Journaling has long been recognized as an effective way to reduce stress, help with depression and anxiety, focus your mind, and organize your life. It can be a great tool to use for meditation, to open up, and let go of things that bother you.
One of the best parts of journaling is that it’s something you can do at home, when it’s convenient for you, without needing a lot of time, resources, or skill. There’s more to keeping a journal than just getting your thoughts down on paper, though.
Research shows that daily journaling can help improve your mental health and get your life back on track, whether you’re struggling with relationships, future goals, how to stay organized, or even in the ways you communicate with a partner, your children, your coworkers, your friends, your parents, or anyone in your life.
What Does Journaling Do for Your Mental Health?
Expressing yourself creatively, like when you write in a journal, is great for relieving stress and focusing on the things in life that aren’t serving you. You can use a journal to develop or practice healthy habits, set and work toward goals, or manage your mental health and improve anxiety, stress, or depression. Even just a few minutes a day can make a world of difference to your mental wellbeing.
Common benefits of journaling
There are many reasons why people commit to journaling. The process of writing is inherently therapeutic. It can help you organize your thoughts, express yourself, and process and deal with your emotions — both good and bad — in a positive, healthy way.
Other benefits of journaling can include:
- Reducing stress
- Identifying and tracking goals
- Achieving those goals
- Tracking problems so you can recognize triggers
- Finding inspiration
- Improving self-confidence
- Overcoming fears
- Identifying and addressing negative thoughts and behaviors
- Starting a habit of using self-talk and creating mantras
- “Journaling can help with processing through negative thoughts and feelings. It can be a way to let out strong and intense emotions that might be challenging to cope with.”
Mental health benefits of journaling
The benefits of journaling go far beyond just motivation and self-improvement. A review of 31 clinical studies on the use of journaling as an intervention determined it can indeed be effective as an adjunct therapy in addition to other evidence-based forms of treatment.
Of the many positives journaling has to offer, topping the list are ease of implementation (with virtually no resources needed) and little-to-no risk of any adverse effects. Additional mental health benefits of daily journaling as a supplemental intervention can include
- Reduced mental stress and anxiety
- Coping with major depressive disorder (MDD)
- Managing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- “Journaling is a healthy coping strategy that includes mindfulness of emotions and insight building which can happen when we start to write down our thoughts and feelings.”
How to Start a Mental Health Journal
Journaling for mental health can be a powerful self-help technique that you can start today. All you need is a notebook or paper, a pen or pencil, and a few minutes. You might try journaling if you feel stressed, are having anxiety, or find that you’re struggling with a problem.
Don’t like to write by hand? No problem. You can even journal on your smartphone in a notes app or in a Google Doc from your computer or laptop. Use whatever method feels comfortable, convenient, and easy. The most important thing to do is just begin.
Need help getting started? Try the following tips.
Tips for successful daily journaling
People who start (and stick with) journaling often find the following strategies are helpful in the beginning.
Commit to writing every day. Doing something every day helps it become a habit. Simply set aside time for you to complete your journal. It can be every morning when you first wake up, in the evenings just before bed, or even during your lunch break. Some people find that keeping a dedicated, consistent block of time helps them stay on track. The reality is, though, you can journal any time of the day, and it doesn’t have to be the same from day to day. Use what works best for you.
“Journaling is most effective when it is done on a daily basis. Patients can commit to a time of day when they can take a few minutes to write down their thoughts and feelings.”
Plan a time, and possibly a place, to journal. You can journal in a comfy chair and side table, sitting up in your bed with pillows behind you, in the bath, sitting on a porch, or anywhere that feels like a peaceful, productive spot for your daily writing exercise.
Set a time limit. If you feel like finding the time to journal is going to be stressful, set a goal. Maybe you can only commit to writing 5 or 10 minutes a day in the beginning. That’s fine! Work your way up to 15 or 20 minutes, or longer, as you become more comfortable with the process.
If being flexible works better for you, make that work. Some people thrive on schedules and formats, but they’re not for everyone. If you don’t need or want a specific place and time to journal, that’s perfectly OK. In that case, don’t tie yourself to the constraints of needing to be in a certain, special place to write in your journal. If you have a busy or unpredictable schedule, be open to fitting in your journaling when and where it works in your life.
If this sounds like it’s more your speed, consider using a digital format or note taking app, like Evernote, that’s available on your phone, tablet, or computer and will sync across your devices. That way, you can journal whenever and wherever you’re at, when you have the time in your day.
“If it is hard to journal on a daily basis then it can be done a few days a week or even once a week so that it becomes a habit. Once it becomes a habit and the patient realizes the benefits of doing it, it might help them do it more often.”
Be open to journaling in whatever way makes sense that day. Journals can be artistic, full of words, random brainstorming, bullet-pointed lists, or a combination of all of these. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to journal. If you want to draw one day, write a paragraph the next, and create a to-do-list the following, go for it. Above all, especially in the beginning, don’t worry about what you’re writing. Your goal is to become a habitual writer. Stuck? Write about that. It’s even fine to lament, logging things like I feel like this is so dumb, or I have nothing to write about, or I’m stressed that I should be doing x, y, or z. The longer you journal, the better you’ll become at it. Your journal is your own, unique recipe for improving your mental health and well-being. Organize it in whatever way makes the most sense and is the most helpful for you.
Remember your journal can be private, or you can share it. You can use your journal in a multitude of ways. It can be a prompt you use with your therapist in weekly sessions, a way to guide you through difficult conversations and interactions, or it can be your own, private brain dump that nobody else will ever see.
Write openly. While expressive writing, don’t edit yourself. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, syntax, or spelling. Letting your intrusive thoughts literally spill out of you can lead to breakthroughs and growth. You never know what might come from a journal session, so try to go with the process in an unfiltered, free-flowing manner. If you’re Type A, who just can’t stand it when things aren’t perfect, if you absolutely must go back and fix mistakes at the end, you can — but resist the urge to break up the flow of your entry while you’re writing.
Use a prompt. If you’re journaling to help you cope with the symptoms of a specific condition, there are some things you can specifically do, depending on what your goals are. Using a template or prompt is helpful for many people, particularly in the beginning.
Journaling for Anxiety
Journaling can bring peace into your life. It’s been shown in studies as a way to reduce anxiety in young adults when used regularly.
You can journal for anxiety as a way to:
- Reduce anxious thoughts and feelings
- Identify things that trigger your anxiety
- Decrease feelings of distress
- Challenge your unhealthy and negative thought patterns
- Figure out resolutions to problems
- Understand, prioritize, and face your fears
- Improve your mood
- Journaling for Depression
- Journaling can be an effective way to manage symptoms of depression. When coupled with therapy and other forms of treatment — for example, medication or other self-help techniques — daily journaling can be incredibly successful. Research shows keeping a gratitude journal can improve your outlook on and quality of life and decrease psychological stress.
You can journal for depression to:
- Become more aware of your symptoms
- Identify patterns of thinking and behavior that can lead to depression
- Take control of your emotions
- Refocus your viewpoints
- Journaling for Stress
- We all face stress in life. Stress, on its own, isn’t bad. What you do with it, and how you handle it, can become the problem. When you’re overly stressed out, you can experience difficulties in personal and professional relationships, organization, motivation, and more. If stress management doesn’t come naturally to you, journaling might help.
You can journal for stress to:
- Remind yourself of what you can, and cannot, control
- Prioritize your responsibilities so you can focus on the most important things first
- Grow as a person
- Process your emotions more effectively
- 18 Journal Prompts for Mental Health
- Prompts can give you direction and focus in your journal each day. You don’t necessarily need to use or follow a prompt every day, but if you’re ever having a hard time getting started, try one of the following to keep your momentum going.
- List X things you’re grateful for
- Talk about the day you just had (evening journal)
- Talk about your goals for the day (morning journal)
- Identify a personal or professional goal; list X ways you’ll work towards achieving it
- List your coping mechanisms and discuss how well they’re working for you
- Do a 5 and 5 entry: Where you were 5 years ago; Where you want to be in 5 more years
- Write a letter to your 10/20/40-year old self
- Write a letter to your body; it can be an apology letter, a love letter, or a motivational letter
- Describe who you are to someone you don’t know
- Write down X emotions you regularly feel
- Write a REMINDER entry to read on a bad day
- Talk about the best goal you’ve ever reached
- If you could be granted 3 wishes…
- What’s your purpose in life?
- Revisit your first memory
- What is your biggest challenge in life right now?
- What do you want to improve on?
- What were the worst and best days of your life
While it might not solve everything you’re struggling with, journaling for mental health can be a wonderful tool that helps you focus, let go of trauma, manage your emotions, and work towards the personal growth you’ve been seeking. Using templates makes it simple, but keep in mind, you don’t have to do it alone.
If you’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to live a positive, productive, healthy life on your own, it might be time to get help. Therapy, especially when coupled with effective techniques like journaling and other self care strategies, can be a game changer when it comes to your overall mental health and wellbeing.