“On days when I’m not sure what the journey is or why I’m on it, I can still be sure what the journal is and why I write,” states author Christina Baldwin in the very first chapter of her book “Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Practice” [1].

Journaling is seen as a reflective practice that helps individuals change their attitudes, beliefs, and ultimately behavior [2]. It is defined as keeping records of life events for the purpose of reflection. Compared with other self-reflective writing practices, such as memoirs and poetry, journaling has a less formal structure in terms of the writing itself [3].

The utility of writing exercises has been evidenced across a range of populations, including, though not limited to: cancer patients [4;5], persons experiencing anxiety and depression [6], and survivors of sexual abuse [7]. Furthermore, writing about one’s positive and negative experiences is helpful in the short-term as well as the long-term, regardless of the degree of structure and whether the experiences are shared (with a therapist or others) or kept private[8].

However, the evidence is not completely conclusive. A recent meta-analysis investigated the impact of writing exercises focused on emotional expression and found contradicting evidence, with some studies suggesting a mental health benefit, whereas other studies reporting no benefits at all [9]. In the conclusion of the meta-analysis, the authors commented that this may be due to the fact that studies reporting mental health benefits focused on caregivers with less than five years of experience, whereas studies showing no such benefits focused on caregivers with seven to fourteen years of experience.

For individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, the evidence is also conflicting. Recent studies detailed in a meta-analysis from 2015 show the usefulness of structured clinical interventions that ask participants to reflectively write about their traumatic experience, though authors recommend that more research needs to be done before these interventions are recommended in practice [10].

The mechanisms of change underlying writing exercises are still not well understood, perhaps leading to some of the added confusion. A review by Peterkin and Prettyman in 2009 posited the following factors as underlying mechanisms of change: nature of the writing task (structure or free writing); emotional expression; and cognitive processing [8].

The “nature of the writing task” refers to whether the instructions are very direct, whether individuals can write about anything they want, and/or whether individuals are asked to focus on positive experiences or adversities. “Emotional expression,” which refers to the sharing and disclosure of emotional information, might be another way in which writing can help – however, according to the authors of this review, this explanation is the least supported. “Cognitive processing” of stressful events is the factor most evidenced according to the authors in this review. This is the ability to construct an integrated and coherent story of one’s life and it is suggested to be an indicator of positive change.

In conclusion, journaling seems to be a useful and low-risk activity, though the evidence for its benefits is still growing. If journaling is not for you, there are other similar writing methods that enable self-reflection, such as memoirs, autobiographies, poetry, and writing fiction [3]. Memoirs and autobiographies can help individuals think of their lives as a whole and thus create a personal understanding of how their lives develop; poetry offers an unstructured way to facilitate the expression of complicated emotions; finally, writing fiction allows individuals to project their own emotions and experiences onto characters. In some form, all writing offers a way to reflect on life experiences and develop an understanding of how different life events coincide and may inform future life experiences.

By: Ioana Arbone
Edited by: Alisia Bonnick


[1] Baldwin, C. (1990/2007). Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Practice. New York: Bantam.

[2] White, V.E., & Murray, M.A. (2002). Passing Notes: The Use of Therapeutic Letter Writing in Counseling Adolescents. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 24, 166-176.

[3] Kerner, E. A., & Fitzpatrick, M. R. (2007). Integrating Writing Into Psychotherapy Practice: A Matrix Of Change Processes And Structural Dimensions. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 44(3), 333–346.

[4] Schwartz, C. E., & David, E. (2002). To Everything There Is A Season: A Written Expression Intervention For Closure At The End Of Life. In S. J. Lepore And J. M. Smyth (Eds.), The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health And Emotional Well-Being (Pp. 257–278). Washington, Dc: American Psychological Association.

[5] Stanton, A. L., Danoff-Burg, S., Sworowski, L. A., Collins, C. A., Branstetter, A. D., Rodriguez-Hanley, A., Kirk, S.B., Austenfeld, J.L. (2002). Randomized, Controlled Trial Of Written Emotional And Benefit finding In Breast Cancer Patients.Journal Of Clinical Oncology, 20,4160– 4168.

[6] Gortner, E., Rude, S. S., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Benefits Of Expressive Writing In Lowering Rumination And Depressive Symptoms. Behavior Therapy, 37, 292– 303.

[7] Batten, S. V., Follette, V. M., Hall, M. L. R., & Palm, K. M. (2002). Physical And Psychological Effects Of Written Disclosure Among Sexual Abuse Survivors. Behavior Therapy, 33, 107–122.

[8] Peterkin, A. D., & Prettyman, A. A. (2009). Finding A Voice: Revisiting The History Of Therapeutic Writing. J Med Ethics; Medical Humanities, 35, 80-88.

[9] Riddle, J. P., Smith, H. E., & Jones, C. J. (2016). Does Written Emotional Disclosure Improve The Psychological And Physical Health Of Caregivers? A Systematic Review And Meta-Analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 80, 23-32.

[10] van Emmerik, A.A.P., Reijntjes, A., & Kamphuis, J. H. (2012). Writing Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress: A Meta-Analysis. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 82, 82-88.