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Journaling: Overlooked Hobby for Mindful Therapy

Stress affects everyone, to the detriment of one's mental health. Despair not, for many things can be done to alleviate it, be it playing sports, reading, or listening to music. These activities have been proven to reduce stress and invoke the "relaxation response", a method developed by the Harvard Medical School's cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1970s (Harvard Health, 2022). Some of these methods take time, special equipment, or prior knowledge to engage with, which can pose a non-negligible barrier to entry for relief seekers. Thankfully, there are other, easier, and cheaper alternatives that have comparable benefits, one of which is journaling. Hiemstra (2001) claims that journaling promotes personal growth and development, such as learning goals or expected outcomes that can integrate life experiences with learning endeavors. For many, according to Anthony Quinn (2021), it is often overlooked and seen as old-fashioned, something that many below a certain age see as a thing of the past, and, as of late, its form and function have been aped or replaced by social media. Keeping a physical journal has benefits that can still play a significant role in our mental health in this day and age, and bears looking at as a stress relief method on par with music or sports. Research shows that it is an essential resource for lowering stress and increasing positive thinking in individuals via expressive writing, cognitive processing, and gratitude diaries.

Journaling for Adolescents: Expressive Writing

Journaling is a hobby where we write our thoughts and feelings. It is a practice where a person sits down, grabs some paper and a pen, and writes down everything that has been worrying them or what they have been pondering. Within journaling, a form known as expressive wiring can be used in mental health therapy settings, especially when the things written down are primarily emotional. DeGangi and Nemiroff (2010) argued that expressive writing is beneficial for teenagers as it allows them to express themselves tangibly, what they think and feel, and help them fill the gaps when trying to understand themselves fully. Furthermore, Utley & Garza (2011) argue that journaling is a creative way to engage clients in a therapeutic activity that leads to self-awareness and growth as their study aims to investigate the influences of journaling in the context of teenage counseling. Being a teen means that their emotions strongly go up and down, and these often come and go quite rapidly (Smout, 2020). Teens gel with expressive writing as they get a chance to clarify how they want to express something, interrogate that feeling, and enhance it to match the intensity of their feelings. Social media has become a crucial aspect of adolescent culture, contributing to their mental development, according to Anderson & Jiang (2018), as 34% of teenagers publicly share things related to their feelings and emotions on social media as opposed to 66% of adults. As the adage goes, "what is old is new," and we can see that journaling can function in much the same way for adolescents as journaling did for their predecessors.

Figure 2: Ullrich & Lugendorf's study that shows how growth is represented over time by group.

Utley & Garza (2011) argue that writing in the context of therapy is deemed beneficial for the many benefits it brings. First, it pushes individuals to understand themselves and their actions and reactions more, adding context to events surrounding their identity formation. Second, Utley & Garza also argue that journaling promotes problem-solving, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotional regulation. Since a therapy session is supposed to be a stress-free environment, and individuals are not restricted in their words, expressive writing allows adolescents to work through their situations in the absence of the threats of peer pressure or losing peer/mentor validation.

Cognitive Processing, Emotional Expression, and Depression

As journaling is a recommended hobby for people suffering from mental illnesses, this activity is also proven to be beneficial for those who are diagnosed with anxiety and depression as well. Ullrich & Lutgendorf's (2002) study investigates the effects of journaling on two experiment groups, one focusing on emotional expression and the other on cognitive processing. Ullrich and Lutgendorf assert that writing about personal experiences or traumatic events is associated with improving mental and physical health. They hypothesized that individuals who wrote about traumatic and stressful events would have a higher chance of healing their mental health, alongside fewer physical health issues. In this study, the participants consisted of undergraduate psychology students divided into three groups: the emotional expression group, the cognitions and emotions group, and the control group. The participants completed a consent form and a questionnaire during a class period. After that, each participant received an assignment that required them to journal at home for the next month, and participants were also told to turn it in at the end of the semester. The participants were instructed to write twice a week for at least ten minutes, with the cognitions and emotions group focusing on stressful and traumatic topics, the emotional expression group only focusing on journaling about their deepest feelings, and the control group focusing on journaling about media involving loss and trauma over the net month.

When the study concluded, the results showed that those in the cognition and emotions group had a higher sense of awareness behind the positive aspects of the stressful event than the other two groups, mainly because the effects were mediated by greater cognitive processing during writing. Meanwhile, those in the emotional group reported more severe illness symptoms during the study because of how negative emotions overtook the participants' mental states. Ullrich & Lutgendorf concluded that journaling about a personally experienced traumatic or stressful event facilitates positive growth from the event.

Figure 3: A graph that shows the results of Krpan et al.'s (2013) study, showing scores before and after the intervention, alongside follow-up.

To further support this study, more research by Krpan et al. (2013) further investigated the effects of expressive writing on people diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), verifying that journaling had a positive impact on those who suffer from major mental illnesses. This study was conducted with 44 people diagnosed with MDD who were told to do questionnaires and cognitive tasks, including the Beck Depression Inventory and the Patient Health Questionnaire. They were assigned to either expressive writing condition, where they wrote for 20 minutes over three consecutive days. The participants wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings regarding an emotionally affected event. Moreover, on the fifth day, participants completed another series of questionnaires, and this process was repeated for four weeks straight. The results showed that people diagnosed with MDD tend to have lower depression scores when engaging in expressive writing. It's thought by Krpan et al. (2013) that it is the process of writing about anything and everything that disturbs their minds without judgment that brings such benefits. Krpan et al.'s study concluded that expressive writing, especially journaling, is helpful for some people with certain mental illnesses, such as MDD.

Journaling and Gratitude

Journaling can be used to write down what individuals are grateful for, whether it be big or small. This has been proven to be an activity that keeps track of memories, even historical events. For example, Anne Frank's diary recorded positive events during World War II and the Holocaust, proving that keeping a diary leads to positive feelings and optimism despite living in cruel situations. Gratitude journaling, at its core, is an activity where individuals keep track of things they are thankful for (Davis, n.d). Davis argues that gratitude journaling is essential for individuals in the long run because it can boost well-being and helps them think positively. It stands to reason that actively recalling and recording the things that make one happy could have potential medical benefits. This line of thinking has led to several psychologists conducting experiments into the efficacy of gratitude journaling and the correlation between gratitude journaling and well-being.

Figure 4: A graph from Flinchbaugh et al.'s (2011) study that shows engagement in pre-and post-treatment.

Flinchbaugh et al. (2011) 's study on students' well-being and stress management was investigated using gratitude journaling as a stress reliever. They aimed to examine the impact of stress management techniques, gratitude journaling, or a combination of both. The participants were undergraduate business majors at a university who were allocated into four groups; stress management, weekly gratitude journaling, combined stress management, and gratitude journaling, and the control group. Flinchbaugh et al. hypothesized that participants in the combined group would perform better in class as those techniques can help students calm down drastically. According to their allocated groups, the participants were either told to attend a 12-week stress management class, complete a gratitude journal, do both, or do none, as in the case of the control group. A trained facilitator taught those in the stress management group about a new stress management technique for the first 10 minutes of the class, including the benefits of this technique and its proper uses. Meanwhile, their instructor asked those in the gratitude journaling group to complete a gratitude journal for 12 weeks, additionally telling them to list five things they are grateful for. The results showed that those in the dual stress management and gratitude journal group showed a heightened level of meaningfulness and engagement in the classroom, implying that using more than one technique to reduce stress is the most helpful for students in need.


Putting all this together, the evidence stacks up, verifying journaling's capacity to be a method for reducing stress. This statement has been backed up with real psychological research, which strongly suggests that this obsolete activity is genuinely beneficial for the mind. There are also many journaling methods, such as gratitude or expressive writing, that help individuals focus and keep calm. These methods are also proven beneficial by the studies mentioned above, as the methodologies and data both show mainly positive results. As a result, most of these studies can be generalized by assuming that journaling is an excellent method for reducing stress as it brings the best out of the participating individuals in each study. The participants felt more relaxed and optimistic when told to journal about their deepest fears. Adolescents and adults alike can journal about their insecurities and events that may stress them in the future. Those diagnosed with mental illnesses can also find journaling helpful, as evident in the studies discussed above. It is cheap, effective, meaningful, and accessible. While journaling is a hobby that, in the modern era, may get overlooked, it cannot be understated just how successful a therapy tool it is.

Bibliographic Sources

Anderson, M., & Jiang, J. (2019, December 31). 1. Teens and their experiences on social media. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from

Davis, T. (n.d.) Gratitude Journal: Examples, Ideas, and Strategies. (n.d.). The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. DeGangi, G.A., & Nemiroff, M.A. (2010). Kids’ Club Letters: Narrative Tools for Stimulating Process and Dialogue in Therapy Groups for Children and Adolescents. Social Work With Groups, 33(4), 365–368.

Flinchbaugh, C. L., Moore, E. W. G., Chang, Y. K., & May, D. R. (2011). Student Well-Being Interventions. Journal of Management Education, 36(2), 191–219.

Harvard Health. (2022, February 2). Six relaxation techniques to reduce stress.

Hiemstra, R. (2001). Uses and benefits of journal writing. In L. M. English & M. A. Gillen, (Eds.), Promoting journal writing in adult education (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, No. 90, pp. 19-26). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Krpan, K. M., Kross, E., Berman, M. G., Deldin, P. J., Askren, M. K., & Jonides, J. (2013). An everyday activity as a treatment for depression: the benefits of expressive writing for people diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Journal of affective disorders, 150(3), 1148–1151.

Quinn, A. (2021, August 31). Dear Diary: how keeping a journal can bring you daily peace. The Guardian.

Smout, K. S. (2020, August 7). Parenting SA - Teenagers and feelings. Parenting SA. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from Ullrich, P.M., Lutgendorf, S.K. Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. ann. behav. med. 24, 244–250 (2002). Utley, A., & Garza, Y. (2011). The Therapeutic Use of Journaling With Adolescents. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 6(1), 29–41.

Visual Sources

Page, A. (2021) [Pages inside a journal.] Pan Oddysey.

Flinchbaugh, C. L., Moore, E. W. G., Chang, Y. K., & May, D. R. (2011). Student Well-Being Interventions. Journal of Management Education, 36(2), 191–219.

Krpan, K. M., Kross, E., Berman, M. G., Deldin, P. J., Askren, M. K., & Jonides, J. (2013). An everyday activity as a treatment for depression: the benefits of expressive writing for people diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Journal of affective disorders, 150(3), 1148–1151.

Ullrich, P.M., Lutgendorf, S.K. Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. ann. behav. med.24, 244–250 (2002).

Vermeer, J. (1665). A Lady Writing. [Oil on Canvas]. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.


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Athaaya Handoko

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