How journaling can help physicians avoid burnout and improve mental health

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published August 23, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Journaling is an overlooked self-care therapy that can combat burnout.

  • Health benefits of journaling include improved mood and lower stress levels.

  • To journal effectively, set up dedicated, distraction-free intervals so you can reflect uninterrupted.

Journaling—keeping a personal journal—may seem like a relatively minor activity of self-care. It is often one of the many lifestyle interventions physicians recommend to patients.

The practice, however, can be cathartic and enjoyable to physicians, too. Importantly, it can help clinicians mitigate burnout.

Health benefits of journaling

A handful of studies have found that journaling is associated with positive health outcomes.

Although the type of journaling or expressive writing varies, as well as the target population, these studies hint at benefits that may be more universal and apply to physicians, a view promoted by experts.

For example, in a study published in JMIR Mental Health, researchers found that 12 weeks of positive-affect journaling (a type of self-regulation activity that focuses on emotions) by patients with anxiety and various medical conditions resulted in lower levels of mental distress and enhanced well-being.[]

Patients with major depressive disorder were split into two different writing groups for a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.[] One group engaged in expressive writing for 3 days, defined by the authors as reflecting on an emotional event, while the other wrote about mundane, daily activities.

Patients who engaged in expressive writing demonstrated lower depression scores after the 3 days. All participants wrote for only 20 minutes each day.

Agnieszka Solberg, MD, writing in an article for doctors posted by Wolters Kluwer, focused on the potential benefits of journaling for physicians, and highlighted this practice as a way to combat burnout.[] These benefits included processing of traumatic events, combatting stress, and improving communication skills.

“Writing about traumatic events and the feelings that accompany them brings coherent order to fragmented painful memories; this eases anxiety and stress and allows us to move forward, unencumbered,” she wrote.

"Once we move past feelings of failure and allow ourselves grace, we're fully present for the next patient and able to care for them with empathy and compassion."

Agnieszka Solberg, MD

Journaling tips

Dr. Solberg provided useful tips on journaling:

  • Write regularly. Even if you’re writing only a sentence at a time, try to write regularly throughout the week.

  • Set aside time. Set aside small pockets of distraction-free time to write.

  • Remain open to topics. Be open to a variety of topics, and write about what appeals to you.

  • Choose your medium. Some people like to write on paper, whereas others do their journaling on their laptop. Whether it’s a tiny notebook or a leather journal doesn’t matter, as long as it feels right for you.

  • Choose your audience. Journaling is meant to be an experience for you. Nevertheless, you may want to share your reflections with the world. Consider journaling without an audience until you feel comfortable sharing.

Your journal is a friend

Writing for Listening Mothers, social worker Maud Purcell explained that your journal should be viewed as a nonjudgmental friend.[]

“Your journaling will be most effective if you do it daily for about 20 minutes,” Purcell wrote. “Begin anywhere, and forget spelling and punctuation. Privacy is key if you are to write without censor. Write quickly, as this frees your brain from ‘shoulds’ and other blocks to successful journaling. If it helps, pick a theme for the day, week or month (for example, peace of mind, confusion, change or anger)."

"The most important rule of all is that there are no rules."

Maud Purcell

What this means for you

Journaling should be viewed as an enjoyable and cathartic exercise that physicians do for themselves. A journal provides a means to unwind, vent, or ponder. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to journal, even for a busy physician, and the key is consistent contributions. Make time to reflect on what suits you.

Read Next: Doctor burnout: When it’s time to seek help
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