Why keeping a journal is good for your health

Living Well | Sarah Marinos | Posted on 25 August 2020

Keeping a journal can be good for your wellbeing. Here’s how to get the most out of it.

If you thought keeping a journal was for angst-ridden teenagers or those who want to leave behind a record of their achievements, think again. Research has found that keeping a journal and jotting down our feelings, worries, struggles, and what we are grateful for, can help manage anxiety and stress

Close up of gratitude journal

It can help prioritise problems, achieve goals, provide perspective on what is happening around us, and uncover underlying concerns that might be holding us back and creating tension and unhappiness. 

“Journaling helps clarify our thinking,” says Brock Bastian, Professor in Psychology at the University of Melbourne. “When you put things down on paper, you can see them more objectively and reflect on them, rather than having thoughts rattling around in your head.

“When you journal, you structure and communicate what you are thinking and put it into a space where you can see it differently. Anything that leads to a moment where you pause, sit back and take note of what is going on can bring a sense of meaning and purpose.”

But what should we write about and how can we get the most out of keeping a journal? We asked the experts for their tips. 

Experts' top nine tips for making the most of journaling

Getting started

If you don’t know where to start, just write down whatever comes to mind, says Brock Bastian. And keep writing whatever pops into your head for 20 minutes. Keep doing that each time you journal until you pinpoint some specific things you want to write about.

Problem solving

Dr James Pennebaker, a US psychologist and co-author of Opening Up by Writing It Down, suggests using a journal to problem solve. Choose a problem and write about it for 10 minutes. Then look at the obstacles you’ve identified within that problem and write about those for 10 minutes. Then read what you’ve written to see what can help you begin to tackle those obstacles.

Digital diary

“If you don’t want to write with pen and paper, journal on your phone or iPad,” says Joanne Wilson, a psychotherapist and founder of theconfidantecounselling.com. You can journal by creating a private blog or use apps such as PenzuMomentoMoodnotes or Five Minute Journal

Sleep easy

Use your journal to help you sleep – when worries strike at 3am, jot them down. “Instead of ruminating, get that thought out of your head,” says Joanne. In the morning you may see that it is illogical or you will recognise that what is bothering you is valid and that you need to take action.” 

Goal setting

Use your journal to record grievances, goals, dreams, emotions and memories. You can put these into separate categories in a journal and then add to each category. “Break down goals into weekly, monthly and annual goals and add plenty of detail. Each time you achieve one of those goals, tick it off,” says Joanne.

Write like no one’s reading

“Your journal probably won’t be published so if you don’t see yourself as a great writer, it doesn’t matter!” says Brock. “Entries can be a few words, bullet points or lengthy and flowery. How you write doesn’t alter the benefits of journaling – just express yourself.”

Form a habit

You can add to your journal as often as you like. If you want to make it a regular part of your day but need some motivation, encourage a friend to start journaling too so you can remind each other to keep up the habit. “Or anchor it to a daily routine – for example make it a habit to journal after you brush your teeth at night or before breakfast,” suggests Joanne.

Reasons to be grateful

Always have space in your journal where you can write about things that you are grateful for. It distracts you from toxic thoughts and reminds you that there are good things in your life.