Can Journaling Permanently Change Your Response to Stress? 8

STRESS is an emotional, mental, and/or physical response to pressure. That pressure may be internally generated, such as when we place high expectations on ourselves and fail to live up to those expectations. Or it may come from external circumstances, such as a demanding job, ill health, or any situation that requires us to perform to a level for which we do not feel prepared.

In general, stress is unavoidable. Let’s face it — life is full of change, challenge, demands, and any number of stressful situations. In small amounts or when managed well, it can actually help you boost performance in many areas of your life. But when stress overwhelms you, your body responds as if you are in danger: your pituitary gland releases cortisol (the “stress hormone”), your adrenal glands release adrenaline, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase.

When stress is not managed, when it is ignored or just “held in,” it builds up. Symptoms of long-term stress may include

  • Headaches
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Sleep disorders
  • Back pain
  • Feelings of exhaustion, dizziness, or fainting
  • Skin disorders
  • Chest pains
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Decreased performance
  • Mood swings, crying, irritability, and anger
  • Depression
  • Anger

Stress levels are directly related to your perception of situations that occur in your life. What is stressful for one person  — a broken fingernail just before a job interview — might not cause stress in another. The first step to handling stress positively is to accept responsibility for managing and taking control of your response to it.

Journaling is one proven method for doing just that.

In one study1 on the effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression through journaling, the researchers found that participants who journaled with a focus on both their emotions and their thinking (cognitive processes) about a traumatic, stressful event in their lives developed greater awareness of the positive benefits of that stressful event than those who focused on just the facts or on just their emotional responses. 

In fact, those who focused solely on their emotions often felt worse immediately after writing than those who also worked to understand and make meaning out of what had happened to them.

[bctt tweet=”The first step to handling stress is to accept responsibility for managing and taking control of your response to it.” username=”writingthrulife”]

Similarly, in another study2 of the effects of journaling on stress for college students, they found that immediately after writing about a previously undisclosed traumatic event, those students often felt worse for a brief period, but in the long term reported less anxiety, reduced insomnia, and enhanced mood levels. So even when writing about a stressful or traumatic situation makes you feel worse in the short term, journaling has long-term benefits for coping with those negative feelings.

Your journal is a tool for reflection and emotional release, and writing is a powerful method for coping with ongoing changes in life, helping you to adjust to those changes and process challenges and hardship.

Freewriting is a common and effective form of journaling about stressful situations. But structured, reflective forms of journaling can help even more to raise awareness of your stress responses and manage those responses before they impact you negatively.

In addition, writing down your emotions and thoughts can help you see them (and your situation) from a new perspective, providing some much-needed emotional distance. This, in turn, can help you identify solutions and release pent-up emotions. Complicated issues can be broken down and dealt with piece by piece, making them more manageable and less overwhelming.

When journaling for stress management:

  • Begin by listing the current sources of stress in your life.
  • Are those stressors emotional (anxiety, difficult relationships, politics), physical (health, abuse, injury), or mental (demanding projects, work, etc.)?
  • What causes you the most worry or upset?
  • What keeps you awake at night or causes negative physical reactions when you think about it?
  • When you are worried or stressed, what do you typically do? Does that action or response help you to cope?
  • What are some positive actions or responses that would help you feel better in those situations?
  • In what ways can you use these stressful situations to make yourself stronger and/or benefit your life?
  • In spite of or because of these stressful situations, what can you be grateful for in your life?


Journaling reflectively on a regular basis can permanently change the way you respond to stress in the moment, reduce its negative emotional and physical impact, and enable you to use stress as a positive force in your life.

Because when you make a habit of identifying and processing stress as it arises, you will transform unconscious negative responses to conscious, positive and growth-enhancing actions.

1 Ullrich, P.M. & Lutgendorf, S.K. ann. behav. med. (2002) 24: 244.

2 **Murnahan, Briana, “Stress and Anxiety Reduction Due to Writing Diaries, Journals, E-mail, and Weblogs” (2010). Senior Honors Theses. 230.


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8 thoughts on “Can Journaling Permanently Change Your Response to Stress?

  • sara etgen-baker

    Journaling is one way in which I take responsibility for my stress or a way in which I view my reactions to other people’s stress (typically my husband’s reactions). What stresses me the most are long-term physical health issues and verbal abuse. My husband was verbally abused as a child; he brought that response into our relationship. I don’t handle verbal abuse well at all…and don’t think I should have to do so. For years he didn’t recognize he had problems and pent up rage. Finally, he sought help and has worked through much of what he’d hidden in his psyche. So the verbal abuse is pretty much gone–unless something extreme happens over a long period of time. It’s like he just snaps . I share that with you because I journaled about our situation for years; journaling helped me to cope and get a broader view of what was happening so that I didn’t take it all so personally. Does that make sense? Okay rambling…it’s early here. Thanks for your blog!

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Sara, that absolutely makes sense. As I read it, journaling not only helped you cope, it helped you hold space for your husband so that he could find a measure of healing from his own emotional wounds.

  • Sharon Lippincott

    Amber, THANK YOU for this bulls-eye post. In fewer than 1000 words, you have explained everything a person needs to know about why journaling matters and exactly how to use it for best results.

    A couple of months ago I read HEALING BACK PAIN, by John Sarnov, MD. Although I did finish the book, the information in the first three pages was enough to change my life. His premise (which was not new, but stated with compelling precision) is that much pain, not just back pain, is our body’s way of distracting us from threatening emotions. His prescription is simple: mindful awareness of emotion. Aside from the fact that he jumps all over the place with physiological explanation, my only frustration with that book was his failure to provide a specific ABC plan for maintaining mindful awareness. He gives fleeting lip service to techniques like meditation and journaling, but no specific instruction.

    The simple, specific tips you’ve developed and packed into this post are the perfect follow-up for that book. I’ve already returned to journaling to maintain the immediate relief I got from the insight I got from Sarnov’s book and I’m certain that a couple of new insights you gave me will further strengthen the results of what’s already been helpful for me. THANK YOU!

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Thank you, Sharon. Yes, reflective journaling helps us to slow down and be more aware of our emotions, as well as where they live in our bodies. This increased awareness, in and of itself, can help to change how we respond to stress and support us in healing and/or simply growing as human beings.