Journaling Prompts for Therapy: How to Start Therapeutic Journaling

Journaling has a load of mental health benefits, but you don’t always know what to write about to get the value out of a journaling session. That’s where journaling prompts for therapy come in. Deeper journal prompts can help you make the best use of any journaling session by sending you off of your typical paths of thinking and helping you consider new perspectives.

Using journaling prompts for therapy can help you reflect on behaviors and process emotions. Prompts also can provide insights into your emotional states, what caused them, and how you responded. This approach allows you to consider experiences like an unbiased, outside observer to learn from them.

Your journal is a safe space to investigate your feelings, embrace your unique experiences, and work through challenges. In this post, we’ll explore more about how journaling prompts for therapy open you up to consider your emotions more thoroughly through therapeutic journaling.

What is Therapeutic Journaling? 

If you keep a journal, you may already participate in therapeutic journaling without realizing it. Traditional journal writing is more or less record-keeping — documenting the details of the day. Therapeutic journaling takes the process further.

Therapeutic journaling is a unique writing process developed by Dr. James Pennebaker. You can use this expressive writing method in clinical and non-clinical settings. 

Pennebaker’s method is documenting your thoughts and feelings about a stressful life event, almost as if you are an uninvolved observer, recognizing and reporting on someone else’s emotions surrounding it. This type of writing helps a person recognize and begin to understand their feelings that arise from an event. 

Expressive, therapeutic writing may follow a traditional format when working with a therapist. The therapist will ask the patient to write about a distressing experience according to a specific schedule.

Writing about the event at different times over several days gives the writer better opportunities to examine the experience from different perspectives. 

The first writing may be difficult and emotionally charged. The second attempt might be more analytical. When the writer completes the final journaling session, they may have new insights and understandings about the event. 

Therapeutic journaling provides an opportunity to process past experiences. Clinical and non-clinical therapeutic journaling is helpful for piecing events back together and putting them into the context of a bigger picture.

How to Do Therapeutic Journaling 

If you are practicing therapeutic journaling as part of formal therapy, follow your mental health professional’s guidelines. If you’re working on your own, follow these guidelines Pennebaker founded to get the most from your journaling experience:

  • Choose a topic or topics that are important and personal to you.
  • Write about these topics for 15 to 20 minutes four consecutive days.
  • Write continuously without stopping, with no editing or spelling corrections.
  • Be honest, as no one else will read your journal entry
  • Don’t force yourself to write about things that are too upsetting
  • Accept that you may feel uncomfortable or slightly saddened after writing 
  • Do not write about the same topic for more than four days, even if you feel like you haven’t made progress

Reflect on your writings and see what you can learn about yourself or others. If therapeutic writing brings up emotions or memories that are too painful, consider talking to a mental health professional. Practice self-care to help deal with any negative feelings journaling about difficult things may bring to the surface. 

a person uses journaling prompts for therapy as a form of therapeutic journaling

9 Ways Journaling is Therapeutic

Therapeutic journaling is a valuable tool in your self-growth journey. Whether you are writing on your own or as part of therapy, writing about difficult events and emotions benefits you because of the following therapeutic factors associated with journaling.

1. Offers Clarity

Life can go by so quickly. Some days, you feel like you barely have time to take a deep breath, much less focus on exploring a single topic. Journaling allows you to slow down and think about things long enough to learn from them.

The therapeutic journaling process helps you get an objective perspective on sensitive situations. With a clearer view of events, you’re better positioned to accept, heal, and move forward.

2. Creates a Safe Outlet 

In an ideal world, everyone would have at least one person they feel safe confiding in. But that’s not always the case. Even if you are fortunate enough to have a trusted friend, there may be some things you’re not ready to share with them. 

A journal is a private place where you can say anything. You can express anger, hurt, guilt, blame, or anything else without judgment. No one else will read your words. You are safe to explore feelings without embarrassment or concerns about what others will think.

3. Reveals Patterns

To change unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving, you first have to recognize them. That can be difficult in the busyness of day-to-day life. Journaling provides a record of events you can look back on to identify patterns you may want to change.

Including as much information as possible in your journal entries helps to reveal patterns. Even small details like the weather, how you slept the night before, or whether you ate lunch that day could help you see things about your own behavior that you hadn’t previously noticed.

4. Highlights Growth 

Reflecting on journal entries isn’t all about discovering what you did wrong. Reflection also shows how you have grown and allows you to identify opportunities for continued growth. Through therapeutic journaling, you may see that you handled situations better than you realized or wouldn’t change your response, even if you could. You may also discover you are coping better now than in the past.

5. Shifts Mindsets

Journaling is a mindfulness practice. The act of writing automatically causes you to turn your attention inward and sharpen your focus. This introspection can be constructive when life is hectic, or your mind feels chaotic. 

6. Strengthens Relationships

Relationships are strongest when both people bring their healthiest selves to the union. By understanding yourself and your behavioral patterns, you can relate to someone else better. 

Journaling is also an opportunity to explore your emotions before sharing them. This practice may help you develop the constructive communication habits needed to maintain happy relationships.

7. Promotes Self-Acceptance 

How can you accept yourself if you don’t understand who you truly are? Therapeutic journaling offers insights into your inner self. You may learn about your flaws and weaknesses, but you will also learn about your strengths and gifts. Seeing a fuller picture of yourself makes accepting all the individual parts easier.

8. Fosters Healing

Journaling to heal is an effective tool for understanding varying perspectives. You may find yourself seeing a painful situation through someone else’s eyes. This different perspective can lead to forgiving others and yourself for not being “perfect.”

9. Reduces Stress

Expressive writing is an effective tool for dealing with stress and anxiety. The simple act of writing about your feelings can help relieve stress. Journaling can also make you feel more in control of your emotions. Understanding your stress triggers can help you feel more prepared to handle life’s obstacles.

Why Use Journaling Prompts for Therapy?

Using journaling prompts for therapy helps your expressive writing in many ways. You get the most benefits from journaling when you write every day. But a daily habit can be hard to keep up. Some days, you can’t think of anything to write about. Or it may seem like you get stuck in a topic rut, always writing about the same three or four events.

Journal prompts can excite you about journaling, even when you don’t feel like writing. Prompts can take you to new and unexpected places. They may spark long-forgotten memories and feelings. 

Other benefits of using journaling prompts for therapy include helping you:

  • Get started writing when you can’t think of a topic
  • Get unstuck when journaling seems difficult
  • Gain a new perspective by writing about unexpected topics
  • Distract from rumination
  • Deepen understanding

To get the most from journaling prompts, let them guide your writing without controlling it. If a prompt elicits an unexpected memory or emotion, go with it. Don’t force yourself to stay on the prompt topic if more important things come up as you write.

Therapeutic journaling is emotionally challenging at times. It’s supposed to be. Do your best to keep a balance between doing hard work and caring for yourself. If a journaling prompt brings up issues that are too painful to deal with alone, it may be time to consider working with a mental health professional.

The most important thing is not to ignore emotional pain when you feel it. You may need more than just journaling alone to help you process difficult emotions. Acknowledging your feelings is still an essential step toward healing. 

35 Journaling Prompts for Therapy

No matter what topic you are interested in journaling about, you can find thought-provoking prompts that help you learn more about yourself. Here are some categories and prompts to get you started.

Practicing Self-Reflection

Self-reflection involves examining your own opinions and personality traits without judgment. Ask yourself:

  1. What values do I consider most important in life?
  2. What’s an opinion I held for a long time but changed?
  3. What are three beliefs I’m willing to reconsider and why?
  4. Write an open letter to the people in your life about the one thing you wish they understood about you.

Exploring Emotions and Feelings

Journaling about feelings is one of the most effective ways to explore your inner world. Understanding your feelings better is crucial because it can help you move toward becoming the person you want to be.

Try these prompts to promote better self-understanding:

  1. What is one area of life I’d like to improve? List three actions that will help me accomplish that.
  2. How do I show myself compassion?
  3. What are the three emotions I feel most comfortable expressing?
  4. What are the three emotions I feel least comfortable expressing?

Recounting Past Events

Therapeutic journaling is an ideal tool for recalling past events. Writing about the same event four days in a row can provide insights a single session won’t. Examining the past can help you learn how to cope with present challenges in a more helpful way.

Consider these prompts for journaling about the past:

  1. Write about the same event from several different perspectives.
  2. Write about a past event. Focusing on your feelings about the event, and not on being factual.
  3. What are three things (positive or negative) that I’ve learned from the past?
  4. What would I do differently if I could change my reactions to a past event?

Examining Behaviors & Emotions

Are you the type of person who flies off the handle easily, or do you shut down when confronted with strong emotions? Emotional journaling can help you can deeper insights into your emotions and feelings. These prompts can help you understand your behaviors better:

  1. Which emotions are hardest to accept in myself and why?
  2. List three things that can instantly ruin your good mood.
  3. List three things that can instantly improve your mood.
  4. How do I react when someone disappoints me?

Looking closely at your behavior isn’t about criticism or blame. The exercise is about seeing yourself clearly without judgment.

Acknowledging Dreams and Values

What dreams have gone unfulfilled in your life, and what part do your values play in meeting your goals? 

These prompts may help you learn if your dreams and values are aligned:

  1. What would my day look like if money were no object?
  2. Which aspects of my life am I most grateful for?
  3. Think about what you wanted to be when you were a child. Write a letter to that child mapping out how they can reach their goal.
  4. What are 10 things that motivate me? List them and explain why.

Therapeutic journaling may help you discover new ways to empower your dreams without giving up your values.

Evaluating Relationships

Journaling about your relationships may help you identify what is missing from your connections and how to improve them. 

Try these prompts for insight:

  1. Who do I trust the most, and why?
  2. How do I show compassion to others?
  3. What boundaries do I need for a healthy relationship?
  4. What are three important lessons I’ve learned from past relationships?

Supportive relationships are important for your overall well-being. Remember to include non-romantic relationships on your priority list.

Establishing Healthy Habits

Healthy habits include things that are good for your physical and mental health as well as your social health, relationships, and inner life. 

These prompts may help you establish new healthy habits:

  1. What’s my favorite thing to do when I’m feeling down?
  2. What are three strategies that would help me maintain good physical health?
  3. Why is it important for me to practice good self-care?
  4. How do I show myself love?

Focusing on the enjoyable parts of healthy living will encourage you to incorporate even more good habits into your lifestyle.

Expressing Visually or Creatively

Journaling isn’t limited to writing text. Let journaling prompts for therapy inspire your creativity as well as your emotional growth. 

Consider these prompts:

  1. If I could explore any creative medium, what would it be?
  2. Write descriptively about a recent dream. 
  3. Write about how it feels to take creative risks.
  4. List the top five creative things I would like to achieve, make, or see.

Remember that your journal is your personal document to use as you wish. Include drawings, poems, doodles, and any other creative medium that inspires you.

Reflecting on Therapy Sessions

Therapists often suggest journaling to document and reflect on therapy sessions. Writing after a therapy session can help your brain process information. Even if you feel emotionally drained, spending a few minutes journaling can make therapy more meaningful. 

These prompts may help you get the most from insights that come up during therapy:

  1. What part of the therapy session surprised me the most?
  2. What did I not say in therapy but wish I would have?
  3. My therapist inspired me when they said…
  4. Words that describe how I felt during my last therapy session are…

Conditions Therapeutic Journaling Helps

Therapeutic journaling is a useful tool for many conditions. Consider using journal prompts for therapy journaling if you are:

  • Grieving
  • Anxious
  • Depressed
  • Stressed
  • Having body image difficulties
  • Struggling with substance use disorder
  • Chronically ill

Journaling is not a cure for mental illness, but it can help you examine and improve your coping skills. It also may help you realize when you need help from a mental health professional.

Wrapping Up: The Power of Journaling Prompts for Therapy

If you want to get more meaning from your journaling experience, therapeutic journaling may be an avenue to explore. You can practice therapeutic journaling with or without the guidance of a therapist. Make sure to take care of your emotional needs, and don’t push yourself too far without support. 

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

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