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Last updated: Apr 08, 2022
7 min read

Journaling for mental health: benefits, prompts, and how to start

steve silvestro

Medically Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Ellyn Vohnoutka, BSN, RN

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

While some people might think of journaling as a simple hobby, it actually has the potential to be a powerful tool for improving your emotional health and quality of life. 

Journaling can help you control your emotions, develop self-soothing skills, and craft acceptance of your inner self. These are all vital elements in the therapeutic process (Kupeli, 2018).

Here’s what you should know about the benefits of journaling for mental health and how you can get started.

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Benefits of journaling for mental health

Researchers have studied journaling over the years and have found that writing in a journal can have many positive mental and physical health benefits, including reducing levels of anxiety, supporting addiction recovery, and more (Procaccia, 2021).

Anxiety reduction

Over the course of 12 weeks, researchers studied the effects of positive affect journaling—which involves reflecting on the good in your life—in a group of medical patients experiencing significant anxiety

Compared with the volunteers who were just receiving standard medical care, the participants who journaled reported less anxiety and mental distress and better social integration and pain control (Smyth, 2018). 

These positive effects occurred after only one month of journaling and continued for the duration of the study (Smyth, 2018).

Stress management

Journaling can help you manage stress that could otherwise contribute to mental health problems. 

Journaling can help you release unwanted thoughts from your mind, make sense of upsetting events, and improve your emotional regulation. All of these can positively impact your mental and physical health (Procaccia, 2021).

One study of healthcare professionals working in Italy during the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic found that expressive journaling reduced symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress in participants compared to those who didn’t write about their feelings (Procaccia, 2021).

Improved problem-solving

Recently, some researchers have proposed that rumination might have positive effects by assisting with problem-solving and could also help people brainstorm alternative solutions to their problems and focus on an action plan (Yang, 2020). 

Originally defined as repetitively thinking about negative events and their possible causes and consequences, rumination is often perceived as a risk factor for behavioral health conditions such as depression (Yang, 2020). 

But can rumination lead to something positive? That’s what these researchers wanted to test, so they conducted a small study in which a counselor directed participants in journaling exercises.

The participants reported more positive rumination and life satisfaction and less negative rumination and depression than those in the control group who did not participate in the journaling exercises (Yang, 2020).

Addiction or disordered eating recovery

Starting a journaling practice is a frequent suggestion for those recovering from addictions or disordered eating. It can help you identify negative thought and behavior patterns, process negative emotions, and keep track of your successes. 

In a small study of women in a residential substance abuse treatment facility, those who participated in expressive journaling reported reductions in depression, anxiety, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress as compared to peers who didn’t do the same exercises  (Meshberg-Cohen, 2014). 

While some women reported feeling slightly more negative right after journaling, they resolved these feelings by the next day. By the final writing session of the study, the participants were able to write about stressful events without having a drop in mood (Meshberg-Cohen, 2014).

Another small study looked at disordered eating behavior in young women. The volunteers showed less dietary restriction after participating in emotionally expressive writing exercises than a group that didn’t participate. The women also reported improvements in their moods (Kupeli, 2018).

Healthy habit formation

Journaling can also be a way to help you develop new, healthy habits by tracking your thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

This can help you identify unhelpful patterns that are ripe for change. You can detail the steps of an action plan in your journal, track your progress, and record your successes and how they make you feel.

Improved focus for goal-setting 

Journaling about your goals or visions for the future can help you stay focused and make them a reality. It can allow you to explore your passions and what gives you a sense of meaning. 

Writing about your best possible future self allows you to enhance your self-regulation and produces positive feelings (Kupeli, 2018).

How to start journaling for mental health 

Keeping a mental health journal can help you cope with the world’s challenges. Your journal can be as basic as a simple record of what’s on your mind, or you can explore more complex thoughts and feelings. 

Here are some tips to help you get started journaling for mental health:

  1. Start with pen and paper at first, but know that you can experiment with other types of journaling as well.
  2. Don’t pay attention to spelling and grammar. There’s no grading involved with journaling.
  3. Be consistent. It might feel like another chore at first, but even a few minutes of journaling each day can improve your mental health.
  4. Write what feels right. You don’t have to make the same style of entry each time; go with whatever appeals to you that day.
  5. Make a ritual out of it. Turn journaling into something to look forward to. Light a candle, put on relaxing music, or sip a beverage while you write.
  6. Use journaling prompts to get you started. Sometimes starting with a blank page can be intimidating; use guided journal prompts to get your thoughts flowing.

Types of journaling

There’s no right or wrong way to do it when you’re journaling for mental health. 

There are many types of journals that you can try, and you might need to try several styles before you find the one that most speaks to your needs.

The best part? If writing isn’t your favorite, there are even some types of journaling that can help your mental health that don’t involve lifting a pen.

Art journaling

An art journal is very similar to a written journal, except it incorporates pictures, colors, patterns, or other visual elements. Your art journal entries might look like a scrapbook or a series of illustrated entries. 

The balance between words and images is entirely up to you. It may have no words at all. You can express and explore your feelings in any way that feels good for you.

Music journaling

Similar to an art journal, a music journal does not need to have words. You just make sound and record it. It can mean playing an instrument, singing, or playing someone else’s music. You can also communicate with song lyrics. Whatever expresses how you’re feeling at that moment. 

Gratitude journaling

Gratitude is a positive psychology concept that means seeing and accepting people, objects, or nature as a gift and reacting to that gift with appreciation and joy. With practice, you can cultivate a grateful disposition, which means that you have a favorable view of yourself and others even when times are tough (Ko, 2021).

In gratitude journaling, you write about the people, events, and objects around you that you’re grateful for. Research has shown that this mentality can positively benefit your physical and mental health.

In a small study of nursing students, participants reported that gratitude journaling helped them maintain perspective and stress management (Ko, 2021).

Stream-of-consciousness journaling

In stream-of-consciousness journaling, you write down any thoughts or feelings that pass through your mind. 

You can view it as putting your inner monologue on paper or having a conversation with yourself. There’s no need to pay attention to grammar, structure, or even how neat your handwriting is; just let your thoughts fly out. This form of journaling is especially good for clearing your mind or coming up with new ideas.

Bullet journaling

Bullet journaling is actually a cross between journaling and keeping a planner. 

Bullet journals can be appealing to those who like more structure and organization. Every journal is unique, but there are often sections for recording thoughts, activities, moods, goals, self-care habits, and anything else you want to track. 

While they do take some effort to set up, a bullet journal can be a quick and easy tool to use once you have a system in place that works for you.

Journaling prompts for mental health

Sometimes the most challenging point in trying something new is just getting started. Here are some writing prompts to inspire you to start journaling for your mental health.

  1. List five things you are grateful for today.
  2. What person (real or fictional) has inspired you to be the person you want to be?
  3. What was your favorite story or book as a child?
  4. What’s your favorite part of your day?
  5. Write a letter to your past self highlighting all the things they have done to help you grow into the person you are today.
  6. Write a letter of forgiveness, either to yourself or someone who has wronged you. You don’t need to send it.
  7. Write a message for yourself on bad days.
  8. What’s the most rewarding part of your work?
  9. Write down five things that you can control and five things that you can’t control and how you will accept them and move forward.
  10. What are three things that are working well in your current relationship?
  11. Make a list of things that make you feel alive. How can you add more of them to your life?
  12. Describe the best compliment you’ve ever received.
  13. What will your life be like when a specific challenge you’re facing is over?
  14. What are five things you wish others knew about you?
  15. Who do you trust the most? Why?
  16. What advice would you give to someone going through a hard time?
  17. What was one moment of joy or beauty you experienced today?
  18. What is one thing that will make today great? (Or, what is one thing that was great about today?)
  19. Look back at your previous entries; how far have you come?
  20. What are three important lessons you learned in previous relationships (romantic or with friends)?
  21. Write a love letter to your body.
  22. Write about three of your short-term goals and one long-term goal.
  23. Describe a situation in which you helped someone else. How do you think it made them feel? How did it make you feel?
  24. What do you most need right now?
  25. How do you show compassion to others? How can you extend that same compassion to yourself?

Once you find a prompt that interests you, grab a pen and some paper, get comfortable, and start writing.

References

  1. Ko, H., Kim, S., & Kim, E. (2021). Nursing students’ experiences of gratitude journaling during the covid-19 pandemic. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 9(11), 1473. doi:10.3390/healthcare9111473. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8625791/ 
  2. Kupeli, N., Schmidt, U. H., Campbell, I. C., et al. (2018). The impact of an emotionally expressive writing intervention on eating pathology in female students. Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine, 6(1), 162–179. doi:10.1080/21642850.2018.1491797. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6030678/ 
  3. Meshberg-Cohen, S., Svikis, D., & McMahon, T. J. (2014). Expressive writing as a therapeutic process for drug-dependent women. Substance Abuse, 35(1), 80–88. doi:10.1080/08897077.2013.805181. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3942795/ 
  4. Procaccia, R., Segre, G., Tamanza, G., et al. (2021). Benefits of expressive writing on healthcare workers’ psychological adjustment during the covid-19 pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 624176. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.624176. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7947213/ 
  5. Smyth, J. M., Johnson, J. A., Auer, B. J., et al. (2018). Online positive affect journaling in the improvement of mental distress and well-being in general medical patients with elevated anxiety symptoms: a preliminary randomized controlled trial. JMIR Mental Health, 5(4), e11290. doi:10.2196/11290. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6305886/ 
  6. Yang, H. & Li, H. (2020). Training Positive rumination in expressive writing to enhance psychological adjustment and working memory updating for maladaptive ruminators. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 789. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00789. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7237754/