Journal Writing: Helpful or Harmful?

journal writingJournaling is journaling, right? Well come to find out, it can either bring relief or intensify misery. It all depends on the focus of writing.

What is the best way to journal?

When writing about a particular event, focusing on cognitive processing (making sense of a stressful event) and emotional expression helps to resolve the experience and find positive outcomes. Research shows writing about a stressful incident with emphasis on thoughts and feelings increases positive growth. It directly affects beliefs about the self, the world, and the future (Ullrich & Lutgendorf, 2002).

A study regarding bereavement supports that persons who engaged in deliberate, effortful thinking about the death and externalized their thoughts on paper were more likely to find greater meaning in their relationship with their lost loved one.  They came attuned to more values, priorities, and perspectives in response to the death (Purcell 2006).

Writing not only has mental improvements but also physical.  Here is a list of just some of the positives of journaling:

  •   Strengthens immune system
  •   Increases white blood cells
  •   Decreases symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis
  •   Reduces stress
  •   Effectively solve problems
  •   Resolve Conflict
  •   Clarify what makes you happy
  •   Helps to resolve stressful experiences and find positive outcomes
  •   Increases positive growth
  •   Increases ability to find multiple solutions to a single problem
  •   Helps broaden perspective and enables resolution to disagreement
  •   Provides clarity about situations and people
  •   Increases awareness and organization of wants and desires

What is an ineffective way to journal?

The negative consequences to writing persist when focusing solely on emotional expression. Centering on emotional aspects of traumas or stressful situations may not produce greater understanding. One study explains that expressive writing can actually hinder emotional well-being without any relief from distress. We naturally tend to focus on negative emotions and in doing so further deepen despair about the event without concluding anything positive from the experience.  As daunting as some experiences are, there is usually something that can be learned or gained.  It may be hard to find and may not reveal itself immediately but over time may turn into the best thing.  Change usually doesn’t happen until the pain persists and becomes unbearable ( Nauert 2012).

When expressing just your emotions on paper, the negative consequences can effect your physical and mental health.   The following list describes just a few negative costs:

  •   Increases physical illness
  •   No relief from distress
  •   Lowers immune system
  •   Decreases emotional well-being

Thus when writing about a stressful experience hone in on your emotional outlook and cognitive reasoning. Writing about events and reactions to the situation can help to restore self-efficacy, mastery, and add meaning to the incident. Eventually traumatic or stressful images and emotions are translated into organized, coherent, and simplified linguistic forms. Structured representation of the occurrence can be assimilated with other schemas and subsequently can reduce suffering related to the event.


Nauert PhD, R. (2012). Journaling May Worsen Pain of Failed Relationship. Psych Central.

Purcell, M. (2006). The Health Benefits of Journaling. Psych Central.

Ullrich, P. & Lutgendorf, S. (2002).  Journaling About Stressful Events:  Effects of Cognitive Processing and Emotional Expression.  Annals of Behavioral Medicine.  Volume 24, Number 3. University of Iowa.


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