Mental health conversations have become more commonplace, and there is growing awareness of how one’s mental health affects their overall well-being. We now have some insights into how mental health can affect our physical health and ability to perform in various areas of your life (7). One way to take charge of your mental health is through journaling. Journaling is a powerful tool for self-reflection, tracking moods and behaviors, and understanding your thought patterns. It is a process of self-inquiry that can help us gain insight into how we are feeling, relieve stress and anxiety, and even provide clarity on why we experience certain emotions (1). When done regularly and with intentionality, journaling can be a powerful tool for improving mental health. We’ve prepared a comprehensive guide on the importance of mental health journaling and how to get started.
What Exactly Is Mental Health Journaling?
The word journaling may conjure up images of teenage diaries and personal reflections. Or perhaps you think of a book filled with inspirational quotes and thoughts.
Mental health journaling is slightly different, although it shares similarities to both. It’s a form of expression that involves writing down your thoughts and feelings in order to gain clarity and understanding of yourself, as well as your relationships with others.
Mental health journaling isn’t just about recording what you’re feeling, it also provides the opportunity for self-reflection and an opportunity to work through emotional or psychological issues.
Journaling can be used as a therapeutic tool that helps you identify patterns of behavior in order to move forward with your life in a healthier way.
A few qualities of this exercise make it beneficial for your mental health:
- It helps to clarify thoughts and feelings. Writing down your thoughts can be a powerful way to process them and make sense of what you’re feeling.
- It provides an avenue for self-expression. Mental health journaling allows you to express yourself in a safe, non-judgmental way.
- It increases self-awareness. Writing down your thoughts can help you become more aware of how you feel and what triggers certain emotions.
- It provides an opportunity for problem solving. Journaling can be a useful tool in helping to work through difficult situations or come up with solutions to problems.
- It encourages positive thinking. Writing down affirmations or positive thoughts can help to boost your self-esteem and outlook on life.
- It can be done anywhere and at any time. You don’t need special equipment or materials to do it – just a pen and paper.
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Is There Proof That Mental Health Journaling Works?
Yes! There is growing evidence that journaling helps to improve mental health. Studies have found a variety of psychological benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety levels, improved mood, better sleep quality, and greater self-esteem.
In a 2006 study published in the Journal Arts in Psychotherapy, researchers found that expressive writing (which is similar to journaling) about a stressful experience was linked to a decrease in negative emotions and an increase in positive feelings (4).
In another study, writing in a journal was found to be just as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy in helping to reduce depression (5).
These findings suggest that regular journaling can be a powerful tool for improving mental health. It can be used to help cope with difficult emotions and situations, as well as gain insight into personal thoughts and behavior.
That’s not all, there are physical benefits of this practice, too!
Research shows that journaling can help to reduce physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches (3). This is thought to be because writing down our thoughts can help us to identify and process our emotions in a healthy way.
Boosting immunity, improving skin health, and reducing blood pressure are just a few of the physical benefits associated with journaling (2).
How Do You Start Mental Health Journaling?
Journaling is a very personal experience and there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it. However, this guide will help you get started by answering the 5 Ws and 1H of mental health journaling.
Who Can Benefit from Mental Health Journaling?
Before you get started, knowing whether you’re a good candidate for journaling is essential as it may not be suitable for certain situations.
You can benefit from journaling if you:
- Are struggling to manage difficult emotions
- Want to increase self-awareness and understanding
- Are feeling overwhelmed or anxious
- Have experienced a traumatic event
- Need help processing thoughts and feelings
- Want to practice positive thinking and set goals
In some cases, journaling may not be effective or beneficial. You might need to consult a professional before starting a journaling practice if you:
- Are in the midst of a mental health crisis
- Experience suicidal thoughts or feelings
- Find that your thoughts are impacting your daily life
- Have been diagnosed with a mental illness and are seeking treatment
In the cases listed above, a mental health professional can provide you with tailored advice and guidance. They may recommend journaling as part of a wider treatment plan. Alternatively, they may suggest other methods of managing mental health.
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What Should I Write About In My Journal?
It’s completely up to you what you choose to write about in your journal. The most important thing is that it should be an outlet for whatever thoughts or feelings come up in the moment.
Some topics that you can journal about include:
- Your daily experiences
- Emotions and how you’re feeling
- Goals and aspirations
- Gratitude for what’s going well in your life
- Your worries and fears
- Thoughts on personal relationships
Like with most things, having a structured plan in place can be helpful. You’re more likely to get the full emotional benefit if you’ve set out with a clear intention.
One way to do this is to choose a set of journaling prompts — either from an online resource or your own ideas — and set aside time each day to answer them. This can help you focus your thoughts and ensure that you keep up with your practice.
Find the blank page a little too daunting? Don’t worry — it’s normal, especially to begin with. Find comfort in the fact that you don’t need lengthy pages of prose to make this practice effective. Sometimes, just jotting down a few thoughts can be enough.
In fact, a study conducted by researchers from the University of California Davis noted that even a few sentences of writing can produce positive mental health benefits. In the study, participants were encouraged to write in a single sentence, five things they were grateful for each week. (6).
Based on these findings, you can use a technique called “minimum effective dose” (MED) to get the most out of your practice. This means that you should focus on achieving the desired result in the least amount of time.
The same principle applies to journaling — you don’t need to fill page upon page of your notebook in order for it to be effective.
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When Should I Journal?
The great thing about journaling is that it can be done anytime and anywhere. You just need to find a time that works for you. For some, this may be the morning before starting their day or in the evening before bed.
Others may find that they need to take a break during the day and spend some time writing down their feelings or thoughts. Whatever the case, it’s important to be consistent and set aside a regular time each day or week to practice this habit.
There’s conflicting research as to which time of day is best for creativity, productivity, and mood. However, it’s proven that consistently practicing a habit — whatever the time — is much more effective than sporadically trying it.
So, if you find that journaling in the morning energizes you and sets up a positive day, make sure to keep doing it in the morning!
Where Should I Journal?
Where you journal from only matters in so far as it should be comfortable for you. It doesn’t have to be a certain place — your bedroom, living room, or even the work bathroom can be as good a place to journal as any!
If you’re having a hard time concentrating in an area, try setting up a dedicated journaling place. This could be anything from a cozy nook in your home to your favorite cafe. Provided it’s free of distractions and helps you focus, it can be a great spot to practice journaling.
Where Can I Find A Good Mental Health Journal?
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced at journaling, finding the right notebook is important. There are so many journals available in the market and it can be overwhelming to choose the right one.
Here are a few things you should look out for when choosing a mental health journal:
- Medium: do you prefer a physical notebook or an app?
- Layout: what are the prompts and writing pages like? Do they help with your practice?
- Size: will this journal fit in your handbag or backpack?
- Style: does the design appeal to you and make you feel inspired to write?
Whether you’re looking for a guided journal with prompts, an unstructured blank book, or an app, there are plenty of options out there. The goal is to find one that works for you and your practice.
Why Is Journaling Not Working For Me?
If you feel like journaling isn’t working for you, don’t be discouraged. Here are a few possible challenges and solutions you can try:
- You’re trying too hard: reduce the pressure and take your time with journaling. Try to write whatever comes to mind, even if it doesn’t make sense.
- You’re not setting aside dedicated journaling time: try to be consistent and set aside a specific time each day or week for journaling.
- You’re not using the right medium: if you don’t prefer physical notebooks, try an app or online journal.
- You’re needing a change of pace: try different types of journaling such as expressive writing, gratitude journals, or bullet journals.
- You’re struggling with writer’s block: try writing in a stream of consciousness or freewriting. Alternatively, use an app to help with prompts and ideas.
- You’re overwhelmed by the feelings triggered by journaling: when you start digging deep into your thoughts and feelings, it can be difficult to process everything at once. Don’t be afraid to take breaks or write in short bursts.
Embracing all the emotions that come with journaling can help you better understand yourself and provide clarity.
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How Do I Stay Motivated With Journaling?
Journaling can be a difficult practice to stick with. Here are some tips that might help you stay motivated:
- Set yourself a goal: it could be anything from writing for 5 minutes every day to having a certain number of entries in your journal by the end of the month.
- Find a writing buddy: having a friend or family member who journals can be a great way to stay motivated and accountable.
- Make it fun: use your journal for more than just reflective writing. Draw, doodle, make lists or even write a story if that’s what works for you.
- Reward yourself: this could be something small like a cup of tea or a piece of chocolate after you’ve completed a writing task.
- Work with a professional: a therapist or counselor can help provide guidance and support when it comes to journaling.
The Bottom Line
Mental health journaling can be a powerful tool for self-acceptance, reflection and growth. Whether you’re looking to keep track of your moods or express your emotions, journaling can provide an outlet and a way to connect with yourself.
It’s important to find the right medium, practice consistently, and stay motivated. With patience and dedication, you can create a practice that works for you.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Effects of Expressive Writing on Psychological and Physical Health: The Moderating Role of Emotional Expressivity (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing (2018, cambridge.org)
- Emotional Approach Coping and Self-efficacy Moderate the Effects of Written Emotional Disclosure and Relaxation Training for People With Migraine Headaches (2010, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Emotional expression and psychological symptoms: A comparison of writing and drawing (2006, sciencedirect.com)
- Randomized trial of a brief depression prevention program: An elusive search for a psychosocial placebo control condition (2007, sciencedirect.com)
- Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (2007, books.google.co.ke: page 27)
- What is good mental health? A scoping review (2020, sciencedirect.com)