Journaling Techniques

Journaling for Depression: How Writing Can Help

Journaling for depression can be an effective way to help manage your symptoms and improve your mental health. Depression can be a difficult and overwhelming experience, but journaling can provide a safe and supportive space to explore your thoughts and emotions. By putting your feelings into words on paper, you can gain a better understanding of your inner world and develop new insights into your mental and emotional states. 

Writing down your thoughts and feelings in a safe and supportive environment can be a cathartic and healing experience, helping you to process your emotions, gain insights into your triggers and patterns, and develop strategies to cope with your depression. That’s why therapists often recommend journaling to help relieve stress, increase self-confidence, and understand yourself better. In fact, studies have shown the emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.

Your first thought about keeping a journal may be that it’s an activity for teenagers or people who want to track their daily activities. Journaling is an effective way to express emotions and record your daily comings and goings, but journaling for depression is that and so much more. If you’re looking for a way to help you cope with symptoms of depression  and to learn more about your emotions overall, expressive writing can be an effective way to gain insights into your own mental and emotional states.

a person hold open a notebook and a cup of tea while journaling for depression

The Purpose of Journaling for Depression

A person might want to spend time keeping a journal for many reasons. Documenting your thoughts and feelings has its own value. People with depression often have to battle unwanted negative thoughts. The simple act of writing can help you get out what’s on your mind (such as intrusive thoughts or feelings of sadness), which can help you think more clearly and can even relieve stress.

Journaling gets your intrusive thoughts out so you can focus on other tasks. But writing is only one part of the journaling process. Reflecting on your journal entries also is important. Looking back at your writing allows you to better understand yourself and your emotions. Through honest reflection, you can examine your own behaviors and see if there are actions you could take to live a healthier life.

What Can Journaling Teach You?

Identifying your own patterns and triggers is another valuable aspect of journaling for depression. One journaling method is to track the time of day you have negative thoughts or when a specific incident affects your mood. Reflecting on these entries can help reveal behavioral patterns you may be unaware of. 

When you increase your awareness of the people, places, and events that trigger depression symptoms, you can determine if there are things you can do to alleviate some of your symptoms.  

As a whole, the process of journaling for depression helps put things into perspective. Humans are wired to prioritize negative memories over positive ones because the negative typically relates to a lesson that supports survival. For example, early humans may have been more likely to remember how they fought off a predator than how beautiful the sunrise looked that day.

Once upon a time, those survival skills served humans well, but today, replaying negative memories can be harmful, especially if you’re already coping with depression. Journaling to heal can be an opportunity to focus on the positive, even just for a few minutes a day.

Journaling also gives you a place to express feelings you don’t want to share or don’t know how to share with others. In the privacy of your journal, you can be angry, jealous, sarcastic, and petty if you want to. You can chew out your boss, yell at your doctor, or simply vent your frustrations without judgment or negative consequences.

Depression can make it difficult to share your innermost feelings, even with the people who care about you. Some people feel their mental health concerns burden others, so they refrain from sharing the truth about what they’re experiencing. In other cases, a person may not have the energy to have a heartfelt conversation about their struggles. Having a set of journal prompts for depression is a good way to start a private conversation with yourself.

A scene of a rainy window

9 Benefits of Journaling for Depression

Many mental health professionals recommend journaling to their clients because it offers so many benefits. Whether you include journaling as part of a depression treatment plan with a mental health professional or use it as part of your dedicated self-care routine, journaling can help improve your health in key ways.

1. Increases Self-Awareness

Sometimes when you begin a journal entry, you don’t know what you’ll write about until the words begin flowing. You might not know where your thoughts are going, even if you’re using a journal prompt. The prompt inspires you to begin writing, but once feelings and memories are stirred, your writing takes a new direction.

Finding an unexpected topic can be a positive experience for journalers. You may not realize something has upset or worried you until you begin writing. Allowing your thoughts to flow without interruption, concerns, or judgment allows you to better understand what you are truly thinking and feeling below the surface. Emotional journaling also can help you process these feelings and determine independently how to cope with them.

2. Empowers You

Life’s challenges often feel more manageable once you document and process them. Living with depression may make you feel like it’s impossible to set goals or make big plans, but writing them out helps you understand which steps are within your control. Journal writing helps people take a more active role in depression treatment.

3. Helps You Notice Patterns

Reflecting on past journal entries helps you recognize patterns in symptoms and mood fluctuations. You may realize that symptoms worsen when you skip lunch, when it’s raining, or when you converse with a specific person. Understanding your unique patterns gives you more information for developing coping strategies.

4. Enables You to Recognize Triggers

Triggers include the experiences, people, places, sights, sounds, dates, and even smells or tastes that can cause depression symptoms to flare up. Depression triggers are different for each person, but stress is a common trigger. Some triggers are obvious, such as the anniversary of a loved one’s death, but others aren’t as apparent.

Journaling about depression can help you recognize triggers, which allows you to prepare coping strategies for the next time you encounter a triggering situation.

5. Promotes Self-Reflection

If you practice honesty in your journal writing, you’ll learn a lot about who you are, how you behave, and what you want from life — but only if you are willing to spend time in self-reflection

Reading through journal entries can be like looking in a mirror. Yes, you will see your mistakes and missteps, but you’ll also see your strengths and the positive ways you have learned to cope with depression.

6. Provides Space to Release Distressing Thoughts

Journaling provides a catharsis — an emotional release that can stop the loop of negative thinking. Documenting upsetting or obsessive thoughts in a journal gives your brain a break. Your journal can “hold” these burdens until you’re ready to come back and take a more objective look at them.

7. Cultivates Gratitude

Gratitude can change your biological function, and the benefits aren’t just temporary. Focusing on the things you’re grateful for activates the parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. Try listing at least three things you are grateful for each day to reap the mental health benefits of gratitude.

8. Reduces Frequency of Depressive Thoughts

Journaling provides a safe outlet for expression, which can reduce the frequency of depressive and distressing thoughts. Some people trying to cope with depression don’t have a safe and supportive place to talk about what bothers them. As a result, negative thoughts are trapped in their brain with nowhere to go. Journaling for depression provides a safe place to share your thoughts and feelings, so you don’t have to keep them bottled up.

9. Allows You to Practice Self-Care

Keeping a self-care journal can be a big step toward putting your physical, mental, and emotional health needs at the top of your priority list. By regularly reflecting on your thoughts, journaling about feelings, and exploring your behaviors in a self-care journal, you can gain a deeper understanding of what makes you feel good and what triggers stress or anxiety.

How to Start Journaling for Depression

When you have depression, adding a new task to your to-do list may not seem appealing, but it’s easy and worthwhile to start journaling. Here are a few tips to supercharge your new journaling habit.

1. Gather Your Supplies

A basic notebook and pen are all you need, but consider using your laptop or another electronic device that’s easy to transport. Keeping your journal with you means you can write whenever you have the inspiration or the need.

Consider downloading Day One to make the process even simpler. The app provides plenty of journaling prompts for mental health and features like timers and reminders to help you benefit most from the process.

2. Follow a Daily Schedule

Write in your journal as often as you like, but try to set aside 10 to 15 minutes every day for journaling. Many people prefer to write first thing in the morning before the business of the day interferes with their inner thoughts. But whatever time of day works best for you is good. 

Committing to a daily writing practice will provide the amount of information you need to detect patterns in your depression symptoms. Keeping to a regular schedule also helps you develop a new habit.

The Day One journal app allows you to create daily journaling reminders so you never miss a journaling session.

3. Find a Space that Feels Safe

One of the great things about keeping a journal is that you can do it anywhere. However, it’s vital that you feel a sense of privacy and safety. Journaling can sometimes stir deep emotions that can lead to profound insights. 

You don’t want discomfort about being in a public place to limit you from exploring your emotions. Also, for journal writing to be effective, you need to feel free to write whatever you want without anyone looking over your shoulder.

You also don’t want to worry about anyone reading your journal without your permission. Day One protects your journal entries with a passcode of your choice and site encryption to keep the app safe from hackers.

4. Write with Journal Prompts

Journal prompts can seem simple, but they often evoke strong emotions. Using a prompt for every journaling session may not be necessary. Still, they are beneficial when you feel emotionally “stuck” or can’t think of anything to write about that day. 

However, using prompts should not limit your writing. Think of them as jumping-off points. Let your train of thought take you wherever it needs to go.

5. Set a Timer to Fully Engage

Sometimes it’s challenging to start an entry, and sometimes it’s difficult to stop writing once you open the door to your emotions. Worrying about the clock is a distraction that can prevent you from being fully present as you write. 

Use a timer when your schedule demands that you finish journaling within a specific time slot. The Day One app offers a timer if you need one. 

6. Establish a Transition Routine to Complete Your Journaling Session

Ending your journaling session with a routine will help you transition from focusing on the emotions of inner work to being back in everyday life. Your transition doesn’t have to be complex. Taking a few deep breaths, stretching, or going outdoors for a moment of fresh air is all it takes to help you feel a sense of closure and get ready for the next part of your day.

7. Try Different Writing Techniques

It’s your journal, so write the way you want. Journaling doesn’t have to be a strict practice of reporting. Be creative. Use quotes, memes, and images. Write poems, create lists, and draw pictures if you are inspired to do that. All the ways you feel encouraged to express yourself are valid, especially when journal writing. 

8. Don’t Make Corrections

Checking a word’s spelling will stop your train of thought. Don’t worry about typos and grammatical mistakes while journaling. Keep moving forward with your thoughts, and don’t stop until you come to a natural pause. If errors concern you, you can always review your entry to make corrections later. 

9. Get Input from a Mental Health Professional

Journaling for depression relief can be highly effective, but it may not be enough to alleviate your symptoms. If you’re already working with a mental health professional, consider sharing some insights you’ve gained through journaling at your next appointment. 

You don’t have to deal with depression alone. Depression is a serious illness that can affect every aspect of your life. Symptoms are not likely to just go away. Contact a mental health professional if you need help.

What to Write About in Your Journal

There is no limit to what you can or should write about in your journal. Everything from random thoughts to recalling details of specific memories is appropriate and useful. 

Consider these suggestions to help you get started:

  • Track your emotions at different times of day, including before and after meals. This can also be done in a mood journal.
  • Release anything on your mind, from minor frustrations to major insights
  • Process recent events or recurring thoughts
  • Answer contemplative questions such as, “What makes me feel happy?”
  • Write a daily gratitude list, or focus on a single topic that makes you feel grateful
  • Write a letter to yourself, a loved one, or a person who harmed or helped you 

Remember that anything you write in your journal is private, including any letters or notes. The point of writing letters in your journal is to express your emotions and gain insight, not necessarily to send them. 

You can also use your journal to set goals for any aspect of your life. Some examples that might resonate with you include wellness, career and education, travel, and relationship goals. 

Along with setting goals, map out the steps you need to take to achieve them. Goals that require big efforts can seem impossible to achieve, but if you break them into small steps, you will feel more confident in your ability to reach them.  In fact, journaling goals can make you 42% more likely to achieve them.

25 Journal Prompts for Depression

Journal prompts are an excellent way to get out of old thought patterns and spark new insights, especially for people with depression. Depression can cloud your thinking and turn a simple task like thinking about a journaling topic into an overwhelming chore. 

Using journal prompts for depression can make journaling easier and more rewarding.

Here are some writing prompts to help you get started:

  1. What is something difficult I faced and managed to overcome?
  2. What is a happy memory I have?
  3. What are my goals for today?
  4. What made me feel better today?
  5. What was one thing I accomplished today, no matter how small?
  6. What song always lifts my mood?
  7. What does my perfect day look like? Who would I like to share it with?
  8. Who is a person I admire, and why? What traits do I have in common with them?
  9. What are three things I wish people knew about me?
  10. Write about a new self-care habit or activity I’d like to try.
  11. What does my “happy place” look like?
  12. What am I looking forward to this day, week, month, and year?
  13. What is my self-care routine?
  14. What is something surprising I’ve learned from depression?
  15. What is a relationship that means a lot to me? How did I benefit from it, and in what ways do I hope the other person benefited?
  16. What is the most meaningful compliment I’ve ever received?
  17. Describe myself as if to a stranger.
  18. What are five things I love about myself?
  19. What is my favorite inspirational quote? What do I love about it?
  20. In what ways does depression hold me back?
  21. Write a thank you letter to my body.
  22. What are my known depression triggers? What strategies can I use to cope with them?
  23. What would I be doing right now if failure and financial need weren’t considerations?
  24. What is the biggest challenge in my life? What skills do I have to overcome it?
  25. What advice would I give to someone living with depression?

To get the most benefits from a journal writing prompt, do your best to keep an open mind. Don’t judge or censor yourself, even if your responses surprise you. Remember that if a prompt seems too difficult to answer, it probably is a question you need to address. 

Reviewing Your Past Journal Entries for Insights

Writing in your journal for depression relief is effective, but you get even more insights from reviewing your entries. 

4 benefits of reviewing past journal entries:

  1. Builds confidence
  2. Noticing your patterns helps you become more proactive
  3. Reflection increases self-understanding
  4. Encourages more writing

Looking through your journal can sometimes be emotionally painful. As you begin to understand your depression more fully, traumas and other distressing events may come to the surface. While this is difficult, it’s also progress. Reach out to your support network or a mental health professional if depression symptoms worsen. Take symptoms seriously and understand that you deserve support.

Finding Hope and Healing Through Journaling for Depression

Journaling alone may not be enough to alleviate depression symptoms, but it’s a science-based tool that can be highly effective, especially when done regularly. Combining journaling with other forms of treatment, such as therapy or medication, can provide a holistic approach to managing depression. In addition, journaling can help you track your progress, identify patterns in your thinking and behavior, and develop a greater sense of self-awareness and self-compassion. By cultivating a regular journaling practice, you may find that you are better equipped to cope with the challenges of depression, and experience greater hope and healing on your journey to recovery.

About the Author

Hannah Van Horn, MCMHC, LPC-C, is a mental health professional who specializes in helping trauma survivors navigate their healing journey. She is an advocate for making mental health accessible for all through written and digital content as well as face-to-face counseling services.

A photo of author Hannah Van Horn, MCMHC, LPC-C

This content is not professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You understand and agree that the services, products, and any other information you learn from Day One are not intended, designed, or implied to diagnose, prevent, or treat any condition or to be a substitute for professional medical care. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). If you are located outside the United States, call your local emergency line immediately.

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