Fighting Fire With Words: Journaling and Physician Wellness

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Burnout and physician wellness are two sides of the same coin. With the use of journaling, one can flip the coin with the odds in their favour.  Burnout, a prevalent term in emergency medicine, is defined as a mix of emotional exhaustion, lack of control, and depersonalization.1  Importantly, studies demonstrate that 65% of emergency physicians may experience burnout for a portion of their career1.  This staggering rate is, in fact, more than double the rate of the general population.  Even more unsettling is that we come into residency limping, with 37% of Canadian medical students meeting the criteria for burnout2.  But enough with the scary facts, let’s look at how we can tackle burnout and improve these statistics for ourselves and our future physicians.

Value of Journaling

  1. To balance input and output
    • As a medical student, I follow an agenda: wake up to emails, go to class to learn, and go to meetings to hear the latest developments in my college.  When there is a spare minute, time is spent looking at Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and the list goes on.  There isn’t an opportunity to decide what information is inputted into one’s day.  Journaling enables the ability to balance the scales as one can finally output information.  We get to set the agenda on what to write about, let it be a story, drawing, or anything really.
  2. To record my successes and failures
    • A journal is a private collection about your personal history and identity.  It allows one to learn from failures and reflect on the journey towards overcoming them.  It’s surreal to go back and read about the day I received my acceptance letter, being able to relive the moment as I attempt to decipher my own writing. A journal reminds us that there are ups and downs in life, but is able to provide us with the confidence to overcome the challenges placed in front of us3.
  3. To vent
    • Swear like a pirate, be a pirate, or be the pirate’s parrot.  It doesn’t matter, the world is your oyster. A journal will always listen; say whatever, be whoever, and do however. A journal will be a close friend with an open ear.  To sweeten the deal, being able to write expressively has shown to have health benefits4.

To summarize, I personally believe journaling serves as a powerful tool to combat burnout and improve physician wellness.  Journaling improves physician wellness by allowing one to regain a sense of control by choosing your own content, reflecting on personal experiences by writing them out, and avoiding emotional exhaustion by venting.

To begin journaling, I recommend starting by getting a personal notebook and committing five minutes a day to sit down and write whatever comes to mind first.  Whether it be about work, your personal life or future plans, anything will work.  From there, try to build up and write for longer to ensure you say everything you need to say.  Eventually, you will come to look forward to journaling each day!

In the future, I plan on releasing a post with 30 journaling topics to help guide new journalists in their own personal reflections.  I would love to hear if journaling is working for you in the comments below, or if you have any questions or suggestions. I challenge everyone to take a step towards fighting burnout!


Thank you to Paula Elizabeth (@sneathpaula) for copyediting.


Arora M, Asha S, Chinnappa J, Diwan AD. Review article: Burnout in emergency medicine physicians. E. 2013;25(6):491-495. doi:10.1111/1742-6723.12135
Glauser W. Medical schools addressing student anxiety, burnout and depression. CMAJ. Published December 18, 2017. Accessed July 27, 2018.
Fritson K. Impact of Journaling on Students’ Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control . InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching. 2008;3(1):75-81.
Baikie KA, Wilhelm K. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. A. 2005;11(5):338-346. doi:10.1192/apt.11.5.338

Anson Dinh

Anson Dinh is a medical student at the University of Saskatchewan, Class of 2021. His academic interests involve ultrasound and simulations. His hobbies include bouldering, journaling, and collecting fountain pens.