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Journaling for Mental Health and WellnessTips and Prompts to Start a Journal

Quick writing exercises can help boost your mood, improve your outlook, and ease stress. Whether you choose to bullet journal, gratitude journal, or use another style, these journaling prompts can help you get started.

What is journaling?

Journaling is a self-care exercise that involves recording your life events and related feelings and thoughts. It can be a way to declutter your mind and cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. As you put your experiences into words, you can begin to organize thoughts, express and process emotions, identify patterns, and reflect on ways to improve your well-being.

There are many types of journaling practices and many ways to express yourself. In expressive writing, for example, you free-write without stopping for several minutes. The focus is on recording your thoughts and emotions surrounding an upsetting or traumatic event in your life. In other styles, such as gratitude journaling, you focus more on recounting positive experiences.

In studies on journaling, participants seem to reap both physical and mental health benefits, such as a boost in mood, reduced feelings of distress, and improved immune function. Journaling may help to enhance well-being in several different ways:

  • Keeping things in or suppressing thoughts and feelings about events, including traumatic experiences, can be stressful, increasing your heart rate and making you more susceptible to illness.
  • Disclosing your thoughts and feelings as you journal, on the other hand, may help to ease stress.
  • Journaling may also help you regulate your emotions and become more aware of your different emotional states.
  • It can make you less sensitive to intrusive thoughts and anxious feelings.
  • Journaling allows you to reassess situations in a more positive (or at least less-threatening) light.

If you feel intimidated about getting started, know that journaling doesn’t need to involve a huge time commitment. You may simply choose to journal about your mood for two minutes each day before bed. Or use your phone while commuting home on the bus to free-write about stress at work.

By better understanding the potential benefits of journaling and all the different writing options, you can experiment until you figure out the practices that best meet your needs and preferences.

Benefits of journaling

Talking about your thoughts and feelings to other people can have many benefits, especially when you’re going through tough times. It can give you a chance to unburden yourself, get feedback, and brainstorm solutions. But when a friend, family member, or therapist isn’t available or sharing isn’t an option, journaling can be a helpful alternative.

Journaling allows you to confront past issues and organize your thoughts. It can also be a tool for gaining insight. As you reflect on your experiences and emotional reactions, you may notice patterns emerge. You might begin to see how past abandonment has affected your approach to current relationships, for example. Or how you’ve picked up unhealthy behaviors from your parents.

Journaling can be particularly useful for people struggling with issues they don’t want to share with others or feel they can’t talk freely about. For example, people in marginalized groups—such as the LGBTQ+ community—or those dealing with stigmatized conditions—such as certain mental health issues—can use journaling to explore their feelings until they feel safe disclosing them to others. It can also be useful for people who have difficulty opening up or expressing themselves due to factors such as intense shyness or social anxiety.

Research on journaling benefits

Early studies on a type of journaling known as expressive writing revealed that the practice can enhance both mental and physical health. Those who journaled were less likely to seek treatment for illness in the months following their writing sessions.

Additional research has shown that journaling can potentially help with:

  • Managing symptoms of major depressive disorder. Although it’s not a silver bullet solution, daily journaling can be a supplement to depression treatment.
  • Treating symptoms of PTSD. Journaling allows you to organize traumatic events into a meaningful narrative, which can help you process the events.
  • Promoting reflection. Journaling allows you to reflect on events, gain some emotional distance from things that have happened, and view problems and situations from a more objective perspective.
  • Easing anxiety. If you obsess over or can’t stop worrying about a situation, it can make it difficult to focus on other things. But by putting your thoughts down on paper and gaining perspective, it can help you to let go of worries and free up mental space.

Types of journaling

There are many different journaling styles including:

Expressive writing

Otherwise known as “written emotional disclosure”, expressive writing involves writing down your thoughts and emotions about a situation. Writing non-stop for several minutes, you disclose your deepest thoughts regarding an upsetting or traumatic event, helping you to process your feelings and gain insight.

Gratitude journal

This type of journaling encourages you to focus on positives to cultivate a sense of gratitude and improve your mood. Some research shows that gratitude journaling can increase feelings of life satisfaction, lower stress, and serve as a buffer from stressful life events. Gratitude itself is linked to a decrease in worry and rumination and an increase in optimism and motivation.

Visual journaling

With this style of journaling, instead of using words, you make drawings, paintings, or other visual art that represent your experiences. However, one study found that it may be most effective when combined with written reflections. For example, you might choose to draw a picture about a past event that still upsets you and then accompany that image with some written notes about your thoughts and feelings.

Mood tracker

A mood tracking journal gives you a way to monitor your emotional states over time. This helps you identify factors that impact how well you feel. You can also use this type of journaling to identify triggers if you’re coping with issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), addiction, migraines, or other sources of chronic pain.

Bullet journaling

Developed by Ryder Carroll, this journaling approach involves creating separate logs for future, monthly, and weekly tasks and tracking your progress. Writing down your tasks and goals may help you to better manage your time and responsibilities, reducing stress in the process.

Keeping a bullet journal can be an especially beneficial style of journaling if you have ADHD or a similar disorder that makes it difficult to stay on task.

Bullet journaling can also serve as a creative outlet since it’s an exercise you can easily customize.

  • You can create decorative cover pages for each section for example.
  • Add in mood or gratitude logs, where you record how each task made you feel and track your emotions over time.
  • Include a habit tracker. Here, you track your consistency as you aim to build healthy new habits, such as doing weekly meal-prep or going to bed at a specific time.

If a bullet journal seems too intensive, consider starting with a typical to-do list. One study found that writing a descriptive to-do list before bed may help you to fall asleep faster.

How to journal

No matter how you decide to journal, there are some ways to help your writing sessions be more effective.

Find a quiet place to write. You don’t want to be distracted by other people or your surroundings. You might designate a corner of your room for journaling practices or simply sit in your parked car at the end of a long day.

Choose a time when you’re unrushed. Aim for a time when most of your other daily activities are completed so you can better focus. You might find a peaceful moment after work or when your children have gone to bed. You could keep a journal on your nightstand for easy access before sleep.

Try to be consistent with the timing. You might decide to write for 10 minutes at the same time every evening, for example. Being consistent in this way can help make it a habit that sticks.

Continuously journal for the allotted time. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar; just get your thoughts out. If you ever feel stuck or at a loss of what to write next, simply repeat things that you’ve already written.

Writing session length and frequency

Initial expressive writing experiments involved subjects writing for 15-minutes on four consecutive days. However, other research has shown that journaling for longer or shorter sessions can be equally effective.

Journaling is likely to be more effective if you do it regularly because it allows you to continually revisit and develop your thinking. Try to write for at least two minutes. If you find yourself writing for longer than you want, set an alarm for 30 minutes and then stop.

Journal privacy

Some research shows there might be a benefit to sharing your writing. A 2010 study found that when people journaled with the expectation that anonymous researchers would see their work, they experienced greater mental and physical benefits. It’s possible that when you expect someone else to read your writing, you put more effort into the task, which leads to increased benefits.

However, sharing might not be the right decision for everyone.

When deciding on the privacy of your journal, ask yourself:

  • Will the writing offer the other person useful insight into my thoughts and emotions? This might be the case if the other person is your therapist or someone trying to help you with problem-solving.
  • Will sharing my writing prevent me from being completely candid in my journaling exercises? Sometimes, the expectation of being judged by others can lead you to hold back or censor yourself. Your writing should be as honest and open as possible.
  • Will sharing my writing put stress on a relationship? Sharing sensitive information with the wrong person might lead to hard feelings or misunderstandings.

Methods of journaling

If writing things down on paper isn’t your style, you can also:

  • Type yourself a message in an email app, text message, or notes app on your phone, tablet, or laptop.
  • Talk into a recorder, such as using the audio recording function on your phone.
  • Video record yourself on your phone.

While these methods all involve emotional disclosure and exploration, each can also have some specific advantages and drawbacks. Video or audio recording, for example, can be handy if you have difficulty writing or eyesight issues. They may also allow for faster journaling, but you’ll need to find a private space where no one can overhear you.

Writing, on the other hand, forces you to slow down more, which can be beneficial for reflection. It also allows you more freedom in when and where you journal. On public transport or in a busy coffee shop, for example, it’s much easier to write rather than talk into your phone.

When starting your journal practice, try out different methods to find the one that works best for you.

Tips to avoid journaling pitfalls

Although there’s plenty of freedom and very few rules when it comes to journaling, there are some potential pitfalls to consider.

If the writing exercise becomes too upsetting, change topics or take a break. Journaling can involve confronting unpleasant memories. Some people even report feeling an emotional dip after writing sessions—although this is usually only temporary. If writing about certain topics proves too upsetting, switch to a different topic, try a different style of journaling (such as gratitude journaling), or simply take a break.

Don’t let journaling become a substitute for concrete action. Always consider whether the situation you’re reflecting on is within your control. For example, you might spend days journaling about how upset you are about your spouse neglecting their chores. However, the solution might be as simple as having an open conversation with them. Or perhaps you’re stressed about an upcoming exam. Writing about your anxieties might prove helpful, but creating a realistic study schedule is also important.

Note if your journaling becomes an unhealthy outlet for complaints. You want your journaling to be more than simply listing all the things that are wrong with your life. If you use your journal to just write about how disrespectful your boss is, or how you’d like to get revenge on an ex-lover, it won’t lead to understanding, healing, or action.

Rather than just dwell on negative emotions, consider what’s driving them. This allows you to move from feelings to thoughts. In one study, some participants were asked to only journal about their stressful feelings for a month. The others were told to write about their feelings as well as their thoughts—such as how to understand the stress and cope with it. The first group was essentially stuck ruminating and didn’t benefit from the exercise. In fact, they seemed to experience a decrease in their well-being.

Consider combining journaling with therapy. Both journaling and therapy can help you to self-reflect and gain a better understanding of your emotions and life circumstances. However, writing alone may not resolve deep distress or a mental health issue. Instead, think of writing as a preventative exercise or a supplemental tool to your work in therapy.

[Read: Finding a Therapist Who Can Help You Heal]

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Journal prompts

To get started journaling for improved mental health, try out some of these exercises.

1. Write your deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding a traumatic experience or stressful life event. This could involve anything from a childhood conflict with a parent to the sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one. Explore both the objective (what happened?) and the subjective (how did you feel and why?).

2. Write about stories you tell yourself that aren’t true or aren’t grounded in evidence. Some examples:

  • “My partner is secretly planning to leave me.”
  • “People only spend time with me out of pity.”
  • “I’m always the source of drama in my friendships.”

What are some likelier alternatives to those stories? Writing on this prompt can help you identify cognitive distortions—automatic negative biases in your thinking patterns.

3. Describe a setback you experienced in life. How did you grow from that experience? What lessons did you learn? What positive experiences emerged from the pain? For example, the death of a parent may have helped you reconnect with distant siblings. This is known as a benefit-finding exercise, and it can help you find the silver lining in otherwise undesirable events.

4. Write a list of several things you would like to accomplish tomorrow. Make sure the items on the list are realistic and measurable. For example, you might need to take the cat to the vet for a noon appointment. Get more specific and include the steps that you will need to do to complete each task. Try doing this exercise before bed to declutter your mind.

5. Write a narrative about your best possible future self. In this scenario, consider where are you at in life, and what goals you have yet to accomplish. Consider things like your career, health, relationships, and hobbies. Get as specific as possible about the details. This exercise can help you gain insight on your motivations, priorities, and values in life.

6. Write a letter of gratitude to people in your life. Write about treasured memories with these individuals and the ways in which they’ve made your life brighter and fuller. What are some positive traits you appreciate about them? You don’t have to show them your writing when you’re done (although doing so may spread some love and positivity).

7. Write three good things that happened to you (either recently or throughout your life). How did they improve your life? What caused those events to happen? This is, in part, a gratitude exercise. However, it can also help you build self-confidence if you explore the active role you played in making those positive events occur. For example, you may be grateful for an overseas trip you enjoyed with a significant other, one that happened because the two of you worked together to save money and plan the vacation.

8. Free-write about a problem for 10 minutes. If you’re facing financial stress or issues in a relationship, for example, identify barriers to overcoming the problem and then write about them in detail for 10 minutes. Then brainstorm some potential solutions that will help you overcome those barriers. You might not immediately generate an answer, but this exercise can help you get into the right mindset.

9. Write the word “stress” and then begin listing words and phrases that crop up in your mind. Don’t overthink, just freely write the topics that come to mind. Continue until you feel done. When you review your writing, look for patterns or themes. This word association exercise can help you identify underlying sources of stress in your life.

10. What is something you have been avoiding? It might be something you’ve been avoiding for days or even years. How do you feel when the issue or circumstance is looming over you? Why might you be avoiding it? Are there healthier alternatives to your avoidance?

In the end, how you journal and what you journal about is entirely up to you. You may decide to combine several different styles, or come up with a prompt that is better suited for your specific concern or situation. No matter how you decide to journal, it’s a creative tool that can help you explore emotions and patterns, reassess your perspective on problems, brainstorm solutions, and navigate life with more confidence.

Last updated or reviewed on July 15, 2024