15 benefits of journaling and tips to get you started

You may be surprised to learn that one of your best wellness tools is actually a journal. Journaling offers a range of benefits – from stress relief to self-discovery.

“Journaling is mindfulness in motion,” he says Lisa Valentin, a shamanic life coach. It shines a spotlight on the priceless things in your life that you may not always realize.

Here are six other far-reaching benefits of putting pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard — and how to start and actually maintain this helpful habit.

“Journaling can be a great pressure relief valve when we’re feeling overwhelmed or just really busy inside,” he says Amy HoytPhD, Founder of Mending Trauma.

Some research backs this up. For example in a studyPatients, families, and healthcare professionals from a children’s hospital reported a reduction in stress levels after completing this journaling exercise:

  • Write down three things you are grateful for
  • Write the story of your life in six words
  • Write down three wishes you have

in one follow-up study 12 to 18 months later, 85 percent of participants said the writing exercise was helpful. Fifty-nine percent continued to use writing to cope with stress.

A 2018 research paper suggests that writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings can help:

Also a Study of 70 adults with Illness and Anxiety found that writing about positive experiences, such as gratitude, over a 12-week period was associated with:

  • reduced distress
  • increased well-being

In the same study, participants reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety after one month. After the first and second month, participants reported greater resilience.

When negative or anxious thoughts arise, it’s easy to get caught up in their disaster stories. However, writing down his thoughts “creates space and distance to look at them more objectively,” he says Sabrina RomanovPsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York City.

This distance is formally referred to as cognitive defusion, a helpful concept from acceptance and attachment therapy. “The idea is that you are not your thoughts, emotions, or physical symptoms; Instead, you are the context in which they occur,” says Romanoff.

In other words, if your thoughts don’t serve you, you don’t have to believe them. Instead, you can keep a journal to see your thoughts as separate from you.

To further emphasize this disconnect in journaling, try adding this phrase: “I have a thought that…”

Many people move through their days without noticing their emotions or actively suppressing them. The problem? Your emotions still have a chance to surface and influence your actions – with or without our awareness.

Journaling gives you the opportunity to process your emotions in a safe, closed space. Name and accept the specific emotions you are experiencing decreases their power. This way, difficult emotions become less overwhelming and easier to manage.

Writing down your thoughts and feelings about a situation is the first step in understanding how best to proceed. Once you’ve calmed down a bit, you may find that your emotions are trying to tell you something:

Maybe your anger is a sign that you need to do it set a stronger limit with someone. Or your sadness pushes you to reach out and strengthen your connections.

Seeing your worries, questions, and emotions in black and white gives you a clearer picture of your needs. Even a simple list of pros and cons can provide a deeper insight into what you want – certainly more than a jumble of thoughts floating around in your head.

Think of yourself as a puzzle: you discover a different piece or pattern every day. Journaling provides a much-needed break to help us reconnect with ourselves and rediscover who we are. When we write, we learn about our likes, pain points, fears, favorites, and dreams.

We are constantly evolving. Journaling helps us listen, witness to these changes, and just get to know each other a lot better.

Find more tips to start your journey of self-discovery.

Whether you’re brand new to journaling or returning after a long break, try these tips to build a lasting habit.

Take a micro step

To begin with, try not to bite off more than you can chew. As Hoyt explains, “microsteps are less likely to be rejected by the brain, whereas large, far-reaching changes feel uncertain and we may give up.”

She suggests setting a timer for your journaling session for just a minute or two a day.

Choose the simplest tools

Because everyone is different, start with the method that’s easiest to incorporate into your routine, Romanoff says, like:

  • Write in a blank document on your laptop
  • Use a notes app on your phone
  • bring pen to paper

Try free writing

Begin by taking several deep breaths, noticing your immediate surroundings, and writing down what comes to mind says Lori L. CangillaPhD, a Pittsburg-based psychologist, avid journal writer and member of the International Association for Journal Writing.

Once you’ve drawn a blank, Cangilla notes, “until something else comes up in your journal, describe that experience.”

let it all out

Write down any thoughts and feelings that come up without censoring yourself. “It’s your journal, so you can be as petty, blunt, and honest as you want,” Cangilla says.

To resist the temptation to edit, try to write as soon as possible, she adds.

Anchor your journal

If you like structure, write in a journal at the same time each day. For example, Valentin says, write down your thoughts the first time you wake up or process the day before bed.

You can also tie your journal to an established habit to make it more likely that you’ll stick with it. For example diary:

  • before or after a night prayer
  • when you are in the motorist line
  • during a commercial break on TV

Connect the dots

To increase your self-confidence, you can write down your feelings about a certain situation on a day-to-day basis. For example, you could simply write:

  • This happened today.
  • I experience these feelings about it.
  • I think these thoughts.

Avoid re-reading painful posts

Cangilla advises against considering the raw details of difficult situations. If you feel like you’re not done with a situation, she says, you can refocus on:

  • what you are grateful for in the situation
  • how to apply what you have learned from it

Examine a command prompt

Prompts are a powerful way to get to know yourself better. They’re also great when you’re not sure what to journal about.

Try these ideas Lori RylandPhD, LP, Psychologist and Chief Clinical Officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers:

  • Write down your favorite memories from childhood or your children’s lives.
  • Get out into nature and write about the experience.
  • Describe something you are afraid of and why.
  • Describe something you enjoy doing and why.
  • Describe yourself, including your personality and roles at work and at home. Then describe yourself from the perspective of a close friend or family member.
  • If you wake up tomorrow and have everything you want, what does it look like? Where are you? Who are you with? What are you doing with your time?

change shoes

If you’re writing about a disagreement, try to write with empathy. Consider the other person’s perspective and motives behind some of their actions, Romanoff says.

Putting yourself in their shoes can help you gain clarity about the situation, reduce resentment, and possibly even find a solution.

Journaling has a number of benefits. Writing for just a few minutes a day can help you reduce stress, increase your well-being, and better understand your needs.

Journaling offers a tangible way to experience who we are and what we need.

Start with a few minutes—or more, depending on your preferences—to develop a lasting journaling habit. In your journal, you can explore something that’s bothering you, write about the present moment, or play with a prompt.

Ultimately, the wonderful thing is that it’s entirely, entirely up to you.

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS has been writing for Psych Central and other websites on a wide variety of topics for more than a decade. She is the author of Vibe Check: Be Your Best You magazine (Sterling Teen). She is particularly passionate about helping readers feel less alone and overwhelmed and empowered. You can connect with Margarita LinkedInor look at her writing at her website.

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