By David B. Feldman Ph.D.
Can journaling help us cope during troubled times?
The six months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic have been harrowing ones, to say the least. Against the backdrop of the disease and the economic impact it has brought, the world has witnessed ongoing racial injustice, natural disasters, and widespread wildfires, among other painful events.
For many people, it has been hard to stay emotionally afloat. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published guidelines regarding how to cope, with suggestions running the gamut from engaging in leisure activities and taking media breaks to getting sufficient sleep and eating right. This article adds one additional idea to that list: journaling.
There’s a one-in-two chance you’ve kept a journal. Perhaps you needed an outlet for your thoughts, or maybe you were recording your experiences to revisit later in life. According to surveys, about half of us have written in a journal at some point in our lives, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in 6 people are active journalers right now. The number may be even higher for kids, with a 2014 survey showing that 21% of children and young people write in a diary at least once a month.
But considering the current need for additional coping practices, maybe more of us should.
Over the past couple of decades, dozens of studies have shown that certain journaling practices can positively impact a variety of outcomes, including happiness, goal attainment, and even some aspects of physical health. This research is often challenging to locate, given that the word “journaling” is not often used by investigators. Instead, they may label their interventions with names like “setting implementation intentions” or “engaging in expressive writing.”
Some of the effects of journaling are well-known. Most of us know, for instance, that keeping a gratitude journal can improve mood, an idea that first gained traction in a seminal paper published in 2003 by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Although versions of this practice differ slightly, the basic idea is to write down a few good things that occur every day for anywhere from 2 to 10 weeks. They can be big things like “I just got a new job” or small things we might normally overlook, like “The flowers in the back yard were blooming today.” Given the turmoil in our world, it’s easy to overlook the little things that fill us with gratitude, instead focusing exclusively on the many negatives around us. Journaling may be a way of “hacking into” the brain, helping us be more mindful of the positive.
But the effects of journaling can also be more dramatic. In a 2013 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers found that a certain kind of journaling—sometimes known as expressive writing—may help in healing physical wounds, at least small ones. Investigators asked healthy adults ages 64 to 97 to journal for 20 minutes a day, three days in a row. But not everybody used the same journaling practice: Half were encouraged to write about things that upset them, honestly discussing their thoughts and feelings about those events. The other half wrote about a much dryer topic: how they manage time during the day.
Two weeks later, all participants had a tiny biopsy performed on their arms, creating a small wound. Researchers then tracked how that wound healed by taking a picture every day. By day 11, a full 76 percent of the group who wrote the more genuine journal about upsetting life events had healed, compared to just 42 percent of those that wrote about time management.
Something important to notice about this research is that not all journaling is equal. There’s little evidence that simply spilling our minds out onto a blank page does any good. In the study just mentioned, all the participants kept journals, but the effects were different depending on the particular journaling practices they employed. In other words, what we write about and how we write about it seem to matter.
So, if you’re considering a writing practice, how should you begin? Like many things in life, it’s a personal choice, and it depends on what you feel would be the most helpful. However, a good place to start might be with a gratitude journal. Although writing about what we’re thankful for may not bring about dramatic changes in our lives, research consistently shows that it helps. Nobody’s pretending that keeping a journal will magically solve the many problems in our world. But during these troubling times, every little bit counts.