Therapeutic Journaling: Mental Health Benefits

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Journaling therapy is a type of therapy using reflective and expressive forms of journaling to improve the physical and mental health of clients. It involves writing down your thoughts, feelings, or experiences to better understand and process them. Understanding how therapeutic journaling works may help you decide whether it would be an effective form of therapy for you. 

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A brief history of therapeutic journaling

Experts believe journaling may be as old as written language, dating back thousands of years. Journaling as a therapeutic exercise may have roots in India with a holistic system of medicine called Ayurveda, which focuses on balancing the mind, body, and spirit. 

Though writing might have been used to increase mindfulness and healthily process difficult emotions for thousands of years, clinicians did not accept it as a form of therapy until the 1960s. Dr. Ira Progoff, an American psychotherapist, is often noted as the first psychotherapist to use writing in a clinical setting and record the evidence of its benefits. His “Intensive Journal Method” encouraged clients to record their lives and psychological self-discovery in dedicated sections of a “psychological workbook.”  

The Intensive Journal Method became popular, potentially making expressive writing a mainstream form of therapy used by mental health professionals, schools, and individuals worldwide. The method was based on Dr. Progoff’s philosophy that humans have an inner wisdom that can be expressed through writing for self-development.

Benefits

Evidence from clinical trials and studies may illuminate the benefits of therapeutic journaling. One study found that, when journaling, labeling an image as “scary” may reduce the brain’s fear reaction to the image. This research also suggests that language and labeling can possibly change how the brain reacts to negative stimuli. 

Reflecting on life by writing in your therapeutic journal may help you gain insight, improve self-awareness, and process stressful life events. Below are a few other benefits of this exercise in therapy. 

Self-expression 

Writing your feelings down can help you express yourself in ways you may not otherwise be able to. Through writing in a journal, some people may be able to tap into their subconscious minds and possibly uncover hidden truths about themselves that can lead to psychological breakthroughs, increased self-awareness, and improved self-esteem.

Processing difficult emotions 

Some people may find writing emotionally cathartic. Writing about difficult emotions rather than suppressing them can help people gain perspective and process their emotions better. Journaling can be a safe outlet to express complicated feelings about stressful live events or past traumas.

Stress management 

A daily writing routine may relieve stress and reduce the risk of stress-related conditions. Research suggests that journaling can benefit stress-related physical and mental health conditions

Personal growth 

If you are on a personal growth journey, writing can be an asset for your self-development. It can help increase your self-awareness by making patterns in your thinking and emotions more evident. Becoming more self-aware of automatic thought processes may be one of the first steps to cognitive restructuring and making behavioral changes. Through journal writing, you may uncover the source of uncomfortable negative emotions, allowing you new insights into your thoughts and feelings. 

Decision-making 

This therapeutic exercise can help you figure out your priorities and unpack your fears. Making a pros and cons list in your journal can help you make a tough decision. You could also process your feelings about making the decision. Different writing types can be used within a journal to work through negative emotions surrounding a difficult decision. For example, you might try brainstorming, scheduling for time management, bullet journaling, or expressive writing as various techniques. 

Trauma-healing 

Processing traumatic memories with writing exercises can help reduce trauma symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or flashbacks due to traumatic experiences. Some topics may be difficult to talk about out loud, so writing in a journal may be an easier option than talk therapy for trauma healing for some individuals.

Tapping into creativity 

With writing, you may develop your inner creativity. Creative writing can be an outlet for processing emotions and experiences, primarily through metaphors. In addition, self-expression and creativity can be excellent ways to build self-esteem.

Resilience building 

Through writing, you may develop clarity and organize your ideas better, which can result in more resilience throughout challenging moments in life. Knowing you can always express your feelings in a journal entry may be a comfort when you can’t express them to others. 

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Practicing a healthy coping skill 

Replacing unhealthy coping skills with writing can help minimize unwanted behaviors such as self-harm or using substances. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Journaling for the mental and physical health benefits

Journal writing can have physical health benefits as well as mental.

According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, therapeutic writing techniques can help with the following:

  • Asthma
  • Arthritis 
  • HIV infection 
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Chronic pelvic pain
  • Sleep disorders

The health benefits of journaling may be attributed to the fact that writing can be effective stress management for some people. Because stress can contribute significantly to illness, reducing stress can have immense health benefits, such as reducing inflammation and improving sleep. Because of the level of focus it can require, writing may have stress-relieving benefits like meditation. 

Experienced journal therapists can help you better understand the connection between mental and physical health, such as the possible link between trauma and chronic pain. Writing exercises in therapy can be used as a part of the therapeutic process of unpacking past traumas, possibly reducing some of the physiological effects of trauma on the body.

Who can benefit from journaling

You may benefit from therapeutic writing if you:

  • Have a mental health condition like anxiety or depression
  • Have a physical health condition that is stress-related
  • Experience a significant life-changing or stressful life event
  • Need to make a difficult decision
  • Have symptoms negatively impacting your day-to-day life 
  • Want to increase your self-awareness and make behavioral changes
  • Are on a self-development journey
  • Want to improve your self-esteem

You may not need to be diagnosed with a mental health condition to benefit from journaling or various therapy types. Therapeutic writing can have benefits for people who are experiencing complex events like divorce or unemployment. It can also help with processing grief after the death of a loved one as well as with recovering from a natural disaster or accident. To learn more about this kind of therapy, consider visiting the Center for Journal Therapy for guidance or to find a therapist certified with the Center. 

How to get started

Tips for getting started with therapeutic writing may include the following:

  • Write every day, even if only for a short amount of time
  • Have pens and paper easily reachable, such as on your bedside table, to make writing easier
  • Let your consciousness flow freely onto the paper without overthinking about grammar, handwriting, formatting, or what others may think 
  • Work with a dedicated journal therapist
  • Set a goal while you write to help stay focused
  • Be honest with yourself and write your true feelings

You can explore therapeutic writing individually or with the guidance of a journal therapist. However, with a journal therapist, you may be able to make the most out of your practice using evidence-based therapeutic techniques, such as the Intensive Journal Method. 

A typical therapeutic session with a professional therapist may begin with a “check-in” writing exercise where you are asked to write a summary of life events, your current feelings, or any challenges you face. The therapist can then use the check-in to determine what to focus on for the rest of the session and guide you through additional writing exercises to delve deeper into any concerns. 

Potential journal prompts

Journal therapists may recommend “homework assignments” to clients to complete in their journals at home, such as specific writing prompts. Below are a few examples of writing prompts for therapeutic writing that you can try at home:

  • Write a letter to someone in your life
  • Make a list of compliments you have received or qualities you like about yourself
  • Make a list of positive memories to reflect on
  • Write a letter to your past or future self
  • Make a list of five areas of your life you are grateful for
  • Use photographs as prompts to write about
  • Write a dialogue of a conversation that you would like to have

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Alternative therapy options 

Not being required to meet face-to-face with your therapist may make you more comfortable expressing yourself, which can contribute to a successful therapy session. In addition, some platforms allow you to electronically journal and show your entries with your therapist when you want to. 

Studies show online therapy is as effective as traditional in-person sessions, including therapeutic writing sessions. A study from 2018 on the benefits of online positive affect journaling (PAJ) therapy found that web-based writing therapy could significantly reduce mental distress for clients with anxiety. It concluded that PAJ therapy could benefit mental and physical health and overall quality of life. 

Takeaway

Therapeutic journaling can be an effective tool for personal growth and self-development individually and with a professional journal therapist. According to research, it has unique benefits for one’s overall physical and mental health. A journal therapist can help you to make the most out of journaling exercises with evidence-based therapy techniques. Consider contacting a provider online or in your area to get started.
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