Journaling for Mental Health
Why journaling is an important part of therapy, with tips to get started
Are you someone who kept a diary as a teen? Maybe as an adult, you live by your to-do lists. There are reasons we turn to writing down ideas and tasks — it gets thought clutter out of our heads and allows us to see it in a more organized way. The same applies to keeping a journal for therapy or for overall better mental health.
We have complex brains that spend all day trying to process and organize information. This process is so automatic that we can fall into unhelpful thinking habits pretty easily without noticing, unless we build the skills we need to keep our thoughts flowing in a way that is more helpful to us.
This happens because those smart brains of ours more easily respond to, act on, or notice the negative over the positive. This is known as “negativity bias” and it’s thought to be part of human evolution — we pay more attention to the negative because it keeps us safe. Our actions are more strongly tied to what we think is dangerous.
In our modern world, danger can be a little bit more ambiguous. It takes a different set of cognitive skills to discern what’s dangerous and what’s not. By letting your mind run toward the negative unchecked, it can affect how you think about yourself and others, and lead to worry, low self-esteem and hopelessness — some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Without a gut check, it also becomes easier to spiral into deeper and deeper negative thoughts, piling onto what was perhaps a very manageable thought to begin with.
It takes repetition and practice to build good habits. The same is true for building bad habits. If we continue to do the same thing over and over again, like overthinking or negative self-talk, we’ll get better at it and worse at healthy thinking.
This is where journaling comes into play. We can evaluate our thoughts earlier in this process, hit the pause button on those spirals, and make different choices for how we react to what’s going on around us. Journaling can even help with disorders as challenging as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
How does journaling help with mental health?
At the end of the day, our thoughts are not truth, they’re just ideas. Yet, we tend to listen very intently to our thoughts and take them at face value. This can lead to building perceptions that may not be fully accurate.
Once you find a therapist and start working with them, they might suggest you keep a log of your feelings and stressors between sessions. This is an easy way to start building a journaling habit. You’re not expected to self analyze or explore what you’re writing down, you just keep track of a few things that you and your therapist can go through together.
You don’t have to work with a therapist to get great benefits out of journaling. It might just require a little bit more self motivation to keep the practice going. If you’re looking to journal to make some kind of personal change or growth, it’s a good idea to consult with someone who can provide a perspective outside of yourself.
Remember, your brain is very good at keeping your pre-existing habits going and you may need someone to challenge your current thought cycles to enact the change you want.
There are a few reasons journaling helps with mental health:
- It’s a tactic for stress release. Keeping all of those feelings inside is just going to concentrate and intensify them.
- It allows us to problem solve. We can become distressed or obsessed with an issue and we can’t let it go — this is sometimes called rumination. We get stuck, we dwell, and we don’t find solutions. Journaling helps us understand the problem at-hand by seeing it on paper and outside of our heads.
- Getting better at knowing and naming our emotions helps us better deal with them. We might know that suppressing your feelings is bad for us, but we have a hard time realizing we might be doing this to ourselves. Labelling and acknowledging emotions is a powerful tool in therapy, and journaling can help us build that emotional vocabulary.
- Journaling has even been shown to help heal physical injuries faster!
How to keep a therapy journal
How you keep your journal depends on what you respond to and what you need help with. Some people might find expressive writing helps them to get disruptive thoughts out of their heads so they can continue on with their day. Others might find structured journaling more achievable.
Like any new habit, it’s normal to be kind of bad at it at first. You might not know what to write, how to structure it on a page, nor what you’re looking for. That’s okay! All you need to do is start. You may find one structure doesn’t work for you, so you can try another.
Tips for getting started started:
- Pick your medium. While handwriting on paper is thought to be more effective for retention and permanence, do what works for you and what’s accessible to you. If you’re more likely to keep a digital notepad going, do that. You might even choose to take audio notes.
- Set a timer. If you struggle with procrastination and time management, try setting a timer while you build the habit. Turn off all other notifications on your devices, and commit to 5, 10, 20 minutes at first.
- Date your pages. This is helpful when you want to go back and see your progress, or keep track of dates that might be of note for you.
- Just write! Getting started is sometimes the hardest part of building new habits. Just write whatever comes to mind. You can analyze it later.
- Be honest. Don’t try to rationalize or intellectualize what you’re going through. Be raw, and as honest as you can be with yourself. It may be difficult to pinpoint your emotions at first, so don’t be afraid to use the same words until you learn some new ones. Using a feelings wheel can help a lot with this process.
- Make it easy on yourself. You’ll want to do this regularly, but that will only happen if you make it really easy to incorporate into your day. Set a calendar invite, do it in the bathroom when you have a few minutes alone, jot a few notes down before shutting your computer down after work. Whatever will help you make this a regular task.
What to write in your journal
You may get a lot of benefit from simply writing down your thoughts and feelings. This could be all you need to feel better. Like many techniques found in therapy, challenging, examining and accepting your thoughts and feelings is a part of the journaling process too.
Eventually, you (and your therapist) can start to look for thought patterns, or common emotions that tend to pop again and again.
For example, you might have a big presentation coming up at work, and you notice you’re feeling a bit stressed, so you decide to jot down your first thought, which is, “I’m nervous about this presentation.”
After just a few moments, that becomes:
“I’m not ready for this!”
“I’m going to bungle this presentation.”
“I’ll look like an amateur in front of all of my colleagues.”
“My boss is going to think I was unprepared.”
“I’m terrible at my job.”
“I’m definitely getting fired.”
Over time, you may notice you tend to leap from being a bit stressed about a big project (something very normal and manageable) to making big self-critical statements about your talent or your worth. This is a pattern, which means it’s changeable.
If you’ve been introduced to cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), journaling is a great way to practice the basic foundation of that therapy: examining thoughts to change them for healthier emotions and behaviours.
Here’s a simple CBT structure for a journal entry:
- What is my thought? / what were my thoughts?
- How am I feeling? / how was I feeling?
- What’s my action? / how did I react?
You can do this in the moment or after something stressful occurs. Once you see your thoughts emerging on the page, you can examine them, look for patterns or distortions (something that’s just not true), and review how you acted in response to it.
Remember, thoughts are just ideas. If you work on changing that thought, think about how you might feel and how you might act based on that new idea.
- First thought: “I’m nervous about this presentation.”
- New thought: “I’m going to need some time to make this presentation great.”
- First feelings: worried, anxious, irritable, sad
- New feelings: confident, focused, calm
- First actions: procrastination, overwork, late nights, retreat
- New actions: scheduling time to do the work, moving other commitments to make time to prepare, enlisting a trusted colleague or friend to practice with
Nothing about the original situation changed, but you did change your first idea.
If you’re ready to give journaling a try, Ramona Saeedi, Registered Psychotherapist and First session partner therapist provided a list of 30 prompts, questions and ideas to explore in your journal to get to know yourself better.
Try one prompt per day for a month, and see how you feel!
- My favourite way to spend the day is…
- If I could talk to my teenage self, the one thing I would say is…
- The two moments I’ll never forget in my life are… (describe them in great detail, and what makes them so unforgettable).
- Make a list of 10 things that make you smile.
- “Write about a moment experienced through your body. Making love, making breakfast, going to a party, having a fight, an experience you’ve had or you imagine for your character. Leave out thought and emotion, and let all information be conveyed through the body and senses.” (A prompt from Barbara Abercrombie’s creative book Kicking In The Wall: A Year of Writing Exercises, Prompts and Quotes To Help You Break Through Your Blocks And Reach Your Writing Goals.)
- The words I’d like to live by are…
- I couldn’t imagine living without…
- When I’m in pain — physical or emotional — the kindest thing I can do for myself is…
- Make a list of the people in your life who genuinely support you, and who you can genuinely trust.
- What does unconditional love look like for you?
- What would you do if you loved yourself unconditionally? How can you act on these things whether you do or don’t?
- I really wish others knew this about me…
- Name what is enough for you.
- If my body could talk, it would say…
- Name a compassionate way you’ve supported a friend recently. Then write down how you can do the same for yourself.
- What do you love about life?
- What always brings tears to your eyes? (as Paulo Coelho has said, “Tears are words that need to be written.”)
- “Write about a time when work felt real to you, necessary and satisfying. Paid or unpaid, professional or domestic, physical or mental.” (also a prompt from Abercrombie’s Kicking in the Wall)
- Write about your first love — whether a person, place or thing.
- Using 10 words, describe yourself.
- What’s surprised you the most about your life or life in general?
- What can you learn from your biggest mistakes?
- I feel most energized when…
- “Write a list of questions to which you urgently need answers.” (Kicking in the Wall)
- Make a list of everything that inspires you — from books to websites to quotes to people to paintings to stores to the stars. Even just a list of one is enough.
- What’s one topic you need to learn more about to help you live a more fulfilling life?
- I feel happiest in my skin when…
- Make a list of everything you’d like to say no to.
- Make a list of everything you’d like to say yes to.
- Write the words you need to hear.
Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.