Do You Really Need to Journal to be Healthy?


I know people who are brave enough to adopt a strict diet, and severely restrict their calorie intake or eliminate entire basic food groups, but aren’t willing to journal. Why is that? Why resist journaling? And do you need to journal to be healthy?

This is a picture of a cute brown puppy who seems very puzzled by this question.

In my opinion, yes, you need to journal to be healthy. Read more to learn about journaling benefits, how to start journaling, and good journaling topics.

Journaling Definition

When psychologists and sociologists research journaling, they teach subjects to do “expressive writing”. That means recording deep thoughts about past traumatic and painful experiences. When I journal I just record whatever comes to mind about my ideas, plans, and things for which I am grateful. I don’t just record events, as you might have done if you had a diary in elementary school. “Dear Diary, I went to school. I came home. I had a snack. I played with the dog.”

While there are digital or online devices available for journaling, I like to write by hand in a good-quality notebook. Writing by hand seems to give a better connection to my thoughts and emotions, and help my brain process experiences and reactions.

Journaling for Mental Health

For physically and psychologically healthy people, the mental health benefits of expressive writing are as effective as more involved, time-consuming, and expensive treatments.

I assume that means medication, therapy, or support groups. Thank about that! Always seek medical and psychological help, but also consider if you could journal to be healthy.

However, be aware that studies in 2002 and 1996 found expressive writing was detrimental for adult survivors of childhood abuse, and some veterans with PTSD. If that describes you, please seek support and guidance from a mental health professional before beginning.

Journaling Benefits

Health benefits linked to journaling by research is impressive: lower blood pressure, stronger immune system, higher level of antibodies after a hepatitis vaccine, higher lymphocyte counts in HIV patients, improved lung function in asthmatics, less disease severity in people with rheumatoid arthritis, stronger physical health and reduced pain in cancer patients, faster wound healing, and fewer stress-teated visits to the doctor.

Perhaps you shake your head in disbelief at this extensive list. Why is this? How can a simple writing practice affect health? While there’s no clear conclusion about the exact way journaling improves health, most agree it takes mental energy to block thoughts about negative and traumatic events. This creates stress for the body. Confronting and acknowledging one’s reality through journaling may lower the work of thought inhibition, and reduce the overall stress on the body.

Suppressing your emotions has also been linked to low vagal tone, a measure of heart function. Low vagal tone may increase sensitivity to stress and increase bodily reactions to life and environmental stress.

Journaling Topics

Social scientists researching expressive writing tell subjects to write about the most traumatic experience of their lives and their deep feeling about it. Their results are then compared to those from people who write randomly, without any direction.

Yet I don’t focus on writing about my negative, traumatic experiences. I prefer a free flow of expression, an uncensored brain dump. If traumatic experiences come up, they appear naturally, without being forced. New ideas and intentions also come up naturally, like a light bulb going off without me having to flip the switch.

This is a picture of a light bulb shedding a soft, golden light.

Screenwriter, playwright, director, and author Julia Cameron recommends journaling affirmative statements—a positive statement of positive belief. She says

When we first start working with affirmations, they may feel dumb. Hokey. Embarrassing. Isn’t this interesting? We can easily, and without embarrassment, bludgeon ourselves with negative affirmations…

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia lists twenty creative affirmations, telling readers to pick three and write each one five times in daily “morning pages”.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article called “How Journaling Can Help You Live Your Best Life” https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-journaling-can-help-you-live-your-best-life-11618318961  In it, life coach Lara Zielin recommends a journaling approach called “Author Your Life”.  Zielin has clients write about the life they want as if it’s already happening. You describe yourself experiencing what you want to happen! I like this idea. Several years ago I wrote about the power of rewriting the stories we tell ourselves http://deborahrankinrd.com/you-may-want-to-rewrite-the-stories-you-tell-yourself/

Journaling How To

Start with the approach to journaling that sounds best to you. Follow the guidance of your mental health professional if you suffer from PTSD or experienced childhood abuse.

  • A recitation of yesterday’s events, though not my favorite approach, gives the gift of review and reflection, and the opportunity to celebrate success.
  • If you enjoy lists, writing bullet points of your objectives or priorities can help you sort swirling ideas, and calm your mind.

This is a picture of a man making a list in his journal.

  • In my book, De-Stress Your Life: Turn Chaos Into Calm http://bit.ly/DeStressbook I tell the story of a gratitude journal I began during a difficult time in my life. Every morning I made a list of five things for which I was grateful. That gratitude journal transformed my life.
  • If you struggle with “what do I write about?”, try journaling prompts. My friend and colleague Angie Clay offers a subscription service to daily journaling prompts. https://liberateandlather.com/pages/igniteandwrite

Journaling Quotes

If you still resist starting a journal, consider what these thought leaders say.

Starting a gratitude journal was the single most important thing I have ever done.
—Oprah Winfrey

If you’re serious about becoming a wealthy, powerful, sophisticated, healthy, influential, cultured, and unique individual, keep a journal.
—Jim Rohn

What happens to us is not as important as the meaning we assign to it. Journaling helps sort this out.
—Michael Hyatt

Keeping a journal of what’s going on in your life is a good way to help you distill what’s important and what’s not.
—Martina Navratilova

Want to Journal to be Healthy?

Start now, and commit to at least ten minutes a day. I know you’re busy, but taking time to journal is a way to get the most from the time you have.

To help, I’ve made an  infographic with tips on three ways to keep journaling, even when every day is different. Click here for the infographic:

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