5 Ways to Use a Journal to Get Healthy

With the mindfulness movement in full swing and the gratitude movement gaining steam, keeping a journal is a timely (and popular) New Year’s resolution. Check out the Savvy Psychologist's 5 tips to supercharge your writing.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #54

Some call it a brain dump. Some call it a careful archive of their life. I call it forced introspection. Whatever you call it, keeping a diary or a journal can be a powerful exercise. Journaling has no rules - do it when, where, and how you like.

See also: Should Writers Keep a Journal?


Per the request from listener Tom B. from Laguna Beach, here are 5 tips to help make your journal the best expression of you:

Tip #1: Write the Stuff You’ve Never Told Anyone

In 1986, Drs. James Pennebaker and Sandra Beall published a now-classic study that seemed too good to be true.  In the study, they asked a group of students to write for 15 minutes over 4 consecutive days about a traumatic event in their life. Other students were asked to write for the same amount of time, over the same days, but about trivial topics, like a description of their living room or the shoes they were wearing.

Right after the writing, the participants who wrote about upsetting events had slightly higher blood pressure and a slightly lousier mood than those who wrote about trivial topics, but 6 months following the writing, they reported better health and, in an objective result, logged fewer visits to the student health center.;

Of course, since then, hundreds of follow-up studies have tried to get the same results. Many have, but some haven’t. Finding the magic of “how” and “why” has left scientists as confused as a goat on Astroturf.  

But along the way, researchers have found that you don’t necessarily need to write about a trauma to experience the benefits. Other studies have had people write about major issues in their lives, positive experiences, even other people’s traumas. It’s unclear exactly what the secret sauce is, though there are some clues. Which brings us to…

Tip #2: Reflect, Don’t Vent

In trying to answer the $64,000 question about how and why this works, researchers have found that venting - raging or ruminating without any kind of processing - not only doesn’t make people healthier, it makes them feel worse.  

However, when journal entries evolve, moving from raw to reflection, the writer experiences more of the health benefits. In other words, when, over multiple writing sessions, the writer moves from unstructured emotion to a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, the process is more effective. The development of good old-fashioned narrative structure seems to be a key component to reaping the benefits of writing.

See also: How to Plan a Story


That said, don’t worry if there are days your journal entry consists entirely of obscenities scrawled across both pages in thick black marker. That happens to the best of us.

Tip #3: Be True to Your Emotional Style

UCLA researcher Dr. Annette Stanton and colleagues published a study in 2013 that looked at what happens when someone pours his heart and soul into a journal. Turns out it depends on the personality of who’s doing the pouring.

In the study, participants were given a questionnaire that measured their degree of emotional expression, with items like “People can tell from my facial expressions how I’m feeling,” or “When I’m angry, people around me usually know.” Then, some of the participants were asked to spend four 20-minute sessions writing about the most stressful or traumatic thing that had happened to them in the last 5 years.  

The folks who were naturally high in expressiveness - the ones who wore their hearts on their sleeves - experienced a significant reduction in anxiety 3 months after writing. Participants who were low in expressiveness - those who didn’t naturally express feelings or come about it easily - experienced a significant increase in anxiety. Pouring out their hearts backfired.

So if you're naturally the strong, silent type, don’t force yourself to let it all hang out. It’s not your style and that’s just fine.  


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.