Exploring Expressive Writing: How To Journal For Therapy

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated September 26, 2023by 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 journaling 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 on expressive writing, how it works, and the benefits it can bring. 

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What Is Expressive Writing? 

Expressive writing refers to 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 writing, researchers had college students spend 15 minutes journaling 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 who wrote about superficial topics. 

Beyond expressive writing, there are also many other types of journaling 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. 

Often, journaling is done for the writer's benefit and not for others, and the writer may decide to keep it fully to themselves or to share it with others. Different forms of journaling can work well for different people. If you want to create a journal, consider finding a notebook or diary that is comfortable to write in and a pen you enjoy using to get started. 


The Benefits Of Expressive Writing, According To Research

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 expressive writing 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 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 and start to outline a plan to change them. 

How To Therapeutically Journal 

Although journaling is a personal experience and can be done in many ways, you can take a few steps to journal therapeutically, including the following. 

  1. Journal For 15-20 Minutes

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 journaling freely for that time, but then stopping when the timer goes off. 

The central idea with expressive writing is to write 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 a different topic or focus. 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. 

  1. Do It Consistently

When trying to use expressive writing or another form of journaling for therapy, it can be helpful 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. 

  1. Don't Put Strict Expectations On Yourself

Many people feel that journaling "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.  

  1. Write For Yourself  

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 share your journal entries with others if you don't feel comfortable, and your writing is for your own benefit. 

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. 

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Counseling Options 

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. 

You can connect with a therapist near you for in-person appointments, 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 how 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 how to start a journal or want further professional guidance, you can connect with a licensed therapist online for support. 

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