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Writing to Heal: Health Benefits of Journaling

March 22, 2021

Even if you have never kept a diary, hate taking notes, and rarely make lists, I suggest you use a journal as a companion for your journey. A journal is a very useful way to create space. The space that a journal offers is symbolized by its blank pages. Gradually, words will flow onto the page, your consciousness taking form.

A journal can be whatever you need it to be at the moment you choose to write in it.

A journal can be whatever you need it to be at the moment you choose to write in it. Sometimes it will be a confidant, recording your most intimate thoughts; other times it will be a lab assistant, recording physical data about your body. How you use it, and in what form, is completely up to you.

It does not matter whether you use complete sentences, write in shorthand or cursive, use profanity, or even choose to illustrate your thoughts as drawings rather than express them as words. Some people like to organize their books into daily entries. Others dedicate different sections to specific purposes. Still others like the totally free-form approach, it is all up to you.

Here are some ways you can use your journal:

  • Write down basic observations about your physical self and your non-physical self.
  • Process your daily experiences.
  • Explore your unspoken feelings surrounding a specific issue.
  • Begin to find your inner voice.
  • Let your mind wander; express whatever happens to be in your mind or heart at the moment.

Research on Journaling to Treat Medical Conditions

Keeping a diary carries built-in health benefits. One study showed that people with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis who journaled about their most stressful life experience had marked improvement in their physical condition compared with those who didn’t journal. And both kinds of patients, even six months later were able to reduce their medications.

James Pennebaker, the University of Texas psychologist who has conducted many studies on Journaling, believes that repressing difficult emotions leads to stress; journals provide a venue for feelings and defuse their ability to harm.

Other studies, including one conducted by the Duke Center for Integrative Health Research team, showed that Journaling improved outcomes for insomniacs, depressed people, cancer patients, and those wishing to lose weight.

A study of students found that writing about painful events for just twenty minutes on four consecutive days boosted immune function. The process of writing down insights is also a way of tapping one’s consciousness. That is why it works, whether you are suffering from a chronic problem, an acute event, or trying to maintain good health.

The main thing about keeping a journal is to make it personal and private, a place where you can truly explore your inner self, free from worry about how it will sound to someone else or how it might affect someone else. The act of voicing thoughts on paper cannot truly be helpful unless you feel confident enough to make no-holds-barred entries in your journal.

Try It:

Start by finishing some open-ended sentences: “Today I feel __________.” Or “What I find most difficult about my current situation is __________.”

Copyright Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, NY, April 2004
Adapted from Mental Health Resource & Mind-Body Tool Kit. Reduce Anxiety & Stress during Stressful Times. Duke Private Diagnostic Clinic. 

About the Duke Center for Integrative Health Research

The Duke Center for Integrative Health Research (DCIHR) is a multidisciplinary center of innovative preclinical and clinical research aimed at optimizing health and well-being using methodologies based in complementary and integrative medicine, nutrition, fitness, and health behavior change.

About Behavioral & Emotional Well-Being at Duke Health & Well-Being

Mental and emotional wellness places a distinct emphasis on identifying your individual strengths and cultivating the skills for successfully adapting to life’s challenges. We are passionate about working with you to navigate your inner compass and live a more meaningful, values-based, and fulfilling life. We use a variety of evidence-based approaches to help you embody a healthy lifestyle by setting realistic goals to help you reach your full potential.

Behavioral Health Services at the Duke Lifestyle & Weight Management Center →
Psychotherapy and Emotional Wellness at Integrative Medicine →


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