Journaling Techniques

How to Harness the Power of a Therapy Journal

A therapy journal can be a powerful ally on your wellness journey, helping you understand and process your emotions and experiences. In fact, journaling therapy is a method of journaling that has positive benefits on mental and physical health, both on its own or when coupled with traditional talk therapy. Writing in a therapy journal can help you with creative expression, personal growth, or feeling greater control of your life. 

What is a Journal Therapy?

Journal therapy uses journaling to create awareness and improve mental health conditions. Dr. Ira Progoff created journal therapy in the 1960s with the Intensive Journal method. He found that people who wrote about their experiences and concerns could work through them more rapidly.

Journal therapy has proven helpful for people experiencing:

  • Emotional trauma 
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Grief and loss
  • Chronic illness
  • Substance use
  • Eating disorders
  • Relationship issues
  • Problems with communication skills
  • Low self-esteem

A therapy journal is used in combination with talk therapy or on its own, acting as a place to record your thoughts and experiences and work through them. Studies have shown that the effects of writing about stressful experiences helps reduce stress and may even help alleviate some physical conditions like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Ways to Use a Therapy Journal

Getting the most from a therapy journal means actively processing the insights and observations that arise while journaling or reflecting on a therapy session. Writing is an excellent way to record and reflect on those thoughts. 

Options for using a therapy journal include:

  • Record your experiences and emotions, including those you have immediately after a therapy session
  • Track things that trigger strong emotions and look for patterns
  • Write about something that’s bothering you and try to work your way through it on paper
  • Write about topics you want to discuss with your therapist
  • Track your self-care activities and consider whether it’s worth doing more or different things
  • Record your successes and challenges in using your new tools from therapy 
  • Journal about your insights and what you observe
  • Document your dreams or any long-forgotten memories that pop up

You may choose to share some of your entries with your therapist—or not. A journal is private, so you should feel free to express anything and everything without concerns about others analyzing or judging your thoughts.

A person writes in their therapy journal

4 Tips for Getting Started with a Therapy Journal

There really is no wrong way to start a therapy journal, but these tips for how to start journaling will help you get the most from the new habit. No matter your approach, journaling allows you to organize your thoughts and feelings. This practice makes it easier to reflect on them later and potentially spur self-growth. 

1. Try a Few Different Journaling Techniques

Expressive writing (expressing your personal feelings through writing) is a valuable journaling technique, but it’s not the only one. Like any other pursuit, journaling can become redundant and lose value if you follow the same routine every day. 

Keep your journaling vibrant by introducing new techniques when you sense you’re getting bored. 

Some popular therapy journaling methods include:

  • Recording nightly dreams (in a dream journal)
  • Listing things you’re grateful for (in a gratitude journal)
  • Drawing, painting, or creating a collage in your journal (in an art journal)
  • Reflecting on your daily experiences or memories (in a reflective journal)
  • Sitting outside and recording what you see in a natural setting (in a nature journal)
  • Writing about things that make you laugh (in a humor journal)

All these methods, and more, can provide deep personal insights that enhance the therapy process. 

2. Choose a Journal that Fits Your Style

Using an expensive leather-bound journal and a fine vintage pen is unnecessary, but if these tools interest you, use them. Whether it’s a plain spiral notebook, an app on an electronic device, or a hand-bound collection of random papers you collected from around the house, your journal should be something you relate to and enjoy using. 

Tools like the Day One journal app provide all the extras you need to stay on track and excited about journaling. Journaling reminders, daily writing prompts, and other journal features can help you look forward to journaling and keep organized. 

3. Be Honest

You can share your honest feelings from the first entry in a therapy journal. Writing honestly maximizes the benefits of journaling. Your genuine reflections are like a mirror you can look into now or later when you feel confident and ready to examine your thoughts. 

4. Find a Private Place

One of the great things about journaling is that you can do it anywhere—but that doesn’t mean you should. Instead, try to choose an environment where you can relax and not feel rushed. Worrying about someone looking over your shoulder will inhibit your ability to let your words flow. 

Journaling can sometimes bring up deep emotions, especially if you’re writing about difficult topics like trauma or grief. Being in a public place may inhibit you from feeling what you need to feel to achieve the personal growth you’re working toward. 

4 Steps to Establishing Goals for Therapy Journaling

Goals like “I want to be a better person” or “I want to understand myself better” are noble, but they’re also difficult to quantify. If you have a therapist, you’ll likely discuss your goals for therapy. You can use those ideas to guide your aims for journaling. If not, you can set goals on your own.

Why is it important to set goals? They help you to focus on positive behaviors. Documenting goals is an important confirmation of your commitment to fulfilling them. Even if your aims are vague or unclear to begin with, seeing them written down gives you a place to start. Consider taking these steps to establish realistic goals. 

1. Freewrite to Identify Your Goals

Freewriting is the practice of focusing on a topic and writing continuously for a preset amount of time. If your mind wanders or you run out of words, write nonsense words or repeat whatever comes to mind — just keep writing. 

Freeing your thought process in this way can help you get past what you think you should do and get to the heart of what you genuinely want. 

2. Write Down Your Goals, Even if They’re Vague

It’s alright if you haven’t yet figured out all the steps you need to reach a goal. Write about it anyway. As you attend more therapy sessions or do more journal writing, you will gain clarity about how to make your goals a reality. 

3. Be Honest About What You Want

Many people have had the same goal for years without ever making an effort to realize it. Perhaps you have told yourself that you want to get married and have children. But if you haven’t put effort into achieving that goal, maybe it’s not what you want. 

No goal or dream is off-limits when you are writing in a journal. Write about your wildest dreams and those small practical desires. Only by being honest can you truly discover how to create the life you want. 

4. Map Out the Steps to Accomplish Your Goals

Once you begin focusing on goals, you may find you have more than you ever imagined. Use your journal to organize and prioritize your goal steps to avoid becoming overwhelmed. For example, if you have the goal to marry and start a family, you might first need to learn how to trust yourself or communicate in a healthy way. 

Writing about a larger goal will provide insight into the smaller steps you need to take to make that happen. 

Examples of Therapy Journal Goals

Establishing goals for your therapy journaling helps focus your mind and highlights your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing your goals also puts you in a stronger position to benefit from a journaling practice. Instead of writing about surface topics, you can tackle meaningful subjects that inspire your self-growth. 

Examples of goals that might be useful for a therapy journal include:

  • Learning how to set healthy boundaries
  • Managing stress
  • Improving self-esteem
  • Challenging negative thinking
  • Taking better care of yourself
  • Increasing confidence in decision making
  • Cultivating self-compassion
  • Building healthy relationships
  • Achieving career goals
  • Learning to enjoy your own company
  • Ceasing to be a people pleaser
  • Healing from trauma
  • Focusing on gratitude
  • Developing better problem-solving skills

With a journal, you can record and examine your innermost thoughts, which will help you work toward your therapy goals.

A Creating a Writing Routine

Consistency is essential when incorporating a new habit into your daily routine. This rule applies to journaling. Creating a realistic routine that you can stick to will ensure you get the most benefits from a therapy journal. 

It might be ideal to write for 20 minutes every morning before your day begins, but you shouldn’t give up if that doesn’t work for you. 

Consider these suggestions for a journaling routine that fits your needs:

  • Write at the same time every day or as often as you can
  • Decide how long you want to write and set a timer; 15–20 minutes is typical
  • Take a few moments to clear your mind before you begin writing
  • Don’t censor yourself, and allow errors in grammar and spelling
  • Allow for “recovery time” after a journaling session in case strong emotions arise

If your first few journaling sessions don’t feel valuable, don’t give up. Try using journal prompts or experimenting with different techniques until you find your groove. 

Prompts and Exercises for Therapy Journaling

Journaling prompts for therapy can help you express thoughts and feelings you may not have realized you had. Depending on what works for you, you can incorporate prompts every day or only occasionally to vary your journaling practice.

Consider this list of prompts that could be helpful for your therapy journal:

  • How am I feeling today? What might be contributing to those emotions?
  • List three things that made me feel happy today.
  • List three things that made me feel uneasy today.
  • What is one thing I’d like to tell my younger self?
  • How do I react when I feel angry, and what would I like to do differently?
  • What are my core beliefs, and why do I believe them?
  • Write about a time I felt envy or jealousy 
  • Am I an introvert or an extrovert, and why?
  • What can I do today to meet one of my personal growth goals?
  • What can I do to take better care of myself?
  • What are some things I can appreciate or be grateful for right now?
  • What’s a self-care activity I really enjoy? How can I do it more?
  • List my three best qualities.
  • What do I think will happen if I say no?
  • What is a positive affirmation that I really believe about myself? When could I say it to myself as part of my daily routine?
  • How do other people see me, and how does that differ from how I see myself?
  • Which personal value do I feel is most important?

To make the most out of journaling prompts, allow them to guide but not limit your writing. During a journaling session, you will often begin writing about one topic before finding that it leads you to another subject entirely. The same is true when using prompts. 

If a prompt about your favorite things turns into an entry about the worst day of your life, that’s OK. In fact, that’s great. It means the prompt helped guide your subconscious mind to the topic you most needed to write about that day. 

Integrating Therapeutic Techniques into Journaling

If you’re working with a therapist, you’ll learn more about different therapeutic techniques and how to enhance your journaling with those strategies. Your therapist can guide you in understanding more about how the following techniques and others can help benefit you.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an approach to therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns. To change unhelpful patterns, you first need to recognize them. CBT therapists frequently recommend a specific type of therapy journal called a Thought Diary.

To incorporate the Thought Diary technique, divide a page into four columns. Then, recall an upsetting event or period of unhelpful thinking. 

Record the date the event happened in Column 1, the situation in Column 2, and the emotion you experienced — and its intensity — in Column 3. In Column 4, write the thought associated with the event and how strongly you believe that thought. You can share this journal entry with your therapist for more insight. 


Mindfulness is being present now — not reliving the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness is good for mental health because it allows you to be aware of your thoughts and feelings without being overwhelmed by them. Mindfulness journaling helps you hone this ability.

Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy focuses on helping you increase confidence about being the expert in your own life. The emphasis is on telling the stories you’ve carried since childhood and giving them meaning. 

Journaling is an opportunity to write these stories down and reflect on them alone or with your therapist. Breaking your personal narrative into smaller stories helps you clarify challenges and develop solutions. 

Overcoming Challenges in Therapy Journaling

Like all new habits, there are challenges involved in developing a solid journaling practice. You may face writer’s block, feel frustrated by perfectionism, or have difficulty maintaining consistency in your writing. 

Tips to stay enthusiastic about keeping a therapy journal:

  • Use new techniques, prompts, or a new format if journaling is getting dull
  • If you’re experiencing writer’s block, write about why you think you’re blocked
  • Use prompts when you can’t think of anything to write about
  • Keep your commitment even when you don’t feel inspired
  • If work or family obligations are draining you, use your journal to write about them
  • Use stream-of-consciousness writing to overcome perfectionist tendencies

Journaling is a self-care technique you can use throughout your life, regardless of age or physical ability.

Can Therapy Journaling Deepen Your Personal Journey?

Therapy journaling enhances your work toward self-growth and coping with a mental health issue, with or without the assistance of a professional. You can use it to record your feelings or to document the topics you wish to discuss at your next therapy appointment. 

Getting started can be a challenge. If you are willing to try different techniques, be honest with yourself, and establish a reliable schedule, keeping a therapy journal will benefit your mental and physical health. 

You may encounter challenges with journaling. Like other self-care habits, it can be tempting to skip your journaling time, especially if you’re getting bored. Remember that there are no rules for journaling. 

Spend your journaling time writing poetry or sketching images reflecting your feelings. Exploring new techniques and letting your creativity come out to play will help you overcome obstacles. 

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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