Dr Mark Atkinson's Blog

10Jun 2012

The Power of Journaling

One simple, practical and cost-free way to process your emotions, gain insight and clear your head is through journaling. It is particularly good for liberating yourself from self-limiting beliefs and thoughts, healing emotional pain, finding new meaning and purpose and supporting spiritual growth. It is a healing tool that has transformed and enriched my own life, as well as the lives of many of my patients.


In addition to reducing stress and tension, the benefits of journaling are becoming widely recognized. One trial, for example, took 112 patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis and divided them into two groups. One group wrote about the most stressful events in their lives for up to thirty minutes each day for four consecutive days, while the other group wrote about emotionally neutral topics. Four months later, the asthma patients showed a 20 per cent improvement in lung function compared with the control group who showed no improvement. The rheumatoid arthritis patients showed a 28 per cent reduction in symptom severity compared with the control group who showed no improvement.


Furthermore, Professor James Pennebaker (a professor of psychology at the University of Texas) has researched the link between trauma and physical/mental health. His various trials found that writing about trauma enhances the immune system, reduces the number of trips to the doctor and improves work performance. Professor Pennebaker also found that the deeper you go in regards to exploring the feelings and thoughts about a particular event or series of experiences, the greater the benefits. To add to this, my own experience has shown that people who are then able to share those feelings, thoughts and insights with another person, do better still.



  • Buy yourself a diary or journal purely for the purpose of journaling, i.e. don’t keep your ‘to-do’ list in it. Alternatively use a free private online journal such as http://penzu.com
  • Keep the journal private and confidential.
  • While most people today are used to computers and typing on a keyboard, for the purposes of this exercise it is more important and more effective to write with a pen or pencil.
  • The best time to write will depend on what works for you – first thing in the morning, early evening, during an emotional crisis, for example.
  • Try to ensure you won’t be disturbed.
  • Don’t censor or judge what you are writing. You don’t have to get things grammatically correct.
  • Before writing, take a few moments to calm and centre yourself with a couple of deep breaths in and out. If it helps, put on some relaxing music. Set an intention for what you are about to do.
  • If you get stuck, write about what you are feeling right now and see where that leads you. For example, ‘I am really struggling to write anything. I feel stressed and tense about it … ’
  • Another good way to get things moving is to ask yourself questions: ‘What do I need to know?’ ‘What can I learn about myself from this situation?’
  • Go as deep as you can, especially when exploring an emotionally charged issue. If, for example, you are writing about someone who has upset you, get off your chest whatever you need to, then turn your attention to your more vulnerable feelings, such as sadness and fear. Write about these. Then explore your underlying beliefs. Write about them. Allow yourself to go as deep as possible.
  • If you start writing about something and get emotionally overwhelmed, stop writing and breathe into what you are feeling and stay with it until you experience a positive shift in the way you feel. Avoid writing about something traumatic just after it has happened; leave it for a while, until you feel ready or are advised by your therapist (if you have one) to do so.
  • If images come up for you when you are journaling, or if you get an impulse to draw, do so; go with whatever you are moved to do.
  • Avoid the habit of rereading what you have written, as this can stop you from moving forward.
  • When you write about an upsetting event, do so for a couple of days, maybe up to four days, then move on. It’s important that you don’t get stuck on an issue. If you do feel stuck, try one of the other emotional-processing approaches.
  • Finish your journal entry on a positive note by writing down things to be grateful for.


Approaches to journaling      


To help you get started, consider one of the two following approaches to journaling.


Emotional upheaval  

In his book Writing to Heal, Dr Pennebaker recommends the following exercise, which my patients find very useful, particularly if they are new to journaling:


Over the next four days, write about your deepest emotions and thoughts, about the emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now or even your career. Write continuously for twenty minutes.


Off-loading worries   

If you suffer from mind chatter or excessive amounts of worry, you might find it quite useful to write those thoughts and feelings into your journal. This can help to stop thoughts from circulating around your mind and create the mental space for insights to come through. For this, you can either write down the thoughts exactly as you have them or you can list the problems as you see them. If you are extremely upset, write quickly and constantly until you exhaust yourself; it’s a very effective way of discharging the energy of emotion – try it. Once you’ve finished, spend a few moments identifying whether any action needs to take place or whether there are any lessons to be learnt. It is rarely enough to write about problems; there must also be some kind of resolution as well.

Author: Mark Atkinson