The Top 8 Reasons Why Journal Writing Works
Why is journal writing such an effective tool for mental, emotional, and spiritual growth? It is a question we get asked often by coaches and therapists who are considering using journal writing with clients. It also gets asked by newcomers who are curious about whether they should invest the time and energy to start writing.
After decades of experience teaching journal writing to all different types of people, we can say empathetically and with authority: Journal writing does work! Here are the top 8 reasons why:
Looking for free journaling workshops? Check out our on-demand courses including “J is for Journal: A Short Course on Writing for Healing, Growth, and Change,” with seven lessons containing a total of 68 writing prompts!
1. The journal is a staging area for moving closer to change.
Clients come to our practices in states of unknowing. I don’t know how to feel better. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to change. The journal can become the transitional zone, the space between that which is unknown and that which is knowable and actionable. Seeds of change can be planted and take root.
2. A journal lets us read our own minds, and also our hearts and souls.
The novelist and essayist E.M. Forster wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” The act of writing a journal allows us to take something that was once internal and ephemeral—a thought, a feeling, an idea—and make it material and observable as ink on paper or, more elusively, pixels on screen. In this way we can read our own minds—as well as have documentation of the therapeutic process.
3. A journal helps us develop a coherent, consistent narrative.
As we write a complex story, what we haven’t yet known or acknowledged may come forward, and we remember again what we once knew and then forgot. We can flesh out the bones of a story with detail and perspective. We add layers and gain altitude. We see a broader, fuller picture. When we tell only the story that we have always told, we travel in a tight circle. But when we layer down and extend out and gain altitude, the tight circle is expanded into a spiral. A coherent, consistent narrative evolves.
4. A journal teaches self-regulation, self-soothing, and self-management skills.
My early experience with writing and trauma led to the creation of the Journal Ladder, a model that builds structure, pacing and containment into the journal therapy protocol. When clients learned how to structure and contain their writing, they were much less likely to inadvertently write themselves into a traumatic response. The self-observation, self-regulation and decision-making practiced in the journal became skill sets that were transferable to other areas of treatment and life.
5. A journal helps us increase our tolerance for ambiguity.
In his lengthy poem “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman pauses his joyous self-celebration to reflect: Do I contradict myself?/ Well, then, I contradict myself./ I am large,/ I contain multitudes. A journal can normalize the ambiguity of “contradicting selves” that have different needs and wants. It provides a safe container for exploration and expression of seemingly dichotomous voices or positions.
6. The journal can become a behavioral rehearsal for upcoming events.
Clients can lean into the unknown or unwanted with the support of the journal. Its spaciousness provides ample room to brainstorm, practice, discard and revise responses to upcoming difficult events. My clients routinely write themselves through possible approaches to many situations (setting limits with contentious loved ones; delivering bad news; preparing for interviews or meetings). We then discuss them in session and role-play the final one or two.
7. A journal helps us develop authentic voice.
Journal colleague Kay Leigh Hagan has said that her work can essentially be stripped down to one message: “You have a voice, and it can be heard.” The discovery and development of voice is one of the most powerful benefits of the journal. In poetry therapy we often use a poem by Mary Oliver, The Journey which starts out, One day you finally knew/ what you had to do/ and began…/ The poem continues through a story of a perilous late-night journey. Then, The stars began to burn/ Through the sheets of clouds,/ And there was a new voice,/ Which you slowly/ Recognized as your own/. This recognition of one’s own authentic voice is a radically powerful process that the journal organically supports and helps develop.
8. A journal provides a map of the journey to healing, growth and change.
There is something wonderful and priceless about having a living, real-time documentation of life—its challenges, changes, sorrows, successes, joys, healings, growth and change. I’ll often invite clients to read back older sections of their journals to harvest insight and document movement. Psychiatrist Walter Young wrote, “This is the paradox and wonder of journals: what we write stands permanently, but only for this moment. A journal entry is a fixed point on a constantly shifting continuum of change.” It is a map of the journey to the progress toward and attainment of therapeutic goals, the place where the seeds of change planted early in the journal grow roots and bear blossoms.
What’s next in my journal writing journey?
Depending on where you are at in your journey, we have a few next steps for you to consider.
New to Journal Writing:
We’ve got some great resources that will give you lots and lots of ways to deepen your writing practice and experience writing groups. Here’s a couple starting points:
J is for Journal Course (Register for this FREE 7 day course with 68 journaling prompts!)
Journal to the Self Book (Award winning author Kathleen Adams’ classic work provides a powerful tool for personal growth)
Experienced Journal Writers, Coaches, and Therapists:
Journalversity Courses: We offer a variety of courses on expressive and therapeutic writing, Some are self-paced and some are instructor-taught on a week-by-week basis. You can even earn CE hours through some of the classes!
Journal to the Self Card Deck:* These beautiful cards can be used in writing classes or 1:1 client sessions. With a card deck so vibrant and so accessible, any reluctant writer can discover the journal as an instant friend and any seasoned writer can find fresh, fun revitalization. For clients, curate the cards ahead of time and find just the right prompts to help achieve their goals.
*Currently sold out! New inventory arrives in April 2023
Journal to the Self Instructor Training: Check out our Journal to the Self instructor certification training—available by home study with instructor Kay Adams, founder of the method. You’ll learn how to confidently and competently offer this fun, effective, time-tested workshop in your own community—and make money doing what you love!