Life is busy and many (maybe most) times, it doesn’t go our way. Thus, it is necessary to find an effective way to manage our stress and anxiety (S&A), which if left unaddressed can lead to a downward spiral of negative thinking and possible health detriments. Of the many ways to relieve S&A, journaling is one of the most studied, least time consuming, and inexpensive methods. Because of this, I have incorporated it into my daily routine and I recommend it to anybody who hasn’t tried it.
There are countless studies demonstrating how journaling can make a huge impact in daily life. Since S&A can manifest itself differently among people, it is difficult to find studies that directly relate journaling to a decrease in S&A. We can, however, find many studies showing positive physical, psychological and behavioral effects of journaling which in turn could be connected to or translate into a reduction of S&A.
One of the main theories on how journaling works to reduce S&A is it allows us to construct a story about our thoughts and experiences and therefore allows us to analyze them. When this is done we can then reason about causes, consequences, and solutions that will ultimately lead to a reduction in S&A and an improvement in physical and mental health. Once we have done this it may allow us to feel more secure about our experience and prepares us for similar experiences in the future. Then, our brains aren’t required to work as hard to maintain the structure of the memory and constantly search for meaning .
Physical Health Benefits
While it may not be intuitive, there are many studies that correlate journaling to physical health improvements in both individuals with or without diagnosed health conditions. On the extreme end, breast cancer patients wrote four essays over a three-week period while focusing on their deep thoughts and feelings regarding their condition along with an analysis of how the diagnosis may have benefited them. The results were stunning. The patients who participated in journaling had fewer symptoms associated with their condition as well as fewer hospital visits . It was hypothesized that the bulk of the benefits resulted from being able to control heart rate which is significant when relating to S&A. One of the most common physical effects of S&A is increased heart rate, which could possibly be settled through journaling as shown by this study.
Another study was performed in a similar manner, where Fibromyalgia patients were instructed to journal about current or past traumatic events along with an analysis of how that event may have affected them. Again, some amazing benefits occurred. The patients who participated in journaling showed a significant decrease in lower overall pain . However, long-term follow-ups after ending the journaling showed that the results didn’t last , so continual journaling practice would be necessary to see continued benefits.
While these two examples were extreme, the positive results on heart rate and physical wellness can be extrapolated to everyday life. Aside from the extreme cases, many studies have also been done on people without a severe medical condition and the same pattern continued. In several studies, participants were tasked with regular journaling about deep emotions followed by an analysis. The result was an increase in immune system function as well as a decrease in everyday aches and pains when compared to control groups that either wrote about nonpersonal topics or didn’t journal at all . Many of these benefits may be the result of a decrease in uncontrolled S&A.
Mental Health Benefits
While the physical benefits of journaling are definitely a bonus, most of us journal specifically to ease our S&A as well as achieve a better state of mental health. Luckily, primary literature is inundated with studies showing how journaling can help us in this category. In the same studies mentioned above showing the physical benefits for individuals with diagnosed medical conditions, the participants who journaled also expressed a significant increase in psychological well-being, which was measured in terms of lowered depression, anxiety and stress [1,2].
Aside from people with a severe medical condition, another study tested different journaling methods against a control and it was found that emotional disclosure followed by a mental assessment had the greatest significant positive effect on mood . An interesting secondary study showed that those who had trouble talking about their feelings benefitted the most from writing them down in the form of a journal . Again, the results are clear that even among people who are not inflicted with a serious medical condition there is still a large benefit to be had on mood. With an increase in positive thinking and mood there would likely be a consequent reduction of S&A.
Studies of this nature have also been done on people who labeled themselves as distressed. When these individuals were tasked with writing about their distressing situation, a two-week follow up showed that overall they had a more positive outlook on life along with higher overall life satisfaction when compared to a control group who either talked about their situation or did nothing . The journaling group also demonstrated an increase in overall mental health and social functioning . Through these studies, we can already see how big of an impact journaling can have on our S&A, but there is much, much more.
Other studies have shown an increase in overall mood for highly distressed people who journaled about recent experiences when compared to a control as well as a decrease in depression among college students. Another interesting improvement that resulted from journaling was among those who were considered part of a stigmatized group (homosexuals, minorities, those with body image issue, etc.). Typically, people within these groups find it harder to talk about problems regarding being part of their “group”, so journaling was a way to vent their thoughts and feelings, which resulted in the largest psychological benefit among all groups .
Although many of these studies did not focus specifically on S&A, we know how uncontrolled S&A presents itself and we can presume that these benefits would be very advantageous in the search for a way to take control and improve our mental health. These are just a few of the studies I read and thought to be significant. It would take a very heavy book to highlight everything that has been said about this topic.
Other Benefits/Useful Information
Having gone through the physical and mental health benefits of journaling, there is also other practical information pertaining to effective journaling practices to make it even more enticing. Regarding behavioral changes related to S&A, it was found that students who wrote about emotional topics showed an increase in grades, professionals who journaled about losing their job found a new job faster, and people who journaled reported fewer sick days (likely from an improvement in immune function), all when compared to a control .
There is also a large body of research that has been done on best practices for journaling alongside the possible outcomes. Specifically, the thought patterns employed while journaling is crucial to success. Another study done among breast cancer patients showed that when the writing was focused on negative thoughts and emotions, anxiety and depression slightly increased. Alternatively, patients who focused their energy on positive emotions and feelings experienced a significant increase in mental and physical health markers . With that being said, having too many positive words has been correlated with lower levels of success because it indicates that the individual isn’t fully addressing their problem . A high rate of positive words and a low to moderate amount of negative words have been shown to yield the greatest benefit . In accordance with this, participants who fully explored and analyzed their deep emotions showed the most improvement in mental and physical health .
While these studies seem to portray journaling as a standalone cure for mental health and S&A, using it as the only coping mechanism doesn’t work for everybody . Also, many studies have focused on short journaling periods, but it has been shown that regular journaling day-to-day has the greatest benefit . Also, some of the most successful participants in journaling were those who constructed a complete story of what was causing their S&A followed by an analysis to find potential solutions .
The final (and my personal favorite) bit of information about journaling is that besides those who are a part of a stigmatized group, no other correlations have been found between individuals and the effectiveness of journaling . This means that no matter who you are (gender, age, origin, personality type, etc.), we can all acquire the profound benefits of journaling if we are willing to try. With all the scientific benefits I have laid out above as well as a starting point for how to do it effectively, I hope anyone struggling with S&A (or any mental health issues) will at least give it a try to see if it can have the same effects. With the low cost and small-time investment, there is really nothing to lose.
- Low, C. A., Stanton, A. L., & Danoff-Burg, S. (2006). “Expressive disclosure and benefit-finding among breast cancer patients: Mechanisms for positive health effects”. Health Psychology, 25, 181-189. Lucas, R. E., D
- Broderick, Joan E., et al. “Written Emotional Expression Produces Health Benefits in Fibromyalgia Patients.” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 67, no. 2, 2005, pp. 326–334., doi:10.1097/01.psy.0000156933.04566.bd.
- Lu, Qian, and Annette L. Stanton. “How Benefits of Expressive Writing Vary as a Function of Writing Instructions, Ethnicity and Ambivalence over Emotional Expression.”Psychology & Health, vol. 25, no. 6, 2010, pp. 669–684., doi:10.1080/08870440902883196.
- Lyubomirsky, Sonja, et al. “The Costs and Benefits of Writing, Talking, and Thinking about Life’s Triumphs and Defeats.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 90, no. 4, 2006, pp. 692–708., doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1242.
- Pennebaker, James W., and Janel D. Seagal. “Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative.”Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 55, no. 10, 1999, pp. 1243–1254., doi:10.1002/(sici)1097-4679(199910)55:10<1243::aid-jclp6>3.0.co;2-n.
- Smyth, J.M. (1998). Written emotional expression: Effect sizes, outcome types, and moderating variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 174–184.
- Greenberg, M.A., Wortman, C.B., & Stone, A.A. (1996). Emotional expression and physical health: Revising traumatic memories or fostering self-regulation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 588– 602.
- Seagal, J.D., & Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Expressive writing and social stigma: Benefits from writing about being a group member. Unpublished manuscript, The University of Texas, Austin.
- Smith, Susan, et al. “The Effects of Journaling for Women with Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer.” Psycho-Oncology, vol. 14, no. 12, 2005, pp. 1075–1082., doi:10.1002/pon.912.
- Pennebaker, James W. “Writing About Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process.” Psychological Science, vol. 8, no. 3, 1997, pp. 162–166., doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00403.x.
- Christensen, A.J., Edwards, D.L., Wiebe, J.S., Benotsch, E.G., McKelvey, L., Andrews, M., & Lubaroff, D.M. (1996). Effect of verbal self-disclosure on natural killer cell activity: Moderation influence on cynical hostility. Psychosomatic Medicine, 58, 150-155.