By Rebecca Lister, LPC
Journaling is an active approach to mental health that allows you to keep your emotional well-being front and center. Writing down your thoughts can help you cope with everything from the struggles of day-to-day life to more serious mental or physical health concerns such as depression, anxiety, illness, and stress.
A 2006 study at Western Michigan University showed that journaling helps ease our distress, especially in difficult times. Nearly 100 young adults were asked to spend 15 minutes journaling or drawing at least twice a week. The people who journaled saw the most
significant reduction in symptoms like depression, anxiety, and hostility, mainly if they were distressed, to begin with. Even though 80 percent had seldom journaled about their feelings before, the act of journaling still significantly improved their mental health.
Writing in a journal can feel overwhelming for some —many people may not have written since they were assigned it in school; however, journaling allows for expression without rules. For many people, it can help them understand their emotions more tangibly. Journaling is a powerful tool for collecting your thoughts and identifying your feelings and how you react to them. By writing things down, you can deepen self-reflection, allow for growth, and get through the challenges you may face.
Why Keep a Mental Health Journal?
Journals are a blank canvas—and they are yours to write. They are easily adaptable and have endless possibilities to be the right therapeutic tool you may need at any given time. The ability to organize the chaos, look to the future, or explore your emotions safely provides lasting. The benefits of keeping a journal include the following:
Anxiety reduction: Journaling helps you address your worries and work out “what-if” scenarios to ease your concerns.
Relief from depression: Journaling can help you identify your negative thoughts and work to dismantle them before they run out of control.
Stress management: Putting yourself in the serene space of journaling can physically calm you down and reduce the automatic stress reaction that can sometimes occur. In addition, you can explore more about your stressors and ways to manage them.
Emotional expression: Inhibiting emotions is linked to mental and physical health problems. Journaling provides a safe way to express complex feelings.
Improved problem-solving: Journaling can help lead to new insights about yourself and your life and give you a space to work out solutions to problems you may encounter.
Healthy habit building: There are specific habit journals designed to help you create healthier life choices by identifying unhealthy behaviors and helping you adopt smarter ones. Keeping track of your habit wins also provides gratification as you see your progress grow.
Goal setting: Journals aren’t limited to expressing negative thoughts, emotions, and problem-solving. You can use them to express your wishes and vision for the future.
Promote positive thinking: Journaling allows you to explore positive affirmations, motivational thoughts, and self-love.
Tips for Journaling for Mental Health
Forget about the rules: There are no rules. This is your own experience, and there is no way to do it wrong.
Know you’re why: Knowing why you are journaling can help streamline the process and make it easier to understand what to work on. Ask yourself precisely what you are trying to gain from your journaling exercises so you can focus on your goals.
Start small: Journaling can feel like a heavy lift for those who are not regular writers—but remember there is no word count or time limit. Begin by setting a small writing goal and build as you become more comfortable with your journal.
Write every day: While it’s important to keep your goals achievable, committing to add to your journal daily, even if you are writing for a few minutes, will help you make journaling a habit and not a chore.
Write about more than your negative thoughts: Journaling can help with depression and negative thinking. However, to experience growth, it is also important to include positive goal-setting in your writing.
Use writing prompts: When you are already overwhelmed by your emotions, thinking of where to start can prohibit the journaling activity entirely. Use specific writing prompts to get the words flowing. You can get prompts from your therapist, check out a writing prompt journal, or use some of the prompts we have provided below.
Make it an experience: Turn your journaling activity into something you look forward to. Pick a dedicated space and time and set up your environment for relaxation. When you pair journaling with your self-care time, it becomes an activity you look forward to rather than something you dread. Also, by removing more distractions, you can be more present in your journaling exercise.
A Journal for Everyone
While journaling often involves writing your thoughts down on paper, it does not have to be limited to using a pen. Alternative forms of journaling could include:
- Audio Journal: Use an audio recorder and talk your feelings out—saying things aloud can be therapeutic, even if no one ever hears it.
- Art Journal: Use pictures and drawings to express your thoughts—sketch pictures, use collaging, and color for stress relief—artistic expression is a powerful way to explore your emotions and help you calm down when needed.
- Digital Journal: You may feel more comfortable expressing yourself on the screen. Use a blog or a digital program such as Google Docs to write down your thoughts and keep track of your progress.
- Video Journal: Much like an audio journal, a video journal allows you to talk your feelings through and express your emotions more visually.
- Smartphone Journal: There are a variety of applications for journaling that can help provide writing prompts and give some meaningful direction for getting the words flowing.
Regardless of what your journal looks like, it gives you various tools to manage life, recovery, illness, and whatever comes your way. Journaling allows you to manage your current emotions and mental health here in the now, but it also provides a space for you to look forward to the future and the better life ahead.
Journal Prompts for Mental Health
While some people are comfortable journaling on a blank page, others feel overwhelmed by this approach. If you are not sure what to write in a journal, these prompts can help.
- Write a letter to your past self—focus on all the positive things you have done to help you grow as a person.
- Who has inspired you? What are the qualities they have that you want to adopt?
- Write a letter to someone who has hurt you in the past. Express things that you did not or could not say in person. Remember- you do not have to send it. You may also focus on writing a letter of forgiveness to this person.
- What are you grateful for? List three things that happened today that you have gratitude for.
- Track your moods. Describe how you feel—what made you feel that way?
- Make a list of things that make you feel alive and plan ways to add more of these into your life.
- Write about your goals. Choose one goal for your life and identify something you can do today to work toward that goal.
Want some more ideas? View more mental health journaling prompts here.
Journaling may start with a blank page but opens a whole world of opportunity. In addition to all the therapeutic benefits it provides, it is a hobby that can last a lifetime. Remember, journaling is all about you and what you make it—make the experience uniquely yours.
Journaling can also enhance your work with a mental health therapist. If you need help, there’s always someone to talk to.
Rebecca Lister, MS LPC – Rebecca is a Licensed Professional Counselor and the Assistant Regional Director in the Delta office. She is trained in EMDR, and perinatal mood disorders and skilled in working with clients with trauma, substance abuse, and other mental health disorders. She enjoys working with clients of all ages and with families and groups. Rebecca has a Masters in Counseling from Creighton University and a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Walden University.