Can journaling really lead to better mental health?

Journals aren’t just for teenagers trying to hide their private thoughts from their parents’ prying eyes. Journaling is a helpful therapeutic tool. It’s not going replace mental health treatment from a qualified professional, but it can be a useful addition or way to accelerate your healing.

What is journaling?

Journaling is a process of writing down your thoughts and feelings on a regular basis. A journal serves as a safe, non-judgmental place to unload whatever’s on your mind. Journaling can be easily modified to fit your needs and goals. You can record your struggles or successes, things you’re grateful for or things you’re trying to change. That’s the beauty of it – when it comes to journaling, you can do it any way that feels right to you!

Sharon Martin, LCSWSharon Martin, LCSW is an emotional wellness speaker, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Her San Jose based practice specializes in helping over-stressed, high achieving adults and teens learn to embrace their imperfections and grow happiness. Her personal journey of overcoming perfectionism and people-pleasing traits, inspired her passion for this work. Sharon is the author of Setting Boundaries Without Guilt: A Workbook to Move You From Doormat to Empowerment. Sharon also enjoys teaching blogging and writing classes for therapists.

Editor: Muhammad Talha

Journaling can be done in any sort of notebook, on your computer, or on your smart phone. Personally, I prefer old fashioned pen and paper. Many people enjoy the tactile experience of a good quality paper journal and smooth writing pen, but that’s up to you. You might like an app such as Evernote or Penzu or a good old Google Doc. The important thing is that you find a medium that works for you.

Setting aside a consistent time to write is also important. If you’re serious about making journaling a tool for better mental health, I suggest scheduling time for it in your planner or calendar. You want to carve out 10-20 minutes of quiet, uninterrupted time to journal. First thing in the morning or right before bed are popular times to journal, but, again, find what works for you.

There’s no need to worry about proper grammar or spelling. Use bullet points or run-on sentences. It can be sloppy or neatly printed. Doodle in the margins, if you like. Make your journal your own.

What should you journal about?

Journaling is very flexible and there isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. Simply writing stream of consciousness or whatever comes to mind works well for most people.

If you’re stuck for what to write about, try these ideas:

  • Things you’re worried about
  • The events of your day and how you felt about them
  • A memory that continues to be upsetting
  • 10 things you’re grateful for
  • A problem that you haven’t been able to solve
  • Something that’s stressful
  • A happy memory
  • Your goals for the next week, month, or year
  • Something that makes you angry (or sad or afraid)
  • A situation that you can’t stop thinking about
  • 5 things you’re proud of
  • Record your mood 3-5 times per day (try a descriptive word and a number from 1-10 to describe the strength of the feeling)
  • Keep track of habits you’re trying to make or break (such as a food or exercise journal)
  • One sentence about your day (really, just one sentence!)
  • Journaling prompts such as these or these

Research shows that journaling is most therapeutic when you write about your thoughts and your feelings. In other words, recording the narrative story of what’s happening (or happened) in your life is more therapeutic than only writing about your feelings.

What are the therapeutic benefits of journaling?

Journaling can improve your mental health by serving as a safe way to vent your feelings. A journal can also be a “holding place” for worries and problems. Writing worries in your journal can help you clear your brain of them, knowing you can come back to them when you’re ready; this way you don’t have to hold them in your mind and let them distract you from sleeping, being mindfully present, or accomplishing things.

Journaling can help you:

  • Improve clarity and solve problems
  • Know yourself better
  • Generate new ideas
  • Make connections and understand things in new ways
  • “Own your story”
  • Decrease negative feelings in the long-term (some people experience an increase in negative feelings in the short-term depending on what they write about)
  • Feel empowered
  • Gain awareness of your feelings and behaviors
  • Set and achieve goals
  • Accept yourself

According to research, the longer-term benefits of journaling include:

  • Improved mood
  • Fewer stress-related doctor visits
  • Better grades
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Stronger immune system
  • Fewer post-traumatic intrusions and avoidance symptoms

Even if you don’t think you’re much of a writer, I hope you’ll give journaling a try. There really is a journaling approach for everyone. Experiment with different topics and formats and see if journaling improves your mental health.