How Therapeutic Journaling Can Enhance The Therapy Experience

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Journaling, or the process of recording one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences for personal benefit, can take many different forms and be used for many different things. For instance, some people may keep a gratitude journal to create a regular practice of giving thanks, and some people may keep a daily journal recounting the highlights from their days to help them reflect on experiences and have a record to look back on. 

Journaling can also be used in therapy, and one form of therapy that has been found to have a range of benefits is expressive writing, which involves writing about traumatic events. In this article, we’ll explore more about expressive writing and the mental and physical health benefits it can bring.

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What is expressive writing? 

Expressive writing refers to therapeutic journaling about traumatic, emotional, or stressful events, and one’s thoughts and feelings about them. Expressive writing as a therapeutic technique was developed in the late 1980s by the psychologist James W. Pennebaker, PhD, and colleagues. 

In the first study on expressive therapeutic writing, researchers had college students complete a writing exercise by spending 15 minutes completing an entry about the most traumatic experiences of their lives for four consecutive days. Four months later, the students who wrote about these traumatic experiences reported significant benefits in physical health compared to students in the control group who wrote about superficial topics. 

Types of writing prompts you can try

Beyond expressive writing, there are also many other types of therapeutic writing and ways it can be done, including the following: 

  • Art journaling with collages and artistic pieces  
  • Written journaling with a handwritten telling of events, emotions, or ideas
  • Online journaling, which can be done through an app, program, or website
  • Guided journaling, which involves written responses to prompts
  • Gratitude journaling, which involves writing down things you are grateful for using positive psychology. 

Often, an individual may begin journaling for the writer's benefit and not for others, and the writer may decide to keep it fully to themselves or to discuss it with others. Different forms of writing prompts can work well for different people. Consider finding a notebook or diary and a pen you enjoy using to get started. There is no right or wrong way, and you may start the internal process by completing timed entries. 


The benefits of expressive writing

There have been several studies on the benefits of expressive writing, with one study showcasing how “consistent and significant health improvements are found when individuals write or talk about personally upsetting experiences”.

A few of the potential benefits of the expressive writing protocol include the following:

Physical health improvements

Research has found that expressive writing can bring a range of improvements in longer-term physical health outcomes, including fewer illness-related visits to the doctor, improved lung function, and improved immune system functioning.  

Emotional health improvements

In addition to these physical health improvements, research has also demonstrated the longer-term emotional health benefits of expressive writing. For instance, studies have found expressive writing may bring improved mood, feelings of greater psychological well-being, and reduced depressive symptoms before examinations. 

Behavioral health and other improvements

Studies have also found that expressive writing can result in improved working memory, quicker re-employment after job loss, and even higher student grade point average

In addition, journaling can also benefit self-reflection, allowing you to process your thoughts externally, which offers a visible representation of their existence. As you write, you might come up with a new perspective and new conclusions about your thoughts or mental health conditions and start to outline a plan to change them. 

How to journal 

Although journaling is a personal experience and can be done in many ways with or without a mental health professional present, you can take a few steps to journal therapeutically, including the following. 

Journal for 15-20 minutes at a time

Expressive writing or any form of journaling may feel intimidating at first, but it doesn’t have to be a huge, time-consuming endeavor. If you are interested in trying expressive writing, consider setting a timer for 15 to 20 minutes and trying to write continuously for that time, but then stopping when the timer goes off. 

The central idea with expressive writing is to begin writing about a traumatic, emotional, or stressful event and your thoughts and feelings around it, but if this is not something you feel comfortable doing on your own, you may want to choose different journal prompts or topics. For instance, other journaling prompts could be to write about a recent moment when you felt loved, or to identify five things in your life that you’re grateful for. 

Journal consistently

Like other mindfulness practices, when trying to use expressive writing or another form of journaling for therapy, it can be helpful for the therapeutic process to do it consistently, rather than just doing it once. With expressive writing, it is typically done every day for several consecutive days, so you might try to follow this approach.  

When you write every day or on a schedule, you might feel more accustomed to writing, making it easier to express yourself. In addition, it can give you a more comprehensive backlog of journal entries to look back on as you go through life and as your journaling practice expands. 

Don't put strict expectations on yourself

Many people feel that journaling or writing therapy "should" go a certain way. However, putting expectations on a creative process might cause you to feel pressured, stressed, and nervous about journaling. Instead of forcing yourself to journal in the same way someone else might, find a process that works for you

If you don't like to write long paragraphs in a journal, you might find that jotting down quick bullet points feels more comfortable to you. When you journal, you don’t have to worry about grammar, punctuation, spelling, or style—you can simply focus on getting your thoughts down on paper.  

Write for yourself and not for others

While writing in your journal, you might feel self-conscious or worried about what other people would think about your writing. Note that you don't have to show your journal entries with others if you don't feel comfortable, and your writing is for your own benefit and emotional growth. 

Be honest with yourself when you write, and try to include all details of a situation, even if you feel shameful or embarrassed. Your embarrassment might teach you something about your feelings or show you areas where you can grow and learn. You may also consider alternative perspectives as you journal which can help you to understand your own thoughts and feelings. 

Learn more about journaling and get support in therapy

Counseling options with a mental health professional

Journaling has many possible benefits, but it can sometimes be challenging to do it regularly on your own, and it may be more beneficial alongside professional mental health treatment like therapy. 

Online counseling

You can connect with a therapist near you for in-person appointments and professional advice, or you can use online therapy to connect with a licensed therapist virtually. For some individuals interested in using journaling as part of therapy, it may be useful to be able to reach out to their therapist when strong thoughts or emotions arise while journaling. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you can use in-app messaging to reach out to your therapist at any time, and they will respond as soon as they can.  

Plus, research has demonstrated the effectiveness of online therapy, with one study showcasing that online therapy could be more effective than in-person therapy at reducing the severity of depression symptoms.


Journaling can take many different forms and be used for many different things. One journaling technique that can be used in therapy is called expressive writing, which involves writing about stressful, emotional, or traumatic events. Research has demonstrated the many possible benefits of expressive writing, including improved immune system functioning, improved mood, and improved working memory. If you're unsure about starting a journal or want further professional guidance, you can connect with a licensed therapist online for support.
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