How to start Journaling for Mental Health [What to write & why]

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If you are new to journaling, this article is for you. Click this to skip the theory and get to the exact things to write in a journal.

Journaling is the routine of writing your thoughts down in a diary, usually to improve or monitor mental health. It is almost common knowledge that journaling helps mental health. It is also common advice on the internet, but the specifics are usually unclear. This article will show you exactly how to start journaling to improve your mental health.

Why journal?

The benefits of journaling

There is sufficient evidence from many studies that show writing thoughts down in a structured or unstructured way can positively affect mental health and well-being. Maintain a dedicated diary and keep a semi-casual journaling routine. Here’s a small summary of the benefits and uses of journaling.

  • Physical health recovery
  • Pain management
  • Deeper inisight and better clarity
  • Better memory for journaled events
  • Sense of control over mental health and life
  • Problem-solving insights
  • Stress-reduction
  • Better access to thoughts and feelings
  • Better articulation of thoughts and feelings
  • The choice to change how you speak to and about yourself
  • Build self-esteem & confidence
  • Complementary treatment option for mental health disorders and high-intensity physical ailments
  • Objective reference for better health communication

The last section of the article describes the potential causes of these benefits.

Journaling can be both good and bad for you

Researchers say journaling, sometimes called expressive writing, is a cheap and flexible activity where clients in therapy or those with a DIY mental health approach can freely choose how they want to express themselves. In most non-intense situations, journaling can help. But there are clear cases when journaling can be harmful because it can retraumatize a person – journaling can sometimes bring traumatic memories back into awareness and the author has to re-live the trauma.

Journaling can also transform into other expressive therapies like visual journaling, expressive art, and music therapy where people perform a physically engaging activity with dedicated attention and attempt to express themselves. Usually to release their emotions, reflect on their experiences, convert the nature of emotions, or change the context of certain thoughts.

Here’s a short overview of the positive and negative effects of journaling.

  • In one study, students journaled once-a-week and their self-efficacy (faith in one’s skills) improved in a year. Some students were asked to journal based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) exercises and some were given no instructions on how to journal. The results suggest that CBT and freestyle journaling both equally improved self-efficacy, which is the primary component of confidence.
  • Keeping a resource-oriented diary (with mental health tips, relaxation routines, CBT exercises, helpful theory, activities, etc.) is a good way to maintain or improve mental health after terminating therapy, according to a study. A resource diary helps people use a healthy emotional regulation technique called “reappraisal” where they can reinterpret and reorganize their thoughts in helpful ways. This is in contrast to an unhealthy emotional regulation strategy called “expressive suppression” where people stop expressing their feelings, which usually worsens mental health after a while.
  • A pilot study on older people at risk of heart failure had lower inflammation after 8 weeks of gratitude than those who did not. However, the study did not report any differences in heart rate variability. This is probably because expressing gratitude improves mental health and poor mental health goes hand in hand with inflammation.
  • The healing effects of journaling, according to a study, come from a combination of emotional and cognitive processing. Focusing only on emotions could likely increase focus on negative information which would increase negative experiences like perceived pain, rumination, fixating on negative events, etc. Effectively, the study suggests, journaling can harm if it is only about emotions. When the focus is on both cognitive and emotional processing while writing (mix of honest reflection and thinking through the experiences) can create a positive perspective of the negative/stressful event.
  • In their book “Techniques of Grief Therapy,” the authors write that journaling is not a good idea when a person is still in processing and experiencing intense grief or loss. For grieving people, it may appear offensive to look at the positive side of their loss. And it may even trigger intense memories that add to their mental experience of loss.
3 most important things about journaling are: Start slow, Avoid jumping into traumatic memories right away, and Focus on growth. Writing and rewriting the negative stuff can fill your mind with that negative stuff. So start positive. Click To Tweet

Types of journaling

In most studies and methods of journaling, it is possible to keep a structured as well as unstructured routine. Based on the content of a journal entry, there can be different types of journals.

  1. Gratitude journaling – primarily writing about things you are grateful for
  2. Visual journaling – representing your thoughts and feelings via visual art, diagrams, illustrations, flow charts, and tables
  3. Learning diaries – recording your new learnings and insights
  4. Dream journal – recording dreams and night events
  5. Food journal – recording health data and food intake
  6. Electronic journaling – recording mental health or progress in an app or website
  7. Resource journal – recording tips, tricks, references, strategies, activities, technical information, and productivity information

Based on a person’s needs, a journal can have any purpose or be completely freestyle; there is no right answer.

28 Precise things to write in your journal

Note: The bold font items are easy to start with.

  1. To-do & goals
  2. Your values (e.g., I value saving the environment)
  3. Self-affirmations (e.g., I am not stupid; I can work hard to improve my skills.)
  4. Wishes and hopes
  5. Gratitude statements for other people
  6. Self-love statements (e.g., I may not be perfect, but I will talk nicely with myself)
  7. Daily activities
  8. Daily anxious moments w/ possible solutions
  9. Deepest stressors and trauma
  10. Long-term worries and how you’ll cope with them
  11. Freestyle thoughts in the first person (I, me) or third person (he/she/they, Name)
  12. Freestyle thoughts with vague adjectives (to dilute your emotions) or precise words (to confront your emotions).
  13. List of words you want as self-descriptions and what you can do to “earn” those descriptions
  14. Highlights of the day
  15. Effort for long-term goals
  16. Daily proof of work on mental health (I did this…for this…)
  17. Top problems today and what you can do to solve them
  18. Random things that gave positive emotions
  19. Alternate perspectives for opinions you have
  20. Alternate ways you could’ve behaved
  21. Alternate explanations for why things happened
  22. Decision-making activities like SWOT analysis, Pros & Cons.
  23. List of choices and features of your decision paralysis with proper weightage to each feature or choice
  24. Diagrams and illustrations of your insights in life
  25. Visual sketches of your emotions and relationships if you prefer visualizing
  26. Newly learned information or processes with relatable examples for better learning
  27. Monitoring health symptoms and health markers like heart rate and weight
  28. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy assignments and worksheet activities (typically when recommended by a therapist)

Writing tips for journaling

  • Use 3rd-person words (he/she/they or names) to refer to yourself for heavy thoughts. This will provide sufficient “distance” to not get overwhelmed. If your journaling content is not intense, use 1st-person words (I, me).
  • Do a small relaxation exercise before and after journaling to minimize the stress of confronting a harsh reality
  • Any time works but you can keep a routine schedule for the emotional bits.
  • Keep a problem-solving mindset and jot down mental health tips you come across.
  • You can journal with a diary, blog, self-notes, a dedicated app, etc.
  • Writing things down might help you compartmentalize better.
  • You can set a time and keep all your worries dedicated to a single time slot of the day and journal only then.
  • Use kindness in your writing and don’t judge yourself.

How not to journal

Choose what to write depending on your readiness to remember and confront harsh details. Journaling brings things into awareness and improves memory for those details. You may not want that because that can keep you preoccupied with negative thoughts. So take it slow.

  • If you are an overthinker, start slow and focus on positive elements like gratitude, highlights of the day, positive events, etc., first. Then move on to expressing negative events.
  • Don’t highlight fears and trauma without getting into the habit of journaling something simple like To-do lists and self-affirmations. Take it easy, take it slow.
  • Don’t be too critical about yourself. Tell a good, kind, judgment-free, growth-oriented story about yourself. E.g., Instead of “I was a loser during the meeting,” say “I didn’t know how to respond to the executive’s thoughts properly. I need to learn that.”
  • Avoid journaling very stressful memories with only emotional processing. It may worsen mood for a long time. Instead, use emotional + cognitive processing: add solutions, coping strategies, new perspectives, etc.

How often and when should you journal?

Short answer: Journaling once every other day for 1 to 12 weeks can give the benefits of journaling. In specific cases, you can journal during medical treatments or the period before a stressful event.

Research studies often implement journaling as a therapeutic strategy for a few weeks, usually 3 times a week. The same pace can work in daily life. Any time of the day is ok and a journaling schedule can help compartmentalize your routine too.

For some activities like gratitude journaling, a daily diary for a few weeks can be effective. In a study, college-going participants had higher life satisfaction and well-being, adjusted to college better, and experienced more positive emotions than those who did not journal after 3 weeks of daily gratitude journaling.

Even a single journaling session can help. Specifically, a single 20-30 minute brief session of journaling about life’s biggest stressors can help people.

Generally, a few times a week is ideal for gratitude statements, daily activities, a summary of events, etc. For example, one study implemented a thrice-a-week journaling routine for people with elevated anxiety and medical conditions for 12 weeks. The participants showed higher wellbeing, lower mental distress, lower depression and anxiety symptoms, and higher resilience after 2 months (compared to those who received only standard care), even after not fully adhering to the journaling schedule.

Writing deep thoughts in a journal for a duration before a stressful event can reduce depressive symptoms in that duration. For example, students in a study had lesser depressive symptoms before an exam when they journaled for a whole month before the exam. This study suggests it is a good idea to journal your feelings during the waiting period before a stressful event, like exam preparation time or the week before a critical job interview.

Traumatic events should be repeated less frequently to prevent rumination (repeated thinking) about the trauma. Journaling to process stressful events or trauma is emotionally heavy and can retraumatize. So a lower frequency with recommendations from a professional would be ideal. For example, the first writing session can highlight your honest experience. The second session can take a problem-solving or coping approach. The third session could be your progress.

In another study, those receiving anti-cancer treatment felt better by journaling and reported an improvement in their quality of life. Similarly, keeping a pain management diary to guide pain-management behavior, objectively report pain, and improve awareness can help cancer patients and caregivers deal with difficult times.

Where to journal?

This is largely subjective but a physical journal on a home desk is most convenient for most people. You can journal in an app on your phone too. And to make things interesting, you can journal in nature or close to nature to reap the benefits of journaling along with the added benefits of “biophilia.”

Why does journaling work?

There are many reasons why journaling works. The following studies describe the cause-effect mechanisms.

A case study research shows that journaling works well in therapy because people have a story to tell and journaling helps bring out the story that influences behavior. Writing thoughts down just to record one’s experiences can help to explore lifestyle, new behaviors, and coping mechanisms. These insights can then help in therapy.

Journaling can seem intimidating because it requires writing things down. Those suffering from self-doubt may not feel confident about writing their thoughts properly. For them, visual journaling is a valid way to journal. In visual journaling, a person can choose drawings, diagrams, and illustrations with or without words to express themselves. Visual journaling reduces the pressure on using one’s intelligence and gives a simpler way to reflect on their experiences.

Even a single session of writing deep emotions can make those life experiences more coherent, and possibly even alter the memory and change its subsequent emotional response. Some other mechanisms are also at play. Researchers propose that rethinking a memory and writing it as a story or a narrative could be the main reason journaling helps. Focused expressive writing sessions may give people the opportunity to talk about things they find hard to talk about, which itself structures the memory into a meaningful context. That may have a “resolving” effect, where the person feels unburdened.

A study done on therapist’s exposure to traumatic stories explores how visual journaling can help them process their client’s stories better. It can also help them draw better boundaries between their work and home life. This study has strong implications for those who learn about other’s trauma because this vicarious trauma can take its toll on any listener. Essentially, visual journaling can help people in the helping/health/security industry deal with other’s traumas and manage their own mental health.

Journaling helps organize experiences in a neat way. Writing things down reinforce the memory of those events. It can even bring attention to certain details that have been missed. On top of this, writing in a diary can improve communication skills because journaling requires putting your thoughts into words. A byproduct of this is clarity in thinking. Together, these aspects affect how well a person can access and interpret their experiences. That appears to improve the psychological state of a person. Interpreting experiences is called sense-making and people have a desire to make sense of their lives. Having a way to make sense of experiences can keep people more satisfied and have fewer unresolved emotions.

People have a negativity bias where they naturally tend to focus a lot more on negative aspects, especially if they suffer from various anxieties like fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, social anxiety, fear of rejection, and lack of confidence. When people see an opportunity to learn, they seem more negatively biased than when they don’t see an opportunity to learn. This is important because people who often choose to improve their mental health are on a learning journey. A lot of self-improvement is about acquiring skills that need feedback (positive & negative). So journaling creates the opportunity to counter this negative bias.

Journaling about positive information brings more positive details into awareness and populates the mind with more helpful thoughts. It even improves memory for details that are written down, so journaling gratitude, self-affirmation, positive experiences, etc., can “reload” the mind with details that inspire confidence and faith in people (and yourself). That is, journaling about positive information can increase confidence and improve self-esteem. Once journaling brings these positive details into awareness, it is easier for the mind to access and refer to them. This, in the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s work, is called the availability heuristic – information in awareness is more readily used to make decisions and pass judgment, possibly even self-judgment.

When confidence and self-esteem are low, it is easy to think about yourself in a negative way even when there is little evidence to show that. Particularly when it comes to acknowledging achievements and skills. Journaling can create an accurate record of achievements and growth in skills, which acts as a regular reminder. That can act as a self-affirmation, which helps improve self-esteem.

Writing thoughts and feelings in a diary can also improve overall working memory (short-term temporary memory). One mechanism researchers propose is that journaling reduces intrusive thoughts and stress which frees up memory. Surprisingly, this is more likely to happen if one journals about negative experiences and not positive experiences. Writing about negative experiences may figuratively resolve and dispel intrusive thoughts that occupy memory – like fully listening to a song stops its earworm. Writing journal entries with causes for events and insights may also train the brain to access more widespread memory units.

Since journaling is essentially record keeping, it creates the opportunity to share feedback with the healthcare provider for better advice and change in treatment plans. This, in a digital eco-system, with electronic journaling can be quite helpful for overall healthcare.

Journaling promotes “reflective practice,” which is a way to enhance learning. In reflective practice, the journaling person engages metacognition, which is thinking about thinking, to gain new perspectives, make connections, reinforce knowledge, and explore ideas. This helps a person grow professionally, especially if journaling creates feedback through objectively recording important things.

Effectively, this means journaling can affect the story you tell yourself. That affects your inner dialog. And, it isn’t a “prescribed” way of thinking; it’s developed by you with complete control.

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