The Benefits of Journal Writing for Mental Health - man journaling while standing in the city

The Benefits of Journal Writing for Mental Health

Kristen Peairs
November 8, 2022
November 4, 2022

This blog post was written by Kristen Peairs, Nutritionist and Meditation Guru at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

“Get it out of your head and onto the page” are words I say both to myself and my clients when the details of living a busy life are too much. The value of taking a moment to transfer the backlogged mental information onto paper is huge. This one simple act can be all that is needed to initiate a return to calm and focus.

Even though journaling was being used and studied in depth [KP1] by depth psychologist Ira Progoff as early as the 1960s, journal writing for mental health was not widely recognized until the mid-1980s, when in 1986, James Pennebaker, a social psychologist, ran his first experiment involving journaling. Over the course of four days, he asked one group of study participants to write continuously for fifteen minutes about their thoughts and feelings regarding the most traumatic experiences of their lives. A second group of participants was then requested to write about superficial things for fifteen continuous minutes. Pennebaker found that the group who wrote about their traumatic experiences had fewer visits to the health clinic in the months after the study. This one study has inspired hundreds of follow-up studies, research papers, and books.

It has since been repeatedly affirmed that the benefits of journal writing for mental health include the following:

- Reduced anxiety

- Decreased brooding

- Increased self-awareness,

- Greater ease with emotional regulation

- Faster physical healing

Writing down the events of life is called journaling. Writing down thoughts and feelings about those events is also called journaling. It turns out that there are many different types of journaling, and no one type is right for everyone.

Growing up, I thought that journaling was just writing down the things I did each day. Talk about boring! I saw no point in the activity, and so I didn’t stick with it. In my early twenties, I tried journaling again. This time, I used it to record what I was learning and what I thought about it. This type of journaling was more interesting. I found that my learning curve increased when I processed using writing. I now know that this type of journaling is called reflective journaling.

Reflective Journaling

Reflective journaling is a type of journaling commonly used to support people interested in increasing self-awareness through examining their thoughts, beliefs, and actions related to specific life and/or work activities. It involves not only noting what is happening in the present, but also taking time to consider the past and how it is influencing the current experience. Many studies have explored its benefits, particularly in the genres of education and health care. In a study following psychiatric nursing graduate students, it was found that the students who participated in reflective journaling increased their self-awareness which helped them be more genuine with their patients. Some prompts to support a practice of reflective journaling include the following.

1. What happened?

2. How did you handle it?

3. How do you feel about what happened and how you handled it?

4. What beliefs and experiences from your life may have influenced your actions?

These are just a few prompts. The key point of reflective journaling is to take time to reflect on and process through feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and actions using writing. Reflective journaling helps increase self-awareness by encouraging us to make links between past and present while offering opportunities to consider new possibilities for the future.

Expressive Journaling

Another type of journaling is called expressive journaling. Expressive journaling is when we document something that has happened and then write down our thoughts and feelings about it. Unlike reflective journaling, it doesn’t require dipping into the past to make links between then and now. Although, it might, at times, include those types of insights. With expressive journaling, the whole point of the exercise is simply to write.

Writing is sometimes all that is needed. By my early thirties, I found myself using expressive journaling almost exclusively. I had lots of thoughts and feelings, and just needed to get them out of my head. It became a habit for me to journal whenever I felt my anxiety increasing. I noticed that once I had written for fifteen to thirty minutes, I would feel more calm, focused, and able to continue with my day.

Expressive journaling is the type of journaling that Pennebaker used with his test subjects. In the years after his original study, he discovered that the people who benefited most from expressive writing were the ones who learned how to explore their experiences from multiple perspectives.

During one writing session, the person would explore the situation from their own perspective. Then, during a follow-up writing session, they would explore the situation from the perspective of the observer, the adversary, or another person who was present. This activated additional awareness that resulted in more mental ease.

Some prompts for expressive journaling include the following.

1. What are your thoughts and feelings about your life right now?

2. What are your thoughts and feelings about a traumatic experience in your life?

3. Share about a time in your life when you felt your best.

Remember, with expressive journaling, it’s okay to simply start writing. Write about what is on your mind. Write about whatever wants to be expressed in the moment. If words don’t feel right, then draw. If drawing doesn’t feel right, then pull out some markers and color. It all counts as journaling.

At this point, you may be wondering how to journal for better mental health. How does one get started in this kind of practice? Below are my top tips for journaling for better mental health.

How to Journal for Better Mental Health

1. Have a designated notebook or space to write in.

2. Set aside at least fifteen minutes for your journaling practice.

3. Before beginning, center yourself by relaxing your eyes and slowly inhaling and exhaling three times.

4. Write by hand rather than typing. Writing by hand activates different areas of your brain and allows for spontaneous expression through colors or doodles. If typing is the only way you’re going to journal, though, then by all means, type!

5. Refrain from worrying about punctuation, grammar, or sentence structure.

6. Experiment with writing about the same subject from different perspectives.

7. Start by writing about what’s interesting and/or meaningful for you.

Finally, people often want to know how frequently they should journal. Journaling every day is my personal preference. However, journaling once a week or even once a month still provides great benefit. If you find that journaling is supportive and want to know more about this subject, check out these resources.

Intensive Journal Program: Experience the Intensive Journal™ Method at our workshops

Expressive Writing | Psychology Today


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Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs is a Registered Dietitian, Licensed Massage Therapist, and Professional Educator. Throughout her 20-year career, she has worked with many people suffering from a diversity of chronic health conditions. Understanding how food affects the brain and the whole body has been a key factor in the success of her healing strategies. At Nivati, she has researched, written, and filmed over 100 health and wellness videos for their content library. Kristen is currently writing a cookbook for people living with food allergies and intolerances.