Self-care habits, like journaling for mental health, are becoming more popular because the need for mental health support is growing. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) estimates that 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental health concerns yearly, and 1 in 20 live with serious mental illness.
Mental health experts suggest many reasons for the rise in mental illness. Everyone is different, and genetics play a role in mental wellness. However, increasing financial and social media pressures and the isolation of modern life are considered major contributors to the increase in mental illness.
There are many ways to approach treatment for improving mental health. Perhaps you need the medical support of a healthcare professional, or maybe you’re looking for new ways to help you cope with life’s stressors. Journaling is one powerful way to care for your mental health and develop positive coping skills. In this post, we’ll explore five easy ways to start.
3 Ways Journaling for Mental Health Helps
Journaling is a type of writing known as expressive writing. Journaling, personal essays, or opinion pieces are all examples of expressive writing. When used to release difficult feelings, journaling becomes a coping method that helps you process emotions. Writing about negative or painful experiences is a great way to process, understand. and let go of said experiences.
But writing is only the first step in journaling. Reflecting on your journal entries provides insights that can help you learn new coping mechanisms to use in the future.
There are multiple evidence-based benefits of journaling for mental health. Reducing stress, increasing self-awareness, and improving coping skills are three of the most valuable.
1. Provides Stress Reduction and Emotional Release
You’ve undoubtedly heard the adage about stress being like the water in a tea kettle. Too much stress can cause you to boil over without a release spout. That “explosion” of stress could lead to self-destructive behaviors or be the cause of mental and physical health problems.
Finding ways to reduce stress is essential to any mental health treatment program. A study found that journaling decreased feelings of anxiety and depression. Another study concluded that a three-minute expressive writing exercise helped participants release stress.
Journaling provides a safe space to dump all your worries and negative thoughts. The process gives your mind a chance to rest and refresh itself. A journal is a place where you can express any feelings about anyone. There is no one to judge or censor you except yourself.
Some people have a friend or therapist to share even their most painful or negative feelings with, but others don’t. Even if you are fortunate enough to have such a relationship, a journal is available 24 hours a day whenever you need to express yourself.
2. Increases Self-Awareness and Mindfulness
Staying present in the given moment is a challenge for most people. Making a note of what you’re thinking and how you feel, and considering how the two might be related is part of practicing mindfulness — the ability to be fully present. Writing your thoughts in a journal forces you to sit still and connect with what you’re experiencing.
To start, record your feelings and reactions in order to help you identify where they originate. For example, you might begin writing about being angry at a coworker but discover you are actually sad, hurt, jealous, or that your feelings have nothing to do with the coworker at all.
Secondly, reflecting on your writing opens a new door to self-awareness. You may discover things about yourself you hadn’t noticed before. Perhaps you’re quick to anger, or maybe you’re too passive and let people take advantage of you.
By rereading journal entries, you can learn about your own behavioral patterns that aren’t serving your mental wellness.
3. Helps Build Emotional Resilience
A journal can be a simple record of daily activities, but journaling deeper to explore thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings can be from the current day or any other. With journaling, the day doesn’t matter as much as the feeling in the moment. Examining your behaviors through journaling can help you build emotional resilience.
Applying structure to your journaling process with prompts and exercises is also helpful, especially when you’re looking for new ways to cope with mental health challenges.
Consider this 3-part exercise for journaling for mental health:
Think about a situation you’ve been avoiding because of the uncomfortable feelings it evokes. Answer these questions in your journal:
- Which emotion am I trying to avoid?
- Why am I trying to avoid this emotion?
- What does this situation need from me?
- What is the obstacle that prevents me from dealing with this, and what skills do I have to overcome that obstacle?
Limit your writing time for this exercise to about 15 minutes to prevent getting “stuck” in an emotional loop.
For the second part, draw a large trash can on a blank journal page. Place all the problems you can’t solve today in the can. You can write them out in a short sentence or draw symbols to represent them. For example, if worries about climate change are keeping you up all night, a simple raindrop could represent weather changes.
Once you’ve “trashed” all the problems that are out of your control, make a list of 10 actions that are in your control. Using the climate change example again, you could choose to waste less water or join a carpool. Focusing on what you can control helps eliminate stress and gives you a purpose.
As a final part of the exercise, write a list of your techniques or skills you use to cope with stress. Include the positive and the not-so-positive habits, such as drinking alcohol or binge-watching your favorite video app or crime drama. Ask yourself, what more can you do to take care of yourself? Include at least five new self-care habits that will help you stay mentally and physically healthy.
5 Ways to Start Journaling for Mental Health
There are multiple approaches to journaling for mental health. Developing a daily journaling practice may provide the best benefits. Writing about past or present experiences, feelings, goals, or problems you need to tackle is more than enough, but free writing — writing about whatever comes to you — isn’t the only way to journal.
1. Gratitude Journaling
- Better sleep
- Higher self-esteem
- Increased patience
- Better focus
- Enhanced relationships
- Reduced stress
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced inflammation
To start gratitude journaling, you could write about people and life events you are grateful for or make a gratitude list at the end of each day. Another approach is to focus on an item of beauty, either human-made or in nature, and write about how that item makes you feel.
2. Art Journaling
An art journal is perfect for people who enjoy expressing their creativity or want to learn how to be creative more freely. No artistic skill is needed for art journaling. You can draw, paint, write poetry, paste images from the internet, use stickers, or do whatever you like. People who have difficulty writing about their emotions may be more comfortable expressing themselves with pictures than text.
Few or no words are used in art journaling, so the focus is on colors, shapes, and images. Art journaling is a uniquely personal way to express feelings and can help you access deep memories or emotions in the same way a masterpiece painting can.
3. Prompted Journaling
Prompted journaling is an excellent choice if you find yourself unsure about what to write or need a gentle nudge to explore your thoughts more deeply. This approach provides you with thought-provoking journal prompts or questions that guide your journaling process.
Prompted journaling can cover a wide range of themes, from self-discovery and personal growth to gratitude and problem-solving. When responding to prompts, be open and honest with yourself. Don’t censor your thoughts or feelings. Let your journal be a safe space for self-expression. Feel free to explore different prompts to keep your journaling experience fresh and meaningful.
4. Reflective Journaling
Reflective journaling involves a deeper exploration of your thoughts and emotions. Instead of merely documenting events or experiences, you dive into the meaning behind them. This approach can help you gain valuable insights into your own psyche and personal growth.
Allow yourself to express your emotions openly and honestly in your reflective journal. Whether you’re experiencing joy, frustration, sadness, or confusion, acknowledging your feelings is an essential part of the process. As you review your reflective journal entries over time, look for patterns in your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. This self-awareness can provide valuable insights into your personal development journey.
5. Bullet Journaling
Bullet journaling will appeal to people who enjoy organization and those who need a way to reduce mental clutter and stop rumination.
Bullet journaling began as a method for daily organization. Using a system of goal setting, budgeting methods, and daily scheduling tools, bullet journaling provides plenty of structure, but this method is also adaptable to meet each writer’s needs.
Getting your plans out of your head and onto paper can help make your goals appear more achievable. Once you have seen goals written down, you can organize them into steps and check them off once they are complete. This approach helps clear your mind, bring a sense of accomplishment and allows you to focus on doing instead of thinking.
More Tips for Journaling for Mental Health
The best way to get started with journaling is to jump right in. What matters most is that your journaling methods fit your preferences and lifestyle.
However, like any new habit, getting into the swing of journal writing takes effort. These tips will enhance your journaling practice and keep you journaling for mental health for many years.
When discussing journaling and mental health, the best approach is to give yourself plenty of freedom. Forget about correcting grammar or using spell check. Worrying about small details will inhibit your emotional expression.
Remember, your writing is for your eyes only. It doesn’t matter if you use bad language, “yell,” or blame others. The whole point is to express what you’re feeling. If grammatical errors bother you that much, you can always go back and correct entries once you’ve had the time to reflect and learn from them.
Try different journaling methods, use varying tools, or journal in different locations. Make journaling work in the best way for you, and let go of the need to do it “right.”
Know Your Purpose
Which mental health concern are you trying to address with journaling? Do you need to reduce stress or improve your self-esteem? Maybe you’re working to heal some unresolved family issues that are getting in the way of building healthy relationships. Knowing why you are journaling will help you get the results you’re hoping for.
Journaling can be a winding road, so be patient with yourself. Even when you have a focus, letting the journaling session take you where you need to go is valuable.
For example, let’s say your journaling mental health goal is to learn new ways to cope with anger. You start out writing about an incident at school that upset you. As you write about the experience in your journal, you realize it’s not the person or the incident that’s bothering you. It’s your inability to stand up for yourself that upset you. Thanks to this journaling entry, you realize that learning to advocate for yourself is one way to cope with your anger.
Overcome Journaling Barriers
Whether you’re new to journaling or getting started again, keeping up with a regular journaling habit can be challenging. There will be days when you don’t have time or don’t feel you have anything to write about. These tips will help you keep going when boredom or busyness creep in:
- Commit to a journaling schedule and stick to it even when you don’t feel like it
- Set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes, and stick to that limit to help prevent burnout
- Journal in a different environment than usual or use colorful writing utensils to keep it fun and exciting
- Use a different journaling method, such as gratitude or bullet journaling
- Use journaling prompts to provide fresh ideas for topics
Journaling is a solitary experience, but you could seek out other journalers through workshops and online journaling groups. Being part of a journaling community will keep you connected and inspired.
Journaling Prompts for Improved Mental Health
Journaling prompts for mental health are one of the best tools for keeping your journaling practice vital.
Prompts for Self-Reflection and Emotional Processing
In a sense, all journal entries provide a chance for self-reflection on behaviors and emotions. Prompts specifically focused on aiding emotional processing are even more effective. Some prompts in this category include:
- How do I encourage myself when faced with a challenge?
- How do I react to conflict? Do my actions help or hinder my self-growth?
- What’s a goal I’d like to accomplish? How would it change my life?
- What is my idea of the perfect day?
- Do I feel jealous when others succeed, or am I genuinely happy for them?
- What are 10 things I do to take care of myself?
- Do I accept myself as I am? If not, what is one thing I could do to increase self-acceptance?
Self-reflection and emotional processing often require looking at difficult or negative behaviors and feelings. Journaling allows you to explore the less-than-perfect aspects of yourself in privacy without fear of judgment.
Prompts for Practicing Gratitude and Positive Thinking
Journaling to increase positive thinking is directly linked to journaling for mental health. Having a positive attitude helps improve mental and physical well-being. Consider these prompts for increasing your gratitude level:
- What are five things I’m grateful for that relate to my five senses?
- Who is someone I’m grateful for? What traits or behaviors of theirs do I admire?
- What habits in my life bring me joy or peace?
- Write about the most beautiful sunset or sunrise I’ve ever seen.
- What is the biggest challenge I’ve overcome so far in life?
- List 10 things that made me smile today.
- Finish this sentence: I show others my gratitude by…
Expressing gratitude in your journal is as simple as saying “thank you” in real life, but written expressions of thankfulness can trigger deep emotions.
Prompts Setting Goals and Tracking Progress
Goal-setting is also an excellent project for journaling. You can plan the steps needed to reach your goals and easily track your progress by reviewing your journal. Goal-oriented prompts don’t require much imagination, can help you overcome obstacles and keep you on track.
These prompts may be helpful for identifying your goals and making realistic plans to achieve them:
- What goal do I want to achieve this year?
- Are my goals truly worth pursuing? Why or why not?
- What’s a goal I’m proud of achieving? What did I do to reach it?
- What do I do when I reach an obstacle on the path to my goal?
- Who do I go to for support when goal work becomes difficult?
- Who is a successful person I admire? What skills help them reach their goals?
Journaling for mental health includes goal setting and tracking progress because these skills are related to your overall well-being. Whether your goals are personal, spiritual, educational, or career-oriented, having the self-esteem and confidence to achieve them is intrinsically tied to your mental health.
Using Journaling Alongside Professional Help
Journaling alone is not always enough to address mental health concerns. A therapist or counselor may suggest journaling as part of the therapeutic process. In some cases, a mental health professional may offer suggestions or prompts to journal about. A therapy journal provides a document of a person’s therapy experience.
In a therapy journal, you might write about your therapy session and any insights you experience outside the counseling office. In some cases, you may choose to share portions of a journal entry with your healthcare professional so they can better understand your feelings.
If you are seeing a therapist, talk about your interest in journaling for mental health. The two of you might decide to use journaling as a tool to complement the work you are doing together.
Wrapping Up: Journaling for Mental Health is Powerful
Journaling for mental health has a host of positive benefits, including helping you understand and process your feelings and improving your mental wellness. Are you ready to start your journaling practice?
About the Author
While new to the world of therapy, Ikia K. Young, LPC, MHR, MBA, has more than 20 years of knowledge and experience in the corporate and business arena. Now that she’s a fully Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Ikia is committed to using her faith and all of those life experiences and years of business knowledge to provide a safe, healthy, well-rounded, and faith-filled therapeutic experience for her clients. Ikia’s experience includes working with families, adults, teens, youths, group homes, and domestic violence and trafficking shelters. Ikia has been asked to facilitate teaching to the public in a school setting and therapeutic groups for teens and domestic violence and abuse survivors.
Start Journaling Today with Day One
The Day One journaling app offers features and support that help keep your journaling practice fun and meaningful. To start enjoying the benefits of journaling, download the Day One app today.