How to Start Journaling for Stress Relief and Why It Works

Sian Ferguson
Sian Ferguson

Sian Ferguson is a health content writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. With almost a decade of experience reporting on health and wellness, her goal is to create empathetic, science-based content that empowers readers to take care of their well-being. You can read more of her work on Healthline and Psych Central.

October 31, 2023

With the tedious demands of everyday life, managing stress can feel like just another impossible task on a never-ending to-do list. The good news is that there’s a free, simple way to reduce stress: journaling for stress relief. 

Key Takeaways icon

Key Takeaways

  • Stress is a normal part of life — but long-term, unmanaged stress can harm your mental and physical health.
  • According to research, journaling exercises can help relieve stress.
  • Journaling for stress management can help you express your feelings, identify triggers for stress, and soothe overthinking.
  • There are a number of ways to get started with journaling for stress relief, from using a simple pen and paper to trying digital journaling tools.

We all experience stress from time to time. It’s an inevitable part of life, and a healthy reaction to dangerous or demanding situations. 

When you’re stressed, your body goes into flight or fight mode. It produces cortisol, the “stress hormone.” Cortisol gives you the energy and focus to cope with dangerous situations, either by tackling the danger (fight) or getting away from the danger (flight).

But long-term stress can send your nervous system into overdrive. While cortisol can be helpful in small amounts, chronically high levels of cortisol can wreak havoc on your mental and physical health[1].

This is exactly why stress management is important. It’s not just about helping yourself feel calmer, but about taking care of your body and mind. 

Fortunately, there are a number of scientifically proven ways to reduce stress levels. For example, journaling can be a simple, enjoyable way to relax and unwind.

Let’s look at the research on journaling for stress management and cover a few ways to start journaling for stress and anxiety.

The Research on Journaling for Stress Relief

There are a number of science-backed benefits of journaling for mental health. Because journaling can reduce stress, it can have a positive impact on your overall mental well-being.

Multiple studies have examined the effects of journaling for stress management. For example, a 2018 study got participants to journal regularly for 12 weeks. After just one month, the participants reported experiencing less anxiety and greater resilience to stress[2].

A 2019 study gave a short expressive writing exercise to 96 hospital patients and their family members. The exercise was led by healthcare practitioners in the hospital. The exercise reduced levels of stress and burnout in the patients, family members, and practitioners[3].

Two years later, a follow-up study found that the exercise had long-term benefits. After the initial exercise, many participants found it so helpful that they began using writing to cope with stress[4].

When it comes to journaling for stress management, don’t be afraid to get deep. In fact, the deeper your subject matter, the more therapeutic the process. 

A 2018 study found that people who journal about deeper topics — including traumatic and distressing experiences — experience better physical and mental health benefits than those who write about surface-level topics[5].

And that’s not all. Research has shown that journaling can help people cope with work-related stress, academic stress, and the stress of losing a loved one[6][7][8].

This suggests that, no matter what kind of stress you’re experiencing, journaling can be a useful tool to turn to. 

The Benefits of Journaling for Stress and Anxiety

Based on the research, journaling seems to reduce stress levels. But why?

The above-mentioned 2018 study points to the theory that writing about trauma helps us confront it. Confronting it — instead of avoiding it — may seem scary, but ultimately it helps us understand and process the experience more. This reduces our overall stress levels[5].

There are, however, other reasons that could explain why journaling for stress management is so effective. 

For example, journaling can help you:

  • release tension by venting or “dumping” all your racing thoughts on the page
  • identify the cause of your stress and anxiety
  • recognize your triggers and patterns that lead to further stress
  • record and remember healthy ways to cope
  • identify anxieties that are irrational and unfounded
  • practice positive self-talk and reinforce your self-trust

Reflecting back on previous journal entries can be helpful in itself. When we go through extreme stress, we often feel like it’s impossible to cope. Reading old entries can remind you of the fact that you have, in fact, gone through stress before — and you came out victorious. 

This can bolster your self-esteem and serve as a reminder of the Persian adage, “This too shall pass.” 

How to Start Journaling for Stress Management

You’re ready to start investing in your mental health through journaling — good for you!

But how do you start? 

The short answer is that it’s up to you. First, choose a medium you’re happy with, whether it’s pen and paper or a digital journal

Secondly, try to make journaling a habit. While you don’t have to journal every day to reap the rewards, a daily journaling practice ensures that you’re doing it consistently. Try doing it around the same time every day — maybe first thing in the morning, just before bedtime, or during your lunch break. 

Now it’s time for the fun part: writing. Not sure where to start? Try the following ideas:

  • Write a letter to your future self or from your future self. You can pretend to be a future version of yourself writing to your current self, or write yourself a letter that you can read in the future. You could give yourself some encouraging advice, vent about what you’re currently dealing with, or imagine what your future self would be like. A study found this exercise helpful for coping with pandemic-related stress[9].
  • Do a “brain dump.” If you’re dealing with racing thoughts or a long to-do list, journaling can help you unburden yourself. Do a brain dump, which is where you write all your thoughts out on the page, no matter how incoherent they seem. Once you’ve blurted out all those worries, you can start tackling them one by one.  
  • Look for solutions. Struggling to make a decision or overcome a tough problem? Write out the issue and all the possible solutions. You might find it helpful to write out a pros and cons list. Not only will this help you weigh up solutions, it’ll also help you feel more in control.

If you’re looking to start journaling for stress relief, it’s a good idea to make your practice as easy and pleasurable as possible. This ensures that journaling becomes a fun daily activity and not just another tedious, stressful task. To up your journaling game, try Rosebud for free

Rosebud makes journaling easier by using AI-powered prompts and insights to promote reflection. When you’re feeling stressed, Rosebud can be an outlet for expression as well as a sounding board for possible solutions. 


Many forms of journaling can be useful for coping with stress. You could try writing in a simple notebook, keeping a digital journal, or using an AI-powered journaling tool like Rosebud. Rosebud helps you dig deeper into your stressors so that you can recognize patterns as well as possible solutions.

Yes! If overthinking tends to stress you out, journaling can help you feel more calm and in control. You may find it useful to write all your thoughts down as they come up — this is called “stream of consciousness” writing. Expressing those burdensome thoughts can be the first step in helping yourself feel better.

There’s no scientific proof to suggest that journaling is better than meditation — or vice versa.

Stress management often requires a multi-pronged approach, which means you should try a few healthy coping mechanisms at a time. As with journaling, meditation is scientifically proven to reduce stress[10].

Journaling and meditation can go hand-in-hand to promote self-expression, reduce stress, and boost self-esteem. We’d suggest doing both, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day.


  1. Thau, L., Gandhi, J., & Sharma, S. (2023). Physiology, Cortisol. In StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from
  2. Smyth, J. M., Johnson, J. A., Auer, B. J., Lehman, E., Talamo, G., & Sciamanna, C. N. (2018). Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Mental Health, 5(4), e11290.
  3. Thoele, D. G., Gunalp, C., Baran, D., Harris, J., Moss, D., Donovan, R., Li, Y., & Getz, M. A. (2020). Health Care Practitioners and Families Writing Together: The Three-Minute Mental Makeover. The Permanente Journal, 24, 19.056.
  4. Schaufel, M., Moss, D., Donovan, R., Li, Y., & Thoele, D. G. (2021). Better Together: Long-term Behaviors and Perspectives after a Practitioner-Family Writing Intervention in Clinical Practice. The Permanente Journal, 25, 20.250. Retrieved from
  5. Baikie, K., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346. Retrieved from
  6. Lukenda, K., Sülzenbrück, S., & Sutter, C. (2023). Expressive writing as a practice against work stress: A literature review. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health.
  7. Argudo, J. (2021). Expressive Writing to Relieve Academic Stress at University Level. Profile: Issues in Teachers’ Professional Development, 23(2), 17–33. Retrieved from
  8. Mathew, L. E. (2023). The impact of expressive storytelling on grieving: how narrative writing can help us actively and effectively process and reconcile the loss of a loved one. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 51(3), 444-464.
  9. Chishima, Y., Liu, I.-T. H.-C., & Wilson, A. E. (2021). Temporal distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic: Letter writing with future self can mitigate negative affect. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.
  10. Park, Y.-R.-J. (2022). An Integrative Review of Meditation Program for Stress Relief of Nurses. The Journal of the Korea Contents Association. Retrieved from
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