The Amazing Benefits of Journaling

August 15, 2008
Bottom Line Personal
Kathleen Adams

Reduce stress, anger, even back pain.

Writing in a journal is not just a way to keep track of daily life — it actually can make you happier, more successful, even healthier. Example: A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that writing about stressful experiences in a journal relieves stress and thus increases the body’s immune response, reducing the impact of chronic conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.

You can write in a journal longhand or type it on a computer, whichever feels more comfortable to you. What you write in your journal depends in part on what you hope to achieve. Trap: People who write only about difficult life circumstances in their journals sometimes find that the process makes them feel worse, not better. If this happens to you, each time you write about a painful problem, make sure you also write about something that gives you pleasure or something for which you are grateful.

Seven effective journaling strategies…


Useful if you… are angry or unhappy with someone in your life. Or if you are feeling grief or loneliness following a divorce or the death of someone close to you.

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What to do: Write brutally honest letters expressing exactly how you feel — but do not send these letters. Leave them in your journal or tear them up. Venting your emotions on paper helps you feel better and allows you to explore issues calmly and productively.

Example: Margaret was furious with her husband because he was working late and they had to cancel out on a dinner with friends — again. She wrote him a letter telling him how she felt. Upon completion, she read it over once and ripped it into small pieces. Venting her rage on paper allowed her to sit calmly in the living room reading a book until he came home. Then Margaret handed him the pieces of her letter and asked for a problem-solving talk.


Useful if you… feel stressed or overwhelmed.

What to do: Set a timer, and sit down to write in your journal for five minutes — even the busiest people can spare this much time each day. Write about what is at the forefront of your mind now… what tasks you most need to get done… and how you can prioritize your responsibilities. Writing these things makes most people feel more in control and less overwhelmed.

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Example: After a client meeting that didn’t go well, an executive grabbed a legal pad and wrote fast about what to do next. At the end of five minutes, he had brainstormed three creative options to get the project back on track.


Useful if you… suffer from depression or low self-esteem or are feeling overwhelmed.

What to do: If you are feeling depressed, take a few minutes each day to list three to five things for which you are grateful — or three to five pleasant experiences or encounters that you had since your last journal entry.

If you feel overwhelmed, list the most pleasant sights or moments you experience each day. This will help calm you as you take more notice of the wonderful aspects of the world around you.

If you suffer from low self-esteem, list a few things — even small things — that you accomplished or felt proud of today.

Example: After several weeks of listing on-the-job achievements and successes each day, a financial analyst felt confident enough to ask for a larger bonus.


Useful if you… feel that you have not recovered from an emotionally difficult or stressful event in your past and/or if you suffer from a chronic health problem aggravated by stress, such as rheumatoid arthritis or asthma.

What to do: Use a four-day strategy, writing for 15 to 20 minutes a day (if you just can’t find that much time, 10 minutes is acceptable). This process was designed by James W. Pennebaker, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, to help people leave behind the heavy burdens of past stresses that they might otherwise lug around for the rest of their lives. Pennebaker’s process not only reduces stress, it also frees the immune system from the rigors of dealing with this stress, leaving your body better able to cope with health problems.

Day One: Write about the most emotionally difficult or stressful event of your life. Write what happened and how you felt when it occurred.

Day Two: Write more about this story — what else happened that you did not include in the first journal entry? What other details can you remember? What other emotions did you experience?

Day Three: Write about how this difficult event shaped you and made you the person you are today. Consider what it means to live with the feelings that you have about this episode.

Day Four: Write about where you can go from here. What is next for you? Does this painful event lead you anywhere? Do you want to go down this path… or would you prefer to simply let the incident go?

Example: A fired executive wrote about losing his job. In the process, he realized how much he had pulled away from his wife. He then suggested to her that they go on weekly “date nights” to set the marriage back on track.


Useful if you… are interested in improving your relationships… are painfully shy… and/or suffer from chronic pain, such as back pain.

What to do: Journal therapy pioneer Ira Progoff, PhD, now deceased, advised patients to write down both sides of imagined dialogues in their journals. Write “Me,” then what you would like to say to someone. Then write the other party’s name, followed by what you believe would be his/her response. Make an honest effort to consider the situation from this other party’s perspective, and write what he actually might say. Continue this written dialogue until you have “discussed” the matter fully. The result will look like a movie script.

This process will feel contrived at first, but stay with it. It can help build your confidence for actual conversations, and it can help you better understand other people’s viewpoints, which can increase your empathy and negotiation skills. This technique can be particularly effective when used after the unsent letter technique, previously discussed.

To help with chronic pain, including back pain, use this technique to tap into your innate understanding of your own body.

Example: If you suffer from chronic back pain, write a dialogue between you and your back.

“Me: My back hurts again. Is there anything I can do to feel better?”

“Back: You don’t get enough exercise. Maybe building up your strength would help.”


Useful if you… are trying to lose weight.

What to do: Formal diet plans often recommend recording every calorie consumed to increase awareness of what one is eating. Perhaps even more valuable, a diet journal can improve your awareness of how your emotions influence your eating habits. Write about what you are feeling when you overeat. Are you actually hungry… or are you snacking to ease boredom, anxieties or depression? If so, list other strategies in your journal that could make you feel better.

Examples: Pet my dog… take a walk … call a friend… read a novel… go to the gym… take a bath.

Next time you feel bad and want a food treat, refer to this journal list and choose an alternative from your feel-good list instead. Afterward, write in the journal about how great this alternative made you feel.

Example: “I felt bad about work, so I treated myself to an evening reading a mystery novel. I enjoyed it so much, I’m going to pick up another mystery tomorrow.”


Useful if you… feel stressed, anxious or depressed.

What to do: Pick a single moment of beauty or pleasure each day, freeze it in your mind, then write a few paragraphs about it later.

Example: Write about the beauty of a tree you saw or the joyousness of a child’s laugh.

  • Write from your senses. What did the tree look like? How did it smell and feel? What sound did the leaves make in the breeze? Use big, flowery, expressive words that you would not use in real life. This technique forces us to take heed of moments of beauty and pleasure that we might otherwise ignore and allows us to luxuriate in these moments later.

  • Source: Kathleen Adams, director of Center for Journal Therapy, a Denver-based consulting and training organization. She is author of six books on journaling, including Journal to the Self (Grand Central). She has been keeping a journal since she was 10 years old and still writes in her journal for a half-hour at least four times a week. www.journaltherapy.com.