How Journaling Can Improve Your Mental Wellbeing

By David Kellin,

It has been called the $1.79 therapist as that used to be the cost of a pen and paper. Now it would be under $10. Journaling is a habit that has been a benefit to people over the centuries. In my work with young people I have made the recommendation to begin a journal.  I would like to share what I tell new journal keepers.

Dr. James Pennebaker is a psychologist from the University of Texas Austin who studied journal writing and its’ impact on health. He wanted to know why journal writing was so popular and helpful. He devised some experiments to test what was beneficial. He first measured college student’s visits to the clinic on campus, and then had them come in an write for 30 minutes in various conditions. After a week he remeasured their visits to the clinic.

The first condition was to write out what you did during the day for 30 minutes. In looking at visits to the clinic afterwards, there was a 1% drop in visits. This was not a significant result, and it could have just been chance.

The second condition was to write about the emotions the students felt that day during their 30 minute session. Agai9n the results were about a 1% drop in clinic visits.

The third condition had the students write about the events of their day and what emotions came as a result. The number of visits for this group dropped by 50%. Clearly a significant finding and not something by chance. To further confirm the finding, he repeated multiple times the condition of writing events with emotions. Each time the drop in clinic visits was around 50%. Pennebaker believed he had found a key reason why journals could help you feel better.

What Pennebaker’s research showed was something that was intuitive for many therapists and counselors. By communicating what was going on and how it made you feel, you would improve. He had continued his research over the years and feels what is happening is the expression of what we have in our mind through a communication center helps get it out of our mind.

I liken this to a song stuck in your head. Forgive my example. “Baby Shark, do, do ….” Now that is in your brain, how do you get it out? If you just think about it, it will likely replay and replay. But if you pass it through a communication center such as singing, it will fade. Please take a moment to sing Baby Shark. We will wait. Done, great!

As people we know this to be a truism. If you have a problem, sharing it will releive it, but keeping it hidden will keep it ongoing. This is the basic reason to do a journal. We communicate by writing, singing,  dancing, even acting. The act of communicating what is inside our mind helps us to cope.

Keeping a journal is a habit, and something that you do on a regular basis. There are no set rules. You do not have to have  a fancy $25  journal with gold edges, but can if you like. I typically suggest composition notebooks that are college ruled for teens and adults. Any pen will do. 30 minutes a day is plenty of time as you start.

My suggestions are as follows for good journal work.
1. Keep it private, and just for your eyes. If you think others will read it, you will edit your thoughts to be viewable by others. (Parents and spouses don’t read a found journal, it is a huge trust break. Learn to talk to the writer instead.)

2. Set a habit to write on a regular basis in a place and time you can be alone.

3. Use the following formula What happened to me today and what was the impact on me and my life (what did it mean to me?)

4. Know you don’t have to keep the writing. The benefit is in the writing, not the saving.

5. Above all be brutally honest in your writing. Avoid sugarcoating what you have to say.

I hope the information above is helpful. I have added a few personal comments below. I encourage you to write and find some peace and relaxation in your days.


I have kept journals at various times in my life. Some of my journals have been in books, and some just on paper. When my son Chandler died in 1999, I had so much inside me that I needed to communicate, but did not feel I could share those intimate thoughts and feeling with another person. I grabbed a yellow pad of paper and set to writing. Three to four pages later, I had said what I needed to. I twisted up the sheets and lit the BBQ with them. My words are gone from my head and this world. I got some peace.

My instruction for others to not read a found journal comes from my second marriage. Instead of talking to me about her worries, she went and read my journals. The marriage did not survive the break in trust. It was years before I trusted writing again. Please heed the warning and talk to the writer as opposed to invading a private thought process. This is one reason I tell teens they do not have to save writings in order to benefit from them.

I have created numerous journal prompt books over the years. You can find them on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under my name Mahlon David Kellin, or clicking the links above. 

One that is a sad note, but I am pleased to know it had been helpful is my book Footprints in our Lives. It was written at a time when Kershaw and Lancaster county saw a number of teen deaths.  It is a prompt book for teens with 125 prompts related to writing about a friend or peer who had died. Occasionally I will see an order for 10-20 books at a time, and I know that the books will be helping a group cope with their losses

Categories: Editor Thoughts

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