Can Journaling Be Harmful? [Answers, Examples & How To Avoid It]

Updated 14 August 2019

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by Hugo: Founder of Tracking Happiness, marathon runner, data junkie and happiness tracker for almost 6 years.

I've been journaling for almost 6 years now, pretty much every day of my life. I've written hundreds of pages filled with emotions, both the good and the bad. Some people wonder if this habit of journaling can be harmful. I'm here to show you exactly what can happen when you start journaling.

So can journaling be harmful? The answer is yes, there are scenarios in which journaling can be harmful, but these scenarios are easily avoidable. Just like anything, you have to moderate the amount of time you spend doing it. You simply have to know when to stop. Once you moderate your journaling habit, you'll find it to be one of the most relaxing and positive habits you can build. 

This article includes all the facts and figures you need in order to create your own opinion on the matter. Should you start journaling? Should you continue journaling? What are some actual examples of how journaling can be harmful? I'm here to show you all the details.

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Journaling, gratitude, mindfulness, and introspection. What do all these things have in common? It's that they're all significantly correlated to your happiness. Find out more about how you can learn from this in Chapter 4 of the biggest (freely available) guide on how to be happy.

Before starting this article, I'd like to introduce myself:

I started journaling when I was 20 years old. As soon as I completed the first page in my journal (I started in a hard-copy journal), I knew I was going to continue this habit. It was love at first sight.

This is an article about the ways in which journaling can be harmful, but that doesn't mean that I think journaling is harmful. Definitely not. In fact, journaling has helped me in a lot of ways. Despite that, I have done my best to find ways in which the habit of journaling can still be harmful to someone else.

Maybe, in a few years, I will fall victim to my own journaling habit as well. We'll see. All I know is that when that day comes, I'll most likely journal about it. 🙂

Examples of how journaling can be harmful

Here are some examples of how journaling can be harmful:

  • Journaling may cause you to overthink your life
  • Journaling can be too confronting at times
  • Writing about negativity might cause you to spiral down
  • You can get stuck inside your journal

I'll briefly explain these simple examples here. If you are wondering if you should start journaling, you may relate to some of these!

Journaling may cause you to overthink your life

"How am I going to journal about this experience?"

Some people think about their journal so much that it keeps them from experiencing their lives first hand.

Example: you're at a concert with a couple of friends and you're enjoying a drink. You have a great time together and feel a little tipsy. One of your friends makes a joke and you laugh so hard that your drink spills through your nose. By fear of losing this awesome joke and the memory of this good moment, you rush to the toilet in order to make a little note about it in your phone or notebook.

Then you go back to the concert and you find out that you missed your favorite part of a song...

This might just be a silly example, but it is possible that a compulsive journaling habit can cause you to constantly overthink your life. This can keep you from living in the moment and enjoying your life as it goes.

Journaling can be confronting at times

When you are in a rough spot and want to write down the negativity that's in your life, doing so can be very confronting. This can cause anxiety for some people. I've found a great example of this which I'll share with you later in this article.

journaling can feel overwhelming at times
Journaling can feel very overwhelming for some!

Writing about negativity might cause you to spiral down

Our minds are interesting, as the things that are on our mind can cause a reaction of thoughts. More often than not, we are unaware when our mind enters such a chain reaction. It's very simple, actually. The mindset that you are in NOW can influence the mindset that you'll be in LATER.

It's why I believe that optimism is a great skill, and why you should consider training your mind into being more optimistic.

Either way, when you are going through a rough patch, journaling can cause your mind to spiral down into a chain reaction of negativity. I'm not saying that this will happen to you per definition. In fact, most people find tremendous support by writing negative thoughts into a journal, as it allows them to clear these things from their minds.

But for some, this venting can result in a negative mindset. This can sometimes be prevented by simply not journaling about your negativity at all.

You can get stuck inside your journal

Some people feel such an extreme urge to journal that their lives are consumed by it. A great example of this is Robert Shields. For 25 years, he journaled about every single 5-minute interval of his life. When he had to stop due to a stroke, he had produced a journal of 37.5 million words that filled 94 boxes. Just think about the scope of such a journal. It's truly bizarre.

For your reference, I've been journaling for over 5 years and my journal currently contains 275,000 words. I was able to calculate this quite easily since I write my journal digitally. At my current rate, 25 years of journaling would result in roughly 1.4 million words. Robert Shields basically wrote 23 times as much as I do.

Robert Shield's habit of journaling can definitely be described as compulsive. I think this is the best example of how you can get stuck inside your journal. Do you really want the majority of your life to be about how you've been journaling about your life?

I guess not.

Journaling is only harmful if you allow it

As I did my research on this question, I noticed something very interesting. In all of these examples, journaling is only harmful because it's allowed to be. The truth is, all these scenarios are easily avoidable.

The issue with these examples is that there is no sufficient moderation. You have to moderate the amount of time you spend journaling daily. This goes for basically anything you do. No matter how much you like it or how much it benefits your life, you shouldn't spend your whole life doing that one thing.

A good example of what I'm trying to say is my biggest passion, running. Running has a great effect on my happiness. But does that mean I should run every waking hour of my life? Of course not! The benefits of journaling, running, or anything really, diminishes as the quantity increases. That's why you need to properly moderate the time you spend on these things.

These examples of how journaling can be harmful are easily avoided when a little moderation is applied.

Have I ever been harmed by journaling?

No.

As I said, I've written 275,000 words in my journal and I have never felt anxious or troubled by my words. And before you ask, there is plenty of negativity in my journal! I don't just write about the positive things that are happening in my life. If you want to know more, I publish parts of my personal happiness journal every month. These will show you a little more about how I fill my journal! 🙂

That's why I feel confident in saying that I've never been harmed by my habit for journaling. At least, not as far as I know. Then again, that's probably what Robert Shields thought as well, as he was writing his 37.5 millionth word in his journal. I simply don't know for sure.

All I can really say is that I've never felt harmed by my journaling habit.

journaling has many benefits but also some cons

Can journaling cause anxiety?

Yes, for some people, the act of journaling can cause anxiety to set it. I've asked around for actual examples of this journaling and anxiety and a kind Redditor has allowed me to share her experience here in this article. I think it shows a true example of how journaling can cause anxiety.

When I first started journaling, it was an outlet to help me in my recovery from drugs & alcohol. It really took a TON of effort and a “fake it till you make it” attitude to get me to even put pen to paper. My entries never made sense, it was just madness on paper. After a while, I was able to put my thoughts down in a way that flowed and was healing.

Now, after 5 years of an on-again-off-again relationship with journaling, I have figured out where those feelings come from: Fear.

Writing is black and white. Once you get it down on paper, you can see it for what it really is. I can go back and read what I’ve written and see my thought process. I can see my secrets, my dishonesty, my selfishness and whatever else I’m dealing with. It’s scary for me and that’s usually what makes the pen feel like it weighs 200 lbs. That’s also a good place to start with too... Just start with your feelings about struggling to start.

I think this beautifully captures how journaling can cause anxiety.

Even better, it also shows the easiest way to deal with these struggles. Just write about your feelings of anxiety when journaling. So instead of being afraid of what you'll write down, just write down about your feelings of being afraid!

No idea what to write about in your journal?

If you have no idea what to write about, then you're not alone. A lot of people pick up the pencil but don't know where or how to start journaling.

This always makes me think of David Sedaris' journal. He writes his journal in such a simple - yet playful and funny - way, and it's all because he just writes about the things he sees. Here's how he explains it in his published diaries:

It might look like my average diary entry amounts to no more than seven sentences, but in fact I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about my day - around forty-five minutes, usually. If nothing big happened, I'll reflect on a newspaper article or a report I heard on the radio. I'm not big on weather writing but have no policy against it. Thus when life gets really dull, I'll just look out the window and describe the color of the sky. That will lead to something else, most often: a bird being mean to another bird or the noise a plane makes.

- David Sedaris, Theft By Finding

See how simple it really is?

Live your life instead of journaling about it

Before finishing this article, I want to leave you with another beautiful passage from David Sedaris' diaries:

That's the thing with a diary, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it's so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.

- David Sedaris, Theft By Finding

This comes back to the point I wanted to make in this article at the start. Journaling is only harmful when we allow it and let it turn into a compulsive habit.

Live is right in front of us, and not inside our journal. If we want something to journal about, we have to paradoxically put down our pens and start living instead.

Tracking my happiness

I want to mention here that I've been tracking my happiness for over 5 years now, in addition to keeping a journal.

What does this mean? It means I spend 2 minutes every day to reflect on my day:

  • How happy was I on a scale from 1 to 10?
  • What factors had a significant effect on my rating?
  • I clear my head by jotting down all my thoughts in my happiness journal.

This allows me to constantly learn from my evolving life. It's how I purposefully steer my life in the best direction possible. And I believe you can do the same.

You can be happier. Discover how with my free template!

  • Track your happiness every day
  • Learn more about what makes you happy
  • Receive my custom template for free

Closing words

I hope you now know whether journaling can be harmful or not. The answer is yes, but journaling is only harmful if we allow it to be. These situations are easily avoided if we moderate the amount of journaling that we do.

Do you want to share your experiences? Do you have a personal example of how journaling has influenced your life?

You're more than welcome to share your thoughts in the comments below! 🙂

Who runs Tracking Happiness?

My name is Hugo, and I'm from the Netherlands. I have a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering, a passion for data and statistical analysis and am an expert in happiness.

I've tracked my happiness every day for 5 years in a row. And I'm now using my knowledge to inspire you to prioritize your happiness. You see, I'm a strong believer in what gets measured gets managed. I want to show you what I - and many others - have learned while tracking our happiness.

My Happiness Essays have reached thousands of people around the world and have been shared in many places.

With my data, I have inspired hundreds of others to also track their happiness. And I'm hoping this number will only grow more!

Hugo Tracking Happiness Snapshot

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4 thoughts on “Can Journaling Be Harmful?”

  1. I actually love to journal but I basically use it as a tool when I argue with my husband about something & he won’t “get it” so I bitch about it in my journal. Well… he read it. I had some pages of cussing him out some days I was down on myself etc. being as how I consider MY JOURNAL just that. My free time to rant and cuss & just be raw. He says it’s unhealthy.

    • Hi Carrie, thanks for sharing this! I must say, this would be a major obstacle for me. He obviously knew that he shouldn’t have read your journal, yet he did it anyway. Whatever you write in your journal is your business and not his. Heck, even if the entire book is filled with rants about him, if that’s your outlet, then that’s not necessarily unhealthy. If he cannot respect boundaries and privacy, I’d have a serious discussion with him about this.

      I’d love to know how you deal with this. You can comment here on this article or via email at [email protected]!

      Thanks again for sharing your story!

  2. journalling does nothing for me so your whole fucking post was a waste of time. it has done nothing but fuck me over and no i dont have anything to be grateful for so fucking sorry for not being able to right positive BULLSHIT. journalling is fucking bullshit and so is your post.

    • Hi Emily, I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I hope you find something that does work for you instead of journaling.

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