What Research Says About Journaling

Published on Medium on July 26, 2020

I remember that journaling was considered to be “girly” back when I was in school. Nevertheless, it was something I enjoyed doing and made a habit of. The few journals and writings I still have from back then not only hold sentimental value but also help me recognize progress I’ve made in various respects. Furthermore, a fitting quote (that I do not know the source of) goes: “Writing down your experiences enables you to live through them twice, in the moment and in retrospect”.

So, in theory, there seem to be lots of benefits to journaling. As always, I wanted to find out what research has to say about that, even though it seemed to be quite obvious what the result would be. Let’s have a look!

Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash

Quick sidenote: Journaling obviously has various uses, however, today I’ll focus on the two that I’m most familiar with — (emotional) expression and for studying.

1. Cognitive Processing and Emotional Expression

A study from 2002 with a sample of 122 undergraduate psychology students looked at the effects of two journaling interventions, one focusing on emotional expression and the other on both cognitive processing and emotional expression.

The study cites an interesting meta-analysis which apparently found that “writing about stressful or traumatic events is related to improvements in self-reported health, psychological well-being, physiological functioning, and general functioning”.

Traditionally, emotional inhibition is viewed as harmful while emotional expression is viewed as helpful and necessary. According to the authors, this framework is taken a step further by adding cognitive processing:

… other theorists have posited that the effects of disclosure are best explained by processes that involve both emotional expression and cognitive processing. According to these formulations, emotional and cognitive involvement may play complementary roles in processes associated with adjustment to traumatic events. For example, following a stressful or traumatic event, negative emotions may serve to alert an individual to ways in which the traumatic event has challenged the meaning of his or her subjective world, whereas cognitive work is necessary to restore meaning. Similarly, it has been proposed that emotional distress may provide motivation for the deliberate, effortful cognitive work required for positive growth following trauma. According to this model, adjustment to stressors may be maximized when coping efforts are balanced between emotional reactions and more deliberate cognitive work. Evidence suggests that some of the effects of written disclosure can be explained by both the emotional expression and cognitive-processing aspects of written disclosure.
In the context of this study, cognitive work was defined as “writing down how you make sense of the situation and what you tell yourself about it to help you deal with it”. Over the course of a month, the participants journaled at least twice a week for at least 10 minutes. The instruction was to write about a previously experienced trauma or stressor that continues to be a source of distress (some examples of chosen topics: death of a family member, family conflict and academic difficulties).

There were three experimental groups, a) the emotional expression group (which only journaled emotions), b) the cognitions and emotions group (which journaled emotions but also did the cognitive work) and c) the control group (which wrote factually about a non-traumatic event).

The results were rather surprising to me: “The participants in the cognitions and emotions group reported increases in positive growth from trauma over time, whereas the other two groups showed no change. Participants in the emotional expression group reported more physical illness during the study than those in the other two groups.”

The authors came up with an interesting depiction of what this increase in physical illness could look like: “An increase of this magnitude is equivalent to having had a fever or swollen lymph glands in the month before study enrollment and ending the study having had these symptoms plus a sore throat, runny nose, or coughing in the month during which the study was conducted.” I’ll leave it to you to decide what to make of that…

2. Impact of Journaling on students’ self-efficacy and locus of control

A study from 2008 took a closer look at the impact of in-class journaling on students’ self-efficacy and locus of control. Undergrad psychology students (really? do people even study anything else nowadays?) were required to complete weekly journal assignments and completed pre-, mid-, and post-course assessments on self-efficacy, locus of control, and learning.

I’ll make this a short one: “Results revealed that self-efficacy scores significantly improved after the early journaling assignments. … These findings indicate that journaling may have important psychological benefits above and beyond its expected academic and cognitive outcomes.”

That’s certainly what I expected. However, the study shows a couple of limitations which you can read about in its discussion if you like. According to the authors themselves, the finding is not to be understood as conclusive but rather as basis for further research, so keep that in mind.


For me personally, looking into this on the (superficial) level I did raised more questions than answers. Would digital journaling as a baseline have changed anything about these findings? How come that emotional expression by itself seemed to not have any effect (or, in fact, cause an increase in physical illness)? Has that study been replicated? What does all this mean for journaling of non-traumatic events? And that’s just a few of them.

Maybe one of you can answer one (or multiple) of these questions. Maybe not. A quick glance at my computer’s clock tells me that that’s all for today either way.

See you next sunday!