The Health Benefits of Journaling, According to Mental Health Professionals
Remember back in grade school when you used to journal? Maybe it was during school, or perhaps it was via a lock-clad diary at home. Regardless, many of us lose this habit as our adult schedules fill up with work, social outings, errands, family obligations, meal prep and beyond.
But it's time to turn back time and reinvigorate that habit, suggests Shari Foos, MFT, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles and New York City and the founder of The Narrative Method. Your heart and your health will thank you.
The Health Benefits of Journaling, According to Mental Health Pros
"A brief daily practice of 15 to 20 minutes is an easy commitment that can bring tremendous benefits over time," Foos says.
Regardless of what you write about (yep, we're not even asking you to log your food or your physical activity!), the health benefits of journaling include:
Science bears this out: Journaling for just 15 minutes three days per week can elevate mood and improve overall wellness, per an October 2018 study published in the journal JMIR Mental Health.
"Engaging in activities that require concentration and focus and where we have confidence in our abilities, puts us in a thought pattern called 'flow,'" says Sherry Benton, Ph.D., the Clearwater, Florida-based founder and chief science officer of the online therapy resource TAO Connect. "Self-consciousness disappears and we are completely absorbed in the task. Depressive thought patterns are reduced or disappear. Creative activities, like writing, creating music, art, are all particularly good for putting us in flow."
And if you use a paper journal (like this Rifle Paper Co. for Cambridge Small Hardcover Lemon Blossom Journal; buy it: $9.99, Target) rather than a digital one, it also offers some very valuable "unplugged" time.
"A big benefit that journaling has is giving yourself a break from the screen. Turn off your phone, computer or tablet and spend a couple minutes screen-free," Benton suggests.
7 Different Types of Journaling to Consider
There's no right or wrong way to journal, so just start jotting!
"Choose a regular time and create a space where you feel comfortable. When you start journaling, I recommend you begin each writing session by closing your eyes and breathing. Put your hand on your heart and once you feel calmer, exhale and begin," Foos says.
If you'd like a little guidance, here are some popular frameworks for journaling.
- Bullet: Make a list of whatever is on your heart. This could be anything from your to-do list to goals for the week.
- Dream: Jot down what you remember from your nightly dreams, plus what you envision they might mean in relation to your awake life. If any fears come up, certainly feel free to let it out on the page—just try not to exaggerate them, Benton advises.
- Gratitude: Take note of a set number (say, five) things you're thankful for that day or the day before. These can be as big or small as you like, Benton says: "If you look around, you can always find small things for which to feel grateful." Struggling to dig out of a more negative headspace? "I'm grateful my legs allowed me to walk through the supermarket today" or "I'm grateful my pillow is such a soft space to land at the end of the day" are a couple of examples. (BTW, a gratitude journal has been proven to be especially beneficial in aiding sleep.)
- Artistic: Sketch a doodle, create a collage or write yourself a little note or poem. This free-form journal has no rules.
- Nature: Record the beauty that surrounds you outside. (ICYMI, here are four ways time outdoors can improve your mental health.)
- Stream of Consciousness: The simple act of writing down your thoughts can be enlightening. "Sometimes it's easier to recognize our problems when we see them on paper," Benton says, rather than glossing over them in the whirlwind of one to-do to the next. "Seeing the correlation between your emotions and behaviors may help you understand what keeps you on and what gets you off track," Foos adds.
- Goals: If you find it helpful to cement healthy habits or to strive for your objectives, track progress on certain work or life goals.
How to Start Journaling (and Make It Part of Your Routine)
"Making choices that are realistic and sustainable is the real endgame," Foos says, so no need to think of this like writing the next bestselling novel.
Start with 5 minutes per day, and work up to 15, "writing down your honest thoughts and emotions of that particular day," Benton says. "Each day will be different, but writing down the positives and negatives can help to put things into perspective by recognizing the importance and gratitude for the positives and the potential worst-case scenarios that we create in our mind about the negatives."
At any time along the way, if you find yourself catastrophizing, escalating or ruminating, try to slow yourself down.
"You can reframe your thoughts by writing them down and asking yourself, 'Are these realistic?' 'Is this an exaggeration?' 'Am I focusing on worst-case scenarios?' Then, modify these to more helpful, realistic thoughts," Benton suggests. "This shifts the neurotransmitters in the brain and stops your body from constantly producing more adrenaline."
Then always aim to wrap up your journaling time with some self-appreciation—regardless of any digressions, Foos says. Even if you miss a day (or 10), "none of us can be perfect, so treat yourself the way you would someone you love," she explains, and pick up where you left off. "Accept the ups and downs and move on. Give yourself props for developing your inner life; it is the key to positive development and greater happiness. Whatever you do, don't make your relationship with yourself a chore."