Journaling isn’t just a trendy self-care activity. Writing down your innermost thoughts can be extremely cathartic and for good reason. Journaling is proven to help boost memory, mood, and cognitive function while reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Journaling is an accessible way to track symptoms and triggers while processing trauma and grief and working towards mental wellness.
Writing helps us keep things in perspective; an obstacle that seems insurmountable may become much easier to solve or digest after writing about it. Journaling provides us an outlet to disclose our innermost thoughts without fear of judgment.
People in recovery and those struggling with mental health disorders are often encouraged to try journaling as part of therapy. The practice provides several mental health benefits with all different types of applications. In this blog post, we’re sharing how to start journaling, different types of journaling techniques, a few beginner journaling prompts, and more about the mental health benefits of journaling.
How to Start Journaling
Pen and Paper Versus Digital Journals
The beauty of journaling is that it is as straightforward or as complex as you want to make it. All you need is a bit of paper and your favorite writing utensil.
Some people prefer to use a laptop to journal; however, writing by hand can be beneficial. Writing by hand minimizes distraction, helps you stay focused on your thoughts, and allows you to process your thinking on a deeper level than journaling on a laptop¹. There’s also no temptation to take a quick look at social media or fact-check yourself while writing.
Using a pen or pencil for writing taps into the creative side of your brain. It encourages your thoughts to flow more freely than keying on a laptop. Also, there is less temptation to censor your thoughts when writing by hand without a delete button.
You may choose to journal in a special blank book or a plain spiral notebook. Some people prefer to use an elegant pen; some prefer a pencil. Use whatever tools make you feel the most comfortable and creative!
There is no wrong way to journal. If journaling on a laptop, desktop, or even a smartphone works for you, then there’s no need to change to pen and paper.
Starting a Journaling Practice
The most important tips to start your journaling practice include:
- Be consistent: write around the same time every day, and make it part of your routine. You can journal as soon as you wake up and set your intentions for the day, or use journaling as part of your bedtime routine.
- Make it easy: keep your journaling tools in reach, on your bedside table, or somewhere comfortable and inspiring. Avoid keeping your journal at your work desk – you want this to be a nourishing, positive practice, separate from work.
- Don’t limit yourself to writing: you can draw or paste items in your journal. Think of your journal as a blank canvas – an opportunity to get creative and express yourself however you want.
Remember, you have the right to keep your journal private. If you want to share some journaled insights with a therapist or friend, you can, but no one should ever pressure you to reveal what you are writing about.
Types of Journals
Getting started with journaling can feel a little awkward at first. You may struggle with the freedom of self-expression, or it may seem strange to write down your thoughts, knowing no one else will see them.
Don’t worry – those feelings will pass, and you’ll hit your stride as you start to feel the mental health benefits of journaling.
Until the practice becomes natural, it may help to keep a specific type of journal. You can find some of the most popular types of journals below.
In a gratitude journal, you write down a few things you are thankful for each day. This can be as simple as an excellent meal or as profound as a strong friendship. If you prefer to focus on one aspect of your day, try to explore that deeply and describe how your gratitude makes you feel.
In a goal-setting journal, you write down your short- and long-term goals along with the steps you are taking to reach them. This can be especially helpful for people struggling with anxiety and depression. Make your short-term goals smaller, more easily attainable steps that help you achieve bigger goals.
Expressive journals help you express and explore your feelings and reflect on the events of the day. They may come with writing prompts to help you get that creativity flowing.
In an achievement journal, you write down your daily achievements, reflect on how you can approach a problem differently next time, and note what you learned from specific interactions. You can use an achievement journal at the end of the day or even at the beginning of your day to set the tone and get you motivated.
Stress Management Journals
Stress management journals let you describe the stressful situations you are experiencing and write down the management techniques you will use to get through a difficult time. This can be a great way to identify triggers and helpful behaviors as you navigate trauma or grief.
People in recovery often use one or more of the above journaling styles. Journaling allows you to document your goals, achievements, and gratitude, offering a tangible tool for self-reflection. This can be especially beneficial for building recovery capital as you heal from a substance or alcohol use disorder.
Journal Prompts for Beginners
As you get into the habit of journaling, you’ll find you have much to write about. Time will fly by, and you will easily fill pages and pages with your thoughts. That being said, it can be a bit intimidating to sit with your thoughts and a blank page. Sometimes it helps to have prompts that get your writing juices flowing.
Here are ten writing prompts to use anytime you feel stuck and are unsure what to journal about:
List five things to be grateful for
It doesn’t have to be complex – you can be thankful for the sunshine as it streams through your curtains, your morning coffee or tea ritual, the way your furry friend is snuggled up next to you. Gratitude doesn’t have to be rooted in the big things — in fact, noticing and appreciating the small stuff is a great way to get in the habit of practicing mindfulness.
Describe a moment in your life that was perfect
Where were you? Describe the physical setting. Write down how you felt and what you experienced. Go into as much detail as possible, focusing on your senses. Are there any specific smells or tastes that come up? Was anyone with you? What did you do?
Pick an age and write a letter to your younger self
Give them the best advice you can offer. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself – think of what you needed to hear at that age. This is a great way to identify your needs for healing.
Write a letter of forgiveness to someone who has hurt you
It doesn’t matter who the person is or if you will ever see them again. If you feel like forgiveness isn’t possible or safe for you, you do not have to extend that olive branch. Instead, focus on naming the behaviors that caused harm. You can tell that person exactly how you feel, knowing they’ll never see it.
Think about a reoccurring daydream or dream that makes you feel good
What happens? What does it make you feel? Are there any steps you can take to make that dream more of a reality?
Write about your proudest accomplishment
Include all the details of the obstacles you had to overcome and the skills you learned to meet that goal.
List five things you feel guilty about
If it is possible to make amends for those things, write down how you will do that. If it is not possible, write a letter asking to forgive your mistake. Remember, the letter is just for your journal; you don’t have to send it to anyone. If you need to, check out these tips for forgiving yourself.
What would you try doing if there was no way you could fail?
Write about it. Feel free to envision yourself without limitations, no previous history, no narratives about who you are.
What’s your favorite piece of clothing?
Describe it and write about why you like it. What do you feel when you wear this item? Not just physically but also emotionally. Does it remind you of anyone or a specific memory?
List the five people you love most in the world.
What are their strengths and weaknesses? Notice how you can still love someone, even if they aren’t perfect all the time. How do you show love to these people? Write in detail about why you love them and how you can reciprocate that love.
As you can see, there’s no limit to the things you can write about in your journal. Like all new habits, the more you practice, the more natural it will become. Soon you will find yourself thinking, “I need to write that in my journal!” every time you have a profound thought or reach a goal.
The Mental Health Benefits of Journaling
If you were one of the many children who kept a diary while growing up, you might remember how freeing it was. Your journal is a place to discuss all of your fears and struggles without concerns about being judged or punished.
Journaling can help manage stress and help you cope with mental health and substance use disorders. It is often recommended for those who are actively healing from past trauma.
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, journaling may help with the following beneficial mental health outcomes:
- Prioritizing fears and problems
- Coping with depression
- Managing anxiety
- Reducing stress
- Tracking daily symptoms for better mental health management
- Providing an opportunity for more positive self-talk
- Gaining perspective on day-to-day problems
According to a 2018 study², “Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical populations.”
Keeping a journal can help you feel in control when other parts of your life are in chaos. This can be especially helpful for those in recovery or anyone facing significant changes in their lives.
Along with therapy, eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and other mindfulness-based interventions, journaling effectively manages stress and negative thoughts stemming from anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief.
Frequently Asked Questions About Journaling
For a quick understanding of the benefits of journaling, consider the following FAQs.
How does journaling help mental health?
Journaling helps mental health by managing anxiety and reducing stress.
What does journaling do to the brain?
Journaling can increase your ability to focus and benefit your cognitive processing abilities. It also boosts creativity. It may also improve mood by activating the release of feel-good endorphins.
What are the three benefits of journaling?
Three significant benefits of journaling are relieving stress, improving mood, and improving sleep quality for those who journal before bedtime.
Why do therapists recommend journaling?
Therapists often recommend journaling because it is a safe way to express feelings that people may feel afraid or ashamed to share with another person. Writing these thoughts or feelings on paper provides an opportunity to confront the fears and negative thought patterns preventing people in recovery from reaching their mental wellness goals.
How do I start my mental health journaling?
Journaling is a simple, inexpensive, and effective way to improve mental and physical health. No matter what appeals to you the most – a handmade book filled with artfully aged paper or the slick ease of a private blog on your laptop – keeping a journal is well worth the small amount of time and effort the practice takes.
If journaling feels awkward at first, keep at it. Soon you’ll be enjoying the process and wondering how you ever managed without a journal to record your thoughts in.
Additional Support Beyond Journaling
If you are struggling with mental health issues, including substance or alcohol use disorder, and would like to learn more about journaling and other mental wellness tools, call 855-510-4585 or start a with All Points North Lodge.
Healing doesn’t happen in isolation. There are many options for improving your mental health, and we can help you find your way forward with support. Contact All Points North Lodge for more information.
- Mueller, Pam A., and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological Science, vol. 25, no. 6, June 2014, pp. 1159–1168, doi:10.1177/0956797614524581.
- Baikie, Karen A., and Kay Wilhelm. “Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, vol. 11, no. 5, 2005, pp. 338–346., doi:10.1192/apt.11.5.338.
- “Journaling for Mental Health.” Edited by L Renee Watson et al., Health Encyclopedia, University of Rochester Medical Center, https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentID=4552&ContentTypeID=1.
- Smyth, Joshua M et al. “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 vol. 5,4 e11290. 10 Dec. 2018, doi:10.2196/11290
- Knaevelsrud, Christine, and Maria Böttche. “Schreibtherapie nach traumatischen Belastungen: Therapieansätze und Wirkmechanismen” [Writing therapy after traumatic events: therapeutic approaches and mechanisms of change]. Psychotherapie, Psychosomatik, medizinische Psychologie vol. 63,9-10 (2013): 391-7. doi:10.1055/s-0033-1349078
Reviewed by Emmeline Massey MSW, LSW