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How to Start Journaling for Mental Health


how journaling helps mental health

Throughout my years of practice, I've seen how journaling can complement the therapeutic process. By putting pen to paper, individuals can dig deeper, uncover hidden patterns, and gain insights into their inner worlds. By the end of this blog you will get a sense of the benefits of journaling for mental health, understand important factors to consider before starting, and gain practical tips to kickstart your journal writing.


Will journaling help me

As a psychotherapist, I hold a strong belief in the therapeutic value of journaling as a tool for reducing stress and fostering emotional health outside of the therapy room. Here are some of the ways in which journaling can help.


Journaling Benefits

Research has shown that journal writing offers significant benefits, including mood improvement, anxiety reduction, and enhancement of emotional regulation (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016; Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005). When you write down your thoughts and emotions you begin to make the internal, external. This helps you to gain the clarity to navigate stressors, find effective coping tools, and gain control over your feelings (Smyth, 1998; Frattaroli, 2006). Journal writing allows you to connect to your inner world, promoting self-reflection and bolstering self-awareness. Sometimes, it unveils patterns, beliefs, and motivations that influence mental health (Lepore & Smyth, 2002; Pennebaker, 1997). Additionally, journaling serves as a practical tool for problem-solving and goal setting. By documenting challenges and aspirations, you can clarify objectives, brainstorm solutions, and track progress over time, ultimately boosting motivation and a sense of empowerment (Lyubomirsky et al., 2011; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006).


Why journaling for mental health

Accessibility

Your journal is ready whenever you need it, providing a space for pouring out thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment.


Meaning-Making

Humans naturally seek to process and understand their experiences, especially in the aftermath of trauma. When terrible things have happened, journaling can be a way to make sense of the experience. Recounting trauma through writing helps to organize the painful, unspeakable, and unbearable nature of these memories. Unprocessed trauma memories typically exist in fragments in the brain, showing less involvement in areas like the hippocampus, resulting in a lack of context and clear beginning, middle, and end. By framing the memory within a written narrative it becomes more manageable and less overwhelming, offering a sense of control and clarity.


Find Your Voice

Journaling grants you the freedom of and access to your authentic voice. It's uninhibited self-expression without the fear of criticism. As you continue to journal, you may find that it enhances your self-awareness. Through introspection and reflection, different aspects of yourself gradually come to light, enabling you to recognize patterns, beliefs, and emotions that may have been previously unconscious.


Validation

Putting your thoughts into written words validates them and lends them a sense of tangibility. This validation plays a role in acknowledging and processing your emotions.


Before you start journaling for mental health

These are the key concepts to consider before you begin journaling.


Privacy

Maintain the privacy and security of your journal. If you're using a physical notebook, keep it in a place no one will look and consider writing a warning on the cover to deter anyone tempted to read it. This warning could indicate that the contents may include personal reflections and observations that others might find uncomfortable or challenging to read. Alternatively, if you're journaling digitally, ensure the file's security by setting up a password to restrict unauthorized access. This precaution helps safeguard your privacy and ensures that your journal remains a safe space for your thoughts and feelings.


Set Boundaries

Journaling can take you to some dark places. It's important to set boundaries to stay safe. Take it one step at a time, gradually going deeper into your thoughts and emotions. You may start with prompts and then eventually build up to free writing. In addition to this, another way to set boundaries is through the amount of time you spend journaling. Start with short writing sessions (15-20 minutes). You went to set a time frame that works for you, which gives enough time to self-disclose without overwhelming you. Set a timer. When the timer goes off, stop writing.


Take Breaks

If you feel overwhelmed, take breaks and engage in relaxation activities.


Introduce Feedback Loops

Once you are comfortable with your journaling practice, consider introducing feedback loops. These loops involve reading back your entries and providing reflective statements.


Here are some reflections that are content based:

When I read this I am interested that...

When I read this I notice...

When I read this I remember...


-or-


Here are some reflections that are emotion based:

When I read this I feel...

When I read this I have sensations of...

When I read this I am aware of...


When journaling what do you write about?

Developing a journaling practice, like any skill, requires consistent effort. If you're uncertain about what to write in your journal, consider the below journal ideas.


Journaling for Beginners


One-sentence journal:

Streamlined approach. It is a single daily entry. It is ideal for those who are just starting and may struggle with longer forms of journaling.


Springboard Prompts:

Offers a structured starting point, guiding individuals who may be unsure of what to write about or how to begin expressing themselves on paper.


Here are ten journal prompts to jumpstart your writing process:

1. Right now, I'm experiencing strong emotions of...

2. Today, I found joy in...

3. I'm feeling anxious about...

4. To alter the outcome, I could...

5. My worries have been weighing on me, particularly...

6. A friend offered support by...

7. I'm grappling with feelings of fear related to...

8. A more realistic perspective on my fear might be...

9. I'm grateful for...

10. I can release my grip on things beyond my control by...


Lists

Lists can be a fantastic tool for beginners, offering a structured and accessible way to organize thoughts, ideas, and experiences. They provide a straightforward format that doesn't require extensive writing or introspection, making them helpful for those who may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of starting a journal. Here are some examples of lists that you can incorporate into journal writing.


1. Gratitude List:

  • Five things I'm grateful for today.

  • People who have positively impacted my life.

  • Accomplishments I'm proud of.

  • Simple pleasures that bring me joy.

  • Acts of kindness I've experienced or witnessed.

2. Self-Reflection List:

  • My core values and beliefs.

  • Personal strengths and attributes I possess.

  • Areas of personal growth and development.

  • Patterns or habits I'd like to change.

  • Lessons learned from recent challenges or setbacks.

3. Coping Strategies List:

  • Techniques for managing stress or anxiety.

  • Activities that help me relax and unwind.

  • Healthy habits I want to incorporate into my daily routine.

  • Supportive resources or people I can turn to during difficult times.

  • Positive affirmations or mantras to boost resilience.

4. Relationships List:

  • Qualities I value in my closest relationships.

  • Communication skills I want to improve in my interactions.

  • Boundaries I need to establish or reinforce in relationships.

  • Ways to cultivate deeper connections with loved ones.

  • Expressions of appreciation or gratitude for significant relationships.

5. Accomplishments List:

  • Recent achievements, big or small.

  • Challenges I've overcome and lessons learned.

  • Skills or talents I've developed or honed.

  • Progress I've made towards my personal or professional goals.

  • Moments of personal growth or self-discovery.


References:

  • Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346.

  • Lepore, S. J., & Smyth, J. M. (2002). The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being. American Psychological Association.

  • Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166.


If you are interested in learning about therapy or would like to setup an appointment with Person to Person Psychotherapy and Counseling New Jersey & New York Services, call 908-224-0007 or email Amanda Frudakis-Ruckel, LCSW at info@person2persontherapy.com

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