages writing.

Create a pleasurable space

You should write somewhere you feel comfortable – a location with good lighting and a comfortable chair. Add candles and music to create a cozy ambiance. You can also add a few drops of lavender or rose oil to an aromatherapy diffuser.

Dedicate a set time for writing

The best way to create a habit and ensure your journaling time won’t get eaten up by daily demands is to schedule your writing sessions. A morning practice allows you to reflect on dreams from the night before. Or write at night, to unload worries and anxieties before bed and promote restful sleep. It’s also a good idea to set a time limit. Try starting with ten minutes, then gradually increase the time by five minutes a day every week. Set a timer when you start writing so you don’t have to watch the clock.

Turn to prompts for inspiration

If you’re stuck on where to start or your mind wanders, prompts can inspire and keep you focused. Use simple prompts like “What I did really well today” or “What I’d like to do better.” You can also try deeper questions like “What scares me the most?” or “What does spirituality mean to me?” 

Fire your inner critic

Journaling is no place for perfectionist tendencies. Give yourself permission to write whatever you feel. Don’t edit – just keep the flow going. And don’t worry about eloquence; no one else ever needs to see your work. It can be as messy and incoherent as it needs to be in order to get your emotions out.  

End on a happy note

Journaling solely about negative feelings can have the opposite of its intended effect. Highlighting only the negatives can actually increase your stress and anxiety. Try to finish each writing session with an upbeat observation, a reminder of your positive assets or a list of all the things that bring you peace and joy. 

Don’t let setbacks stop you

If you lapse in your daily writing, don’t use it as an excuse to stop the practice. Just start again the next day! Don’t worry about making up missed days; start with a fresh page and keep going, building the habit as best you can.