Health & Wellness

Journaling and Your Health

Journaling has been recommended for years as a way to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression—but mood journals are unique.

Unlike regular journals, which are usually meant for chronicling your day-to-day life, mood journals are a place to focus specifically on your feelings and emotions. They’ve become increasingly popular, as apps and online mood trackers have emerged on the Internet. But they are more than just a trend: Research shows they can be effective tools to help people manage chronic health conditions.

A study published in the journal JIMR Mental Health looked at 70 adults with various medical symptoms who also experienced anxiety. Participants were asked to keep a web-based journal for 15 minutes a day, three days a week, for 12 weeks. Those who did so reported less stress and better moods. People with diabetes are often bothered or stressed out by experiences or challenges in our lives, and this can crowd out or displace positive experiences, thoughts and reflection. Journaling allows you to refocus on more positive topics, such as good experiences or strong relationships. That, in turn, can tamp down stress hormones that affect overall health.

A landmark study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that people who wrote about past traumatic experiences had lower blood pressure and heart rates, as well as increases in T-cells, which help fight disease, compared with those who wrote about superficial things.

Feelings to the Forefront

A mood journal gives you a place to release thoughts and feelings that you may not be acknowledging. For many, the problem with our emotions is not the emotions that we have but the fact that we don’t know how to express them. For example, have you ever been frustrated when you couldn’t find the right blood glucose test strips or another diabetes supply you need at your local pharmacy and noticed your blood glucose go up along with your anxiety?

It’s not surprising. As levels of stress hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) rise, more glucose is released from the liver. But at the same time, cortisol levels rise, which causes body tissue (both muscle and fat) to be less sensitive to insulin. The result: more glucose in your bloodstream.

The good news is lowered stress can lead to other health benefits. When you feel better about yourself, you’re more likely to stick to healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep and regular physical activity.

Writing down your thoughts may also help you break not-so-healthy patterns. Say, for instance, potato chips have become your go-to snack. Jot some notes about how you’re feeling and include what happened right before. You may realize that you got into an argument with someone or were late to a meeting and were so upset from those events that you turned to comfort food. Catching yourself at the time and actually writing down your feelings can give you the information you need to understand your motivation and make a different choice.

How to Get Started

It can be hard to put words to your deepest thoughts and emotions if you aren’t used to expressing them. A good way to begin? Explore experiences that you’re grateful for. Start by writing about a time when someone went out of their way to do something helpful or positive for you, progress that you’ve made on a major goal, or a time when you assisted someone else.

You may be writing about emotions that are embarrassing to you or upsetting, so it’s important that your journaling remains private. Use a password-protected personal computer or a diary or notebook that you keep under lock and key. Some find the slower and more reflective pace of handwriting enjoyable, but select what you like.

In the beginning, aim to write for only about five minutes each session, and focus on expressing your thoughts and feelings related to the topic rather than on writing style. At first, schedule these sessions at specific times of the day, several times a week, so you can develop a habit of journaling.

If you have writer’s block, ask yourself what emotion you’re feeling right now and what caused it. How did you respond to the emotion? Was your behavior appropriate? What could you have done better? What might you do differently next time? These strategies are similar to what you’d do in cognitive behavior therapy, which helps you recognize negative thought processes and stop them.

If you can, end with gratitude. Finish each session by adding a few sentences on what you’re grateful for. Take that part of your journal and type it into your phone or stick it somewhere visible in your house so it’ll motivate you when you’re feeling upset or anxious.

What’s with Mood Tracking?

Apps can give you structure and streamline the journaling process. Some apps let you label your mood—Great, Good, Bad, Awful—to help you get a clearer picture of when you’re happy or upset. Maybe you felt angry at yourself for eating a doughnut when you were stressed about work this afternoon but felt better after going for an after-dinner walk to lower your blood glucose. An app could prompt you to elaborate in the journal section.

A major benefit of using an app is accessibility. When you’re super busy or on the go, it may be easier to make a quick entry on your smartphone than pull out a physical journal. That said, the usefulness of apps may be limited. Some people find that their moods and emotions are more complex than what they can express in an app.

For some, the release is important, but so is the cathartic act of destroying. When some people feel upset or stressed, they might scribble their thoughts down on paper and then rip it up or burn it in the fireplace. The intention is to release the emotions, whether it’s anger, frustration, fear. But instead of keeping a journal, you destroy what you’ve written. The act and ritual of writing and ripping can help release the negative emotions, which allows space for other, positive ones, like gratitude and hope, to enter.

Learn more about taking care of your mental health.