Ready to Start a Journal? 6 Tips From Therapists to Get Started
Writing about your feelings can clear your head, beat stress, and usher in happiness. Here's how to start a journal to improve your mental health.
How (and why) to start a journal
Write what’s in your head—and your heart. Research suggests that writing in a journal can be surprisingly cathartic and beneficial for your mental health.
Journaling can take you out of a negative thought cycle and the repetitive thought patterns known as rumination, which are not useful to your growth as a person and can even worsen anxiety and depression. It can also allow for needed perspective on situations you’re struggling with.
“Journaling provides the opportunity for people to organize their thoughts and feelings, and by doing so, they develop agency and control over what’s going on in their mind,” says Allison Lobel, psychologist at Wellington Counseling Group in Chicago.
If you have anxiety, journaling can help elevate your mood and improve overall well-being, according to a study that compared adults who journaled for 15-minutes three days per week with those who didn’t. The research was published in JMIR Mental Health in 2018.
Types of journals
There are many different ways to start a journal. Think about what might appeal to you and whether you’d like to do something more organized and focused, or something more creative.
Some popular types of journals include:
- Bullet — This is a mix of mindfulness and creativity that’s full of notes, to-do lists, reminders, and doodles.
- Dream — You record your nightly dreams or whatever you remember and any reflections on how you feel about them.
- Laughter — Jot down everything that makes you laugh throughout the day
- Gratitude — Take time each day to list several things that you’re grateful for that happened that day or the day before.
- Creative — Creativity can be anything: write or draw, scrapbook or muse.
- Goal-oriented — Keep track of your goals, track your progress, and write inspirational notes to yourself to stay motivated.
- Collage — Use images from magazines or photos and write thoughts about why they moved you.
- Drawing — Draw sketches to describe how you feel or what you’re experiencing.
- Nature — Record what you experience when you’re out in nature. Describe what you see, feel, hear, and touch.
- Stream of consciousness — Write down your thoughts as they come to you.
Know that there is no wrong way to journal, says Lobel. However, journaling is a habit to develop. If you’re interested in starting, here’s how to get into it so you can make the most of the emotional exercise.
Inti St Clair/Getty Images
Set a time
Having “journal” on a mental to-do list isn’t enough. For the most success, find a time where you can integrate journaling into your existing routine, which will help you remember and reserve space for it.
“I tell people that the bookends of the day—in the morning or before bed—can be effective times to engage in journaling,” says Lobel. Before bed is especially poignant, as journaling can serve as a respite from the active part of your day and serve as a transition to sleep. What’s more, it gets nagging thoughts out of your head and onto paper (where they become less potent). (Here’s how to practice self-care.)
Start with something light
If you’re intimidated by seeing your inner self on paper, start by writing out your day, recommends Lobel. Include the mundane, too. You woke up at 7 a.m., made your bed, showered, ate breakfast, and hopped on a conference call. Then, add what you were feeling or experiencing during those things. For instance, you forgot to set your alarm so you missed your workout, and you started the day more stressed out.
Even just jotting down what’s on tomorrow’s agenda can have marked effects. People who wrote a to-do list before bed fell asleep faster compared to a group that listed all of their accomplishments for the day, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Keeping a gratitude journal—writing down your blessings, big or small—can also help you approach life in a more optimistic way and help you achieve your goals.
If you’re still struggling, set a timer for three or five minutes, write, and stop when it goes off.
Find a journal you love
You have two choices: write on paper or on the computer/smartphone. Lobel suggests writing on paper. For one, so many of us are stuck in front the computer all day, so journaling on paper can offer a welcome screen break.
There’s also a benefit to writing versus typing. “Doing this can internalize a message to you that you’re important enough to take the time to write it down. The slower repetitiveness of hand motions when writing can also be calming,” she says.
It’s tough to be vulnerable—even with yourself. Writing it down adds another layer to this because your words are in front of you. You may be tempted to water down your thoughts, but that won’t maximize your benefits. “In my experience with journaling, if I wanted it to be completely effective, I had to be brutally honest on paper and not hold anything back. I always coach clients I work with to do the same,” says Brandon Giostra, a licensed clinical social worker with Delphi Behavioral Health Group in Fort Lauderdale. (Feeling anxious? Here are anxiety quotes to help you cope.)
Find a private space
Perhaps you were scarred as a teen when mom or a sibling read your diary. Regardless of what you write in a journal now, find a private space for it. (If there’s someone in your household who does not respect boundaries, then hide it.) “Don’t rob yourself of the power of the journal because you fear someone finding it,” says Giostra. It’s also OK if you want to keep the contents private with yourself—no need to go back and reread your entries unless you want to.
Treat yourself to a cozy corner in your home, use a fuzzy blanket, put on thick socks, brew a cup of tea—whatever makes it feel indulgent so that you look forward to sitting down. (To help relax before and after you journal, try these meditation tips.)
When to connect with a professional
Sometimes, journaling itself can help you work through struggles or unexamined emotions. In other times, your thoughts may scare or overwhelm you. That may be a sign that you may want to seek outside perspective or help. For example, you can share the contents with a trusted loved one. Or, connect with a therapist for additional help in processing emotions that feel too big for you to handle on your own.
- Allison Lobel, PsyD, of Wellington Counseling Group in Chicago
- JMIR Mental Health: "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"
- Robert Emmons, PhD: "Gratitude Works"
- Journal of Experimental Psychology: "The Effects of Bedtime Writing on Difficulty Falling Asleep: A Polysomnographic Study Comparing To-Do Lists and Completed Activity Lists"
- Brandon Giostra, LCSW, with Delphi Behavioral Health Group