Journaling For Dummies
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The reason that so many people are drawn to journaling — and likely one of the reasons you’re reading this article — is because journaling is so very beneficial and in so many ways. These benefits have been proven and documented many times through decades of research.

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From school children just learning to write to elderly adults, journaling has been shown to improve emotional, mental, and physical health. It can unleash creativity and enhance productivity. It helps you clarify your thoughts and feelings and can help you make tough decisions. It’s all in the how and the why you use it.

Emotional and mental health

People who journal regularly report experiencing an enhanced sense of overall well-being. Moreover, many have gained tangible improvements to their emotional, mental, and physical health.

The area that has been studied the most when it comes to journaling is emotional and mental health. You’ve probably heard that journaling is an inexpensive form of psychotherapy. Most sayings contain a seed of truth; in this case, the seed has grown into a tree.

Studies conducted in clinical and educational settings since the 1960s have shown the following mental and emotional effects of journaling:

  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Boosts feelings of well-being
  • Supports self-love and acceptance
  • Improves the ability to cope with grief, loss, and illness
  • Increases mental clarity

I’m not saying that journaling should replace counseling or psychotherapy. Professional therapeutic services have benefits that journaling can’t provide. And it would be irresponsible of me to suggest otherwise. In fact, when combined with conventional therapy, journaling has been shown to increase the effectiveness of the therapy.

Counseling and psychotherapy both focus on communicating thoughts and feelings in a safe environment. The counselor or therapist acts as a mirror and resource for the person being counseled.

Like a mirror, they reflect your own words and emotions back to you so that you can see them more objectively. As a resource, they can provide guidance, wisdom, and access to additional resources.

Journaling gives you a safe space to communicate your deepest thoughts and emotions. Similar to a counselor or therapist, it acts like a mirror, reflecting back to you, in your own words, your feelings, thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and behavioral patterns.

When approached with curiosity and an open mind, journaling can help you become more self-aware and increase your ability to process and make meaning of life.

Journaling also helps you tap into your inner wisdom, your innate guidance — that inner-self who knows what you really need and want and, when listened to, can help you shift your well-being in a positive direction.

Physical health benefits

Improved mental health may be reason enough to journal, but did you know that journaling has also been shown to benefit physical health?

Dr. Ira Progoff, one of the first psychologists to study and document the effects of journaling, found that in addition to decreasing stress, anxiety, and fear, journal writing for just 15 to 20 minutes, three to five times a week, was correlated with increasing immune system function and decreasing blood pressure. The journal writers in the study went to the doctor less often and just felt better overall.

A 2017 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine (Elsevier) found that those who kept journals during divorce had lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability — both indicators of good health. We can extrapolate from this that journaling could have the same benefits during any stressful loss or life transition.

Other studies have shown that journaling improves overall memory function by enhancing the brain’s ability to intake, process, and retrieve information. And because of its positive effects on thinking, journaling has been used in educational settings to help students understand how to think more logically and analytically.

Supercharging inspiration and achievement

Because journaling is a safe and private activity, and lends itself well to delving into literally any topic or personal characteristic, it’s an excellent tool for exploring creative inspiration, practicing creative skills, and finding creative solutions to any kind of problem.

Inspirational ideas have a tendency to blossom into projects. It follows that journaling is a natural (and effective) way to develop and manage your project-related goals and tasks.

Have you ever awakened from a dream inspired by a groundbreaking idea? Or had a brilliant solution to a problem while performing a routine task such as doing the dishes or taking a shower? Creative ideas come to us at all times of the day and night — often when we’re thinking about something else entirely.

In addition to using words to capture feelings and ideas, you can use your journal as a sketchbook to create mind maps, detail visual ideas, and express emotions through forms and colors. You can also use it to record those inspired dreams.

Your journal is a place to capture ideas when they happen and then explore them in more depth later, when you have time. Because it encourages capturing ideas and self-reflection, journaling can help you with your creative process, whether your art is painting, music, or writing itself.

One of your journal’s greatest gifts is that it can be messy and unformed, and that’s okay. In your journal, you can develop ideas privately, without the burden of having to “make something good.”

Your journal gives you a place to practice without pressure. Because of its judgement-free nature, your journal can help you build confidence in your craft, as well as create a rich resource of ideas that you can come back to over and over again.

Writing craft

If you like to write, and you dream of becoming a better writer, your journal is a wonderful playground in which to practice.

I think the biggest breakthrough for me as a writer — that moment I went from writer-wannabe to knowing I was a writer — came when I recognized that journaling was writing practice. And it was in my journal that I found my authentic writing voice.

Consider the following truths about your journal. It’s safe and private, and nothing you write is open to criticism. You can write from your heart, and your inner critic and editor — that voice in your head that’s constantly belittling your writing and telling you that you’re not a real writer — isn’t welcome. Your journal is a playground, and you can put together words however you want in this playground.

You don’t have to worry about spelling or punctuation, or whether your sentences flow coherently from one to the next. You can be as messy or neat as you want, and there’s no one to say otherwise.

For example, you can use your journal to

  • Brainstorm plots
  • Develop characters
  • Sketch a scene
  • Practice dialogue
  • Create poetry
  • Explore points of view
  • Piece together story ideas

Writing is writing, whether it’s in your journal or in text or e-mail. The more you write from your heart — which journaling encourages and helps you practice — the more authentic all your writing becomes.

Discovering your Self

Every person has both an outer- and inner-self. The outer self is who you present to the world — you, on your best behavior. This is the self who holds back expressing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that others might judge negatively.

The outer-self is mostly concerned with how you’re viewed by others, dressing and communicating appropriately so that you have a better chance of fitting in with your social and work groups.

When I talk about Self with a capital S, I’m referring to your inner-self, that deep inner emotional/spiritual part of you — the person you really are on the inside. The part of you that contains inner wisdom. The you who’s creative and uninhibited, honest and vulnerable. The you who also has a dark side — who can be angry, depressed, or in pain — that you don’t always want to see.

There’s nothing wrong with having these outer and inner expressions of who you are. It’s part of being human. But if your outer- and inner-selves aren’t both aligned with your core values, you can feel conflicted and stressed.

For example, have you ever acted in a way or done something because of social (peer) pressure that you felt uncomfortable with or felt guilty about later? That discomfort is the tension between your outer- and inner-selves — between your words or actions, and what you truly value.

Here are some ways that journaling can help you discover your Self and then assist you with aligning your inner and outer ways of being:

  • Identifying inner conflicts and influences: Using writing to explore the tension and discomfort you feel in those conflicted situations can help you identify the influences in your life that don’t support your values.
  • Increasing confidence: Putting your values and dreams in writing increases your confidence to live the life you want.
  • Acknowledging your darkness: Expressing your darker emotions and thoughts on the page allows you to bring light, compassion, and healing to the part of you that you hide from the world (and sometimes yourself).
  • Being your Self: The self-awareness you gain from journaling can help you align and integrate your inner and outer personas so that you can be your authentic Self in the world.
When you have a strong sense of Self, you’re not easily swayed by others’ opinions or by groupthink — a forced or manipulated conformity to group ethics, values, and viewpoints. You’re self-aware; you have a sense of purpose and know what’s important to you. And you behave in ways that are consistent with your core values.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Amber Lea Starfire is a writer and writing coach who has published two memoirs and several journaling how-to books. She has also developed a series of online classes and workshops that have helped hundreds of people journal and deepen their writing practice. Find out more at

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