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From Blank Pages to Breakthroughs: The Healing Power of Therapeutic Journaling


From Blank Pages to Breakthroughs: The Healing Power of Therapeutic Journaling



Journaling is an often underappreciated form of therapy that can help people process difficult emotions and experiences. It can be used to safely explore difficult feelings and experiences in a non-judgmental environment. Additionally, journaling helps individuals reflect and gain insight into their thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Not many people associate journaling with mental health care. Hypnotherapy, for example, is understood to help address dysfunctional behavior rooted in childhood trauma, while a newer form of exposure therapy called “flooding” is effective for phobias (see https://healthyminded.co/flooding-exposure-therapy). But it’s worth noting that not everyone suffers from severe mental illness. For many people, writing can be a sufficient form of regular self-therapy.

Are there therapeutic advantages to journaling?
Journaling allows individuals to access and express their thoughts more fully than verbal communication. This is especially true for those who struggle with expressing emotions verbally, or feel that their thoughts could be misinterpreted if shared with another person.

Writing down feelings can offer a sense of control, as the individual is able to express their thoughts to themselves at their own pace. It also offers an opportunity for self-reflection, allowing individuals to gain insight into their emotions and behaviors that they might not notice under different circumstances.

For centuries, writing has served as a form of self-centering. It can be used to help organize chaotic thoughts and provide structure to overwhelming emotions. Journaling techniques such as free writing, listing your worries, and expressing gratitude can help those struggling with difficult feelings to find a sense of peace and understanding.

What The Science Says About Therapeutic Journaling

Therapeutic journaling is an effective tool for working through a variety of mental health issues, from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has been found to help reduce symptoms of these conditions, such as intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal, mood swings, and negative self-talk.

Anxiety is by far the most common mental issue in the United States, followed by mood disorders and sleep dysfunction. Let’s look into how journaling can positively affect symptoms of the three below.

Stress & Anxiety

A 2018 study from Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Biobehavioral Health examined the effect of positive affect journaling (PAJ) on a group of 70 adults between 21 and 80 years of age. This intervention group was composed of individuals diagnosed with “various medical conditions and elevated anxiety symptoms.” They were randomly assigned web-based PAJ sessions 3 days a week for a total of 12 weeks.

The study affirmed the preliminary evidence that therapeutic journaling “is a feasible and well-accepted intervention that can be implemented on the web for effectively reducing some aspects of mental distress and improving aspects of well-being among medical patients with mild to moderate anxiety symptoms.”

Unlike over-the-counter anxiolytics (e.g. Xanax, Valium) that have significant risks of unwanted side effects, therapeutic journaling was found to be “[a] relatively simple and cost-effective intervention [that] may represent a low-risk way to improve a variety of well-being domains, particularly among underserved patients.”


Therapeutic writing has also been found to aid significantly in the alleviation of symptoms associated with mood disorders. A 2013 study from the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychology analyzed the effect of expressive writing (EW) on a test group of 40 individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). Subjects were given EW tasks to perform 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days, followed by a day’s break before repeating the experiment.

The study was heralded as the first to demonstrate that the benefits of expressive writing extend to people diagnosed even with severe mood disorders. According to its summary of findings, “people in the EW group, who wrote for just 20-min a day for three consecutive days, had significantly lower depression scores than their control counterparts just one day after the intervention. Moreover, 4-weeks later, the EW group still had significantly lower (and subclinical) depression scores than the control group.”

Along with contemporary research, the UM study suggested that expressive writing could be used to supplement existing interventions of depression. Best of all, it’s available at no extra cost to the individual. The study concluded that journaling for the purpose of alleviating symptoms of mood disorders is “time- [as well as] cost-efficient, and accessible to any person capable of expressive output.”

Sleep Dysfunction

A study published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine Volume 1, 2003 posited that for many people, poor sleep is caused by excess cognitive activity resulting from the incomplete processing of daytime stressors. It sought to demonstrate the benefits of writing about difficult experiences as a method to facilitate emotional processing.

A testing group of 42 people diagnosed with various forms of sleep dysfunction were randomly allocated to 1 of 3 groups for three nights: one writing about problems before sleep, another writing about hobbies or interests, and one assigned no writing before sleep.

By the end of the testing period, the study showed that writing about worries or concerns—with an emphasis on the expression and processing of emotions—does reduce sleep onset latency among an analogue sample of poor sleepers. The results of the pilot study highlighted the potential of research exploring the utility of writing intervention for improving sleep.

Why and If, Then

Examples of Therapeutic Journaling Techniques

There are several therapeutic journaling techniques that can help individuals work through challenging emotions, gain clarity in difficult situations, and cultivate self-awareness. Some of the most common therapeutic journaling techniques include:

  • Free Writing: This technique involves writing without any structure or plan. Writing quickly and uncensored can help to release strong emotions and uncover hidden thoughts or feelings.
  • Reflection: This technique involves considering a particular experience, thought, or feeling over time, with the aim of gaining insight into what it means for you. Reflective questions can also be used to prompt further consideration.
  • Self-Exploration: This technique involves reflecting on yourself and your life, enabling you to broaden your understanding of who you are and how you think. You can explore the past or present, focusing on accomplishments, challenges, values and beliefs.
  • Gratitude: Writing about the things that you are grateful for can help to improve your mental wellbeing, as it encourages a positive outlook and reinforces an appreciation for what you have.
  • Goal-Setting: This technique involves setting realistic goals for yourself, both in the short term and long term, with the aim of achieving them. Writing down these goals can give them greater clarity and make them more achievable.

Using these techniques can help to improve mental health and overall wellbeing. It is important to be patient and keep in mind that therapeutic journaling is a journey rather than a destination. Writing regularly can also help, as you will become more comfortable with the process over time.

Important Do’s & Don’ts of Therapeutic Journaling

Therapeutic journaling can be a powerful tool to help you cope with difficult emotions and make sense of your thoughts. However, its therapeutic potential can be significantly affected if you don’t approach it correctly. Here are some key dos and don’ts when it comes to therapeutic journaling:

- Write honestly and openly without fear of judgment
- Express your thoughts and feelings without censorship
- Take time to reflect on what you have written
- Allow yourself to explore difficult emotions by writing them down

- Write with the intention of sharing your entry with someone else
- Force yourself to write if it doesn’t feel right
- Rely solely on journaling to process your emotions. It’s important to seek professional help if needed
- Let your journal entries become destructive and self-harming in any way

By following these dos and don’ts of therapeutic journaling, you can ensure that the practice remains a healthy and beneficial activity. Therapeutic journaling can be an excellent way to explore your emotions and gain clarity on difficult topics; it just needs to be done in the right way.


Bio: Tina Richardson is a remote-based content strategist, copywriter, and website accessibility consultant. She’s also an editor at Healthy Minded, a website about mental health. Tina’s been working remotely for seven years now and has found it has a huge positive impact on her health and well-being. She has no plans of going back to the office. Follow her on Twitter: @TinaRichardson1


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