The Benefits of Journaling and How to Get the Most Out of Your Practice
Raise your hand if you've ever bought a blank journal, convinced it would change your life only to let those blank pages burn a hole into the back of your mind. One small survey suggests that less than one-fifth of people actually maintain a journaling practice — despite the numerous mental health and wellbeing benefits of journaling.
Journaling can provide a number of health and wellness benefits ranging from reduced stress to better sex (really!). "It's something that can be particularly beneficial to anyone who's feeling stuck in some aspect of their life, or who is looking to make a change," according to Lori L. Cangilla, Ph.D., licensed psychologist. But even if you're simply looking for a boost in your self-care routine, the benefits of journaling hold true.
The good news: Journaling doesn't have to be literally taking pen to paper, so if that's not your thing, there are many other ways to reap the benefits of journaling that work for your schedule and goals. There are no proven benefits to handwriting in a journal that cannot also be achieved through a keyboard or audio notes, says Cangilla. Ultimately, "the best medium for journaling is whatever medium a person will use consistently," she says. For some people, going analog by writing pen-on-paper might best help slow down their writing speed, thus helping slow down and process their emotions, thoughts, and feelings as they go. Others may gravitate toward the speed and convenience of typing on a cell phone, tablet, or computer. For anyone with a mobility issue, tech-based journals have the added benefit of being more accessible, adds Cangilla. (More: The Best Journal Apps for "Writing Down" Your Thoughts)
Learn more about the plethora of journaling benefits that could be yours for the taking, plus exactly how to journal in order to get the most out of the healthy habit.
The Health Benefits of Journaling
Journaling's main claim to fame is that it can improve overall mental well-being. One study published in the journal of JMIR Mental Health compared the mental health effects of those who journaled to those who didn't. Those who partook in the self-care practice experienced greater mental resilience, reduced stress, and improved quality of life. What's really cool is that the study participants saw these benefits from journaling just three days a week for four weeks.
"Journaling allows us to consider the sources of our stress and anxiety, and then give us a way to come up with strategies for dealing with stress and anxiety at its source," says Cangilla. (More here: How a Worry Journal Can Improve Your Mental Health)
This journaling benefit might sound cheesy AF but it can actually improve your overall disposition, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. This is because "it gives us an outlet for the negative thoughts and feelings that otherwise might just stay in our heads," explains Cangilla.
People also tend to journal in order to feel better. "So every time you journal, you're signaling that you want to take care of yourself," she says. The very reminder that you're a person worthy of care can have a mood-boosting effect, she adds.
There's a reason the angsty teen on nearly every sitcom kept a journal: Putting their misunderstood thoughts on paper made them feel better. You, too, can "let it all out" via journaling.
"Journaling offers you a safe space for you to 'say' what you may be unable to say in other settings or to other people," says Cangilla. "By allowing yourself to express your uncensored emotions, you release some of their power over you." (Related: How to Use a Wheel of Emotions, and Why You Should)
Self-awareness, at its most distilled, is the knowledge of who you are, as well as who others perceive you to be. Self-awareness is a skillset that can foster happiness in friendships, love, and life and something that you can improve and maintain through a variety of means — including going to therapy, practicing your active listening skills, and re-prioritizing your mindfulness routine.
As it goes, "self-awareness can also be cultivated through journaling," according to Cangilla. "Journaling encourages you to get curious about yourself and others, and it also helps you step back and consider other people's perspectives on a situation," she says, which are things people who are self-aware have the capacity to do. (More here: What Is Self-Awareness, Exactly? And How Can It Be Cultivated?)
Better Sex Life
While penning through your pain, don't forget to pen about pleasure. "Journaling can play a really significant role in helping someone understand their sexuality," especially people who are actively exploring their thoughts and feelings on the topic, says Carol Queen Ph.D., sexologist with sex toy company Good Vibrations.
For people working through sexual trauma and shame, she recommends reading Writing Ourselves Whole by Jen Cross (Buy It, $17, amazon.com), which is a guidebook on how to use journaling to work through trauma. "On a lighter but still important note, this Sex Journal for Couples (Buy It, $26, uncommongoods.com) is a tool to help (and celebrate!) partners' sex lives," she says. It helps couples have open, honest conversations about sex using communication tips, inspirational quotes, intention setting exercises, and thoughtful writing prompts. (Read more: What Does It Really Mean to Be Sex Positive?)
How to Journal to Reap the Most Benefits
1. Make it a daily routine.
The benefits of journaling may be impressive, but to snag them you have to actually journal — and ideally, daily. "Completing at least a short journal entry every single day is best," says Leela R. Magavi, M.D., a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Mindpath Health.
Just remember: This doesn't mean you should feel guilty or as if you failed by skipping a day… or three. Journaling is a way of honoring your emotional and mental needs — and not journaling is a way of honoring those needs, too. If you're not feeling it, no need to force it. One 2018 study even found that journaling as little as 15 minutes a day, three days a week can still help with anxiety and giving your brain a positive boost.
Journal prompts can help kickstart your habit again and inspire your writing. If that doesn't work, ask yourself a few exploratory questions to find the sticky point according to Cangilla:
- What makes me want to start journaling now?
- What excites me about journaling?
- What obstacles do I foresee to journaling regularly, and how might I address them?
- How does it feel to be journaling again?
- What can I do to make the process a better fit for me this time, so I'm more likely to stick with it?
2. Put it in your schedule.
For people who struggle to maintain a journaling practice, try doing it at the exact same time every day, says Dr. Magavi. "This helps make it part of your routine, which makes it harder to bypass," she says. (See: Why Journaling Is the Morning Routine I Could Never Give Up)
Heck, if you're really committed to learning how to journal daily or maintaining your journaling routine, you might even set it as a recurring event in your Google calendar. Having it in your schedule along with everything else can help remind you that your journaling practice is an appointment worth keeping.
3. Don't stress about grammar.
Your journal is not the place to flex your punctuation proficiency. "It's best to focus on getting the words down — not fixating on grammar or punctuation," says Dr. Magavi. Editing every typo and grammar blip can actually interfere with your ability to connect with yourself because it forces you to crawl out of your feelings and into the head, she says. (Also read: How to Stop Overthinking)
Most people find it easier to avoid editing when physically writing on paper, so if you're guilty of proofreading your work when you're typing, consider switching to a physical journal — and pen, not pencil, so you're not tempted to go back, erase, and fix any mistakes.
4. Ask yourself questions as you journal.
Sure, you can just word vomit onto your blank page — or you can take it a step further (and reap even more of the benefits of journaling) by asking yourself questions about what you're feeling to get a clearer picture of the truth, says Cangilla. Think of it like interviewing yourself. In some instances, the answers could actually help you make decisions or determine changes you need to make.
For some inspo, consider these questions:
- What outcome am I hoping for, exactly?
- What can I do to influence the outcome?
- What can I do to help myself accept this?
- How can I prepare for potential future-obstacles?
- What excites me about this?
- How can I show myself care through this situation?
5. Try a variety of journal formats.
Some people enjoy using journals replete with prompts. Others prefer using graph paper for bullet journaling. When you first dive into a journaling practice, try exploring different formats to figure out which is best for helping you navigate sticky emotions and situations, suggests Dr. Magavi.
"Writing a letter to yourself can be effective for some, while for others simple lists and messages are better," she says. "Some individuals like to draw pictures linked to the content. No matter, the goal should be to keep your journal practice fluid, fun, and creative."