If you’re like most people, you’ll only write down what you absolutely need to, like to-do lists, meeting notes and reminders. But writing in your journal as a way to release and express your thoughts, feelings and emotions can be a life-changing habit.
Daily writing can be a challenge if you’re new to it. Much like meditating, it requires patience and commitment. But if you stick to it, it can improve your life in significant ways.
The surprising benefits of journaling
1. It can help you clarify your thoughts and feelings
Keeping a journal allows you to track patterns, trends and improvements over time. When current circumstances appear insurmountable, you can look back on previous dilemmas that you have since resolved and learn from them.
You might also encounter moments where you feel confused and uncertain about your feelings. By writing them down, you’re able to tap into your internal world and better make sense of things.
Anne Nelson, an acclaimed journalist and author of the forthcoming book, “Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right,” says she’s often asked whether she suffers when writing on fraught subjects. Her answer is always no.
“What I feel is a deep satisfaction when I get it right,” she said. “It’s the feeling when I’ve explained something in writing that I couldn’t explain to myself before I started.”
2. It can help your injuries heal faster
It may sound a little crazy, but a 2013 study found that 76% of adults who spend 50 to 20 minutes writing about their thoughts and feelings for three consecutive days two weeks before a medically necessary biopsy were fully healed 11 days after. Meanwhile, 58% of the control group had not fully recovered.
“We think writing about distressing events helped participants make sense of the events and reduce distress, thus helping the body to heal faster,” Elizabeth Broadbent, professor of medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and co-author of the study, said in an interview with Scientific American.
3. It can improve your problem-solving skills
When you encounter a difficult problem, removing the situation from your mind and putting it down on paper encourages you to look at things from different angles and brainstorm several solutions in a more organized manner.
A classic 1985 study from the School Science and Mathematics Association, for example, found that students who wrote about their math problems in a journal (e.g., describing the problem and writing about how they came up with the answer) had significantly improved test scores over time.
4. It can help you recover from traumatic experiences
There are no rules as to how or what you must write about. Creative writing, such as fiction or poetry, can also be a form of journaling — and it can help you move past traumatic experiences.
Writing creatively allows you to craft a coherent narrative and shifting perspective, according to Jessica Lourey, a tenured writing professor, sociologist and author of 15 books, including “Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction.”
After the loss of her husband, Lourey, Anne Nelson said she couldn’t survive reliving the pain of the tragedy by writing down her thoughts and emotions. “I needed to convert it, package it and ship it off,” she wrote in a column for Psychology Today. Rewriting her life to fit a fictional narrative helped her heal faster because it allowed her to become “a spectator to life’s roughest seas.”
Journalist and novelist Leila Cobo agrees. Writing fiction has helped her so much that it’s now become a daily routine. “It allows me to say anything in any way that I wish. It’s the most amazing feeling,” she said. “I write either early in the morning or late at night. And once I’m in, I’m in.”
How to get started
While some can write for hours at a time, researchers say that journaling for at least 15 minutes a day three to five times a week can significantly improve your physical and mental health.
If you’re new to journaling, the easiest way to begin is to find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed and just start writing. (Don’t worry about spelling or grammar; you’re writing for yourself and no one else.)
If you don’t know what to write about, here are some ideas:
- Write about something (or someone) extremely important to you.
- Write about three things you’re grateful for today — and why.
- Write about what advice you’d give to your younger self.
- Write about a current challenge you’re struggling with and possible solutions.
- Write about 10 things you wish people knew about you.
- Write about one thing you did this year that you’re proud of.
- Write about 10 things you’d say yes to and 10 things you’d say no to