Mental health benefits of journaling

Kirk Pineda, MHC-LP January 24, 2023

Did you know that keeping a journal is one of the simplest ways to boost your mental health? Here’s how to make this practice a habit (and reap its many benefits).

While there is no magic bullet for healing, getting into a daily journaling habit isn’t just incredibly cathartic, it can also provide clarity and strengthen your sense of self by helping you prioritize fears and concerns and identify patterns that might be tripping you up.

But what is journaling? 

In the most watered-down definition, it’s an act of recording your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This could be written, typed, or recorded. However, in a more complex explanation a better question could be:

What could be journaling? Here are six different possibilities, and these are not the only ways journaling can be approached.

6 easy ways to start journaling

  1. An open reflection about your day.

Whether you choose to do this during the day or at night, journaling can be as simple as looking back on what has transpired today. Daily check-ins like this are intended to be a way for you to look into yourself and how you have perceived the events of today. You can be as factual or as emotional as you wish. If you choose to be more factual, you will be able to take note of all the significant (and insignificant) events that have taken place, so that nothing is forgotten. In this kind of approach to journaling, you will be able to practice recalling short-term events.

However, amid reflecting on events that have taken place over the course of a day through a single journaling event, it is common to also share our emotional and intellectual interpretations of events. This is normal, and allows us to practice asking ourselves, “what do I think of this?” When we do this daily, we allow ourselves the space to reflect on how we think and feel about what happens. 

Journal entries do not have to be daily – some engage in a weekly journaling habit and others journal sporadically when the feeling strikes. If you journal more frequently, you will be able to tap into the side of yourself that can form opinions about the goings-on of your daily life.

This approach to journaling is usually one of the most common and is a fine baseline for those who want to get started. Just begin your entry by writing down what has happened during the day or week, then share your thoughts and interpretations about them.

  1. An open reflection about your experiences.

This approach seeks to dig a bit deeper; not only would a person be recalling the events that come up and sharing their interpretation but they will also be reflecting on their interpretation. The questions below will help us practice establishing further insight into our perceptions:

  • “Why do I think this way?” 
  • “How did I come to this conclusion?”
  • “How and why do these emotions arise?”

When we do this, we look further into the roots and thought processes that lead us into looking at an event the way we do. Here is an example of someone practicing recalling an event, giving their interpretation, and then reflecting on their interpretations of an event:

“Today is Saturday, and it wasn’t a good day. I wasn’t able to go outside today. It was raining really hard. Since I couldn’t go outside, Saturday wasn’t the greatest, in fact, it felt like I lost a day of the weekend that I could have enjoyed. 

But why do I feel so strongly about losing a day of the weekend? I guess it’s because most of the activities I enjoy involve going outside. Maybe there are things I could also do indoors that would be fun for me, that way I don’t feel like I lost a day.”

While this is a simple example, reflecting on our interpretations can help give us a chance to step back and notice how our perspective can shape the way we see reality. Sometimes, a shift in perspective helps us come out of an interpretation that would usually make us feel emotionally uncomfortable.

  1. An open reflection of your past and future

In this approach to journaling, you would reflect upon how your past experiences have led up to this current point in your life, as well as where you intend to go in the future. For example, take a current circumstance you are in and reflect on which events or choices have led you up to this point. Here are some questions that may help facilitate your reflection:

  • How did you manage to find yourself in your current living arrangement? 
  • How did you get around to being in or leaving a certain relationship?
  • How did you come to have the current friend/roommate you have now?
  • What led you to the occupation you are currently in?

And here are some questions to facilitate reflections about the future:

  • Where do you intend to go next, occupation-wise, and what do you know so far to get there?
  • What choices do you need to make to get closer to your desired future?
  • What is the plan for you to take care of yourself along the way, and how?

Reflecting upon your past and future can help to re-calibrate a sense of awareness of how we got to the present moment. It mentally solidifies and documents the events that have transpired, and the choices made to bring us to where we are. Then, when we look at the future, we can see which events and choices have been progressive, and which have been regressive, and do our best to adapt accordingly to bring us closer to our goals.

  1. Making a list of things to be grateful for.

This approach can be one of the shortest approaches to journaling but can also be extended to any length of choice. By taking time to be grateful for what you have in the present moment, you open up your mind to what is currently available as resources and support. Often, in times of uncertainty, our minds can frequently lead us to believe there is no help available, there is no other option, or we are completely alone. Being grateful keeps the doors and windows of our minds open to fresh, healthy, and adaptive thinking. And yes, you can be grateful for yourself, too! Some things to be grateful for often are:

  • People of support
  • Hobbies that are healthy distractions
  • Friends and family
  • Personal health, finances, habits, mindsets
  • Being able to read, write, or speak so that you can journal
  • Yourself

At first, it is common for us to find gratitude as an awkward or ineffective activity, but with enough practice, we begin to realize that gratitude reminds us of our innate strength and capability to adapt, endure, and thrive in times of both peace and uncertainty.

  1. Freely rambling, musing, and sharing unconnected and unrelated thoughts.

There is a 100 percent chance you will have a day when you simply have nothing to say. The day or week was simple, uneventful, and not worth sharing much about. You may even not want to write anything at all, or even mention anything to be grateful for because you feel fine. This is still good, even if this may be considered neutral or negative.

The charm of journaling is that there are no rules to what you ought to write. The sheer act of writing something, anything, is part of the process. On days when there is nothing to write, write about how there is nothing to write. Talk about your boredom and reflect on that, and how boring it is to reflect on boredom. While writing, a thought or event that has come up has bound to appear eventually. And if nothing does come up, this is OK, too. The whole point is to notice that there is nothing to talk about. Not every day needs to be a shining, brilliant, or tragic moment. Some days are full of nothing. But as an old proverb goes, “all is grist for the mill,” and thus anything you write is still useful in journaling.

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5 ways journaling boosts mental health

Yes, there is a point to journaling – even when we have consecutive days of nothing to write about. 

  1. Journaling as a way to recenter anxious/depressive thoughts

When managing symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive thoughts, it is incredibly common to carry beliefs that run rampant in our minds. Without actively taking time to tame them, they can lead to us behaving in ways that are unhelpful to us. Journaling is an approach that helps to get a hold of these thoughts and see them on paper. While thoughts can run a mile a minute, journaling helps to slow these thoughts down and allow us space to reflect upon them.

There are hundreds of other ways to manage mental health symptoms, but journaling can be one of the most flexible ways to firmly focus on unhelpful thoughts and notice the sources from which they stem. By combining the first three methods of journaling above, journaling can be a powerful approach. It helps us to notice which thought, emotion, or behavior leads to the following thought, emotion, and behavior! All three are interconnected, and none of them only affects the other.

  1. Journaling as an act of self-compassion and building agency

When we take the time to journal, we are setting aside time for ourselves. That means that nobody else is getting our attention. The focus is solely planted on us, and we are the main focal point of reflection, discussion, and scrutiny. We are also taking the time to remember our lives as it happens, either once a day, once a week, or whenever the mood strikes. Journaling is where we put ourselves first. It’s very much like looking in a mirror and having a conversation with yourself (which can be a form of journaling – more on that later). 

If we combine the various approaches to journaling, we are also sending an indirect message that we consider our lives important and worthy of reflection. Taking the time and making the effort to write, even if it’s about nothing, is an act of telling ourselves that our thoughts still matter. Journaling is that daily or frequent check-in of asking, “how am I doing?”

When it comes to considering journaling as an act of agency, we must remember that agency means having a choice. When we journal, we exercise that feeling that we have a choice. When we lack an outlet for our heavy burdens, we may feel like there is little room for us to do something with them. It may feel like we are subjected to them. Journaling allows us the space to realize we have a choice in how we can manage our feelings and create space for us to reflect on them in earnest. Sometimes, when we feel like there is nothing we can do, writing can be the thing that gets done.

  1. Journaling as an act of self-reliance

It is important to recognize at times that we may not always have convenient resources to help ourselves or people to turn to. When we journal, however, we are taking the time to use the one resource consistently available to us: ourselves. In the same vein of meditation that reminds us to breathe, journaling advocates will remind us to write. Whether it be through the use of ink, keyboard, or voice, writing about our experiences and our problems, writing out interpretations, and reflecting on how we see them, we can open ourselves up to other approaches that might be healthier.

Journaling allows us to leave a paper trail that lets us look back on which choices led us to healthier outcomes, which pieces of advice in the past may still apply today, and choose ourselves to be the advocates of a happier future. This is not to say that journaling should be the only resource we turn to when we need help, but journaling is certainly an option when there is nothing else. Plus, journaling helps develop a sense of self-trust and self-assurance that pays off tenfold as a result, as well as in practice.

  1. Journaling as a habit, an identity, and a source of meaning

Engaging in an activity enough times consistently can lead to habit. When we develop habits, we may begin to identify with the habit and consider it as part of how we see ourselves. When we start to identify with a habit, and it becomes strongly ingrained in us, we ascribe meaning to further solidify our connection to it.

Much the same as someone who may consider themselves a movie or food connoisseur, a seasoned athlete, or strongly connected to their culture, people can feel very close to many things. Journaling is no different. When we immerse ourselves in any activity long enough and consistently enough, we begin to notice the intricacies of the activity and our alignments with it.

Because journaling can be an activity that encourages self-reflection, exercises a sense of agency, practices insight-building skills, builds a relationship with ourselves, improves memory, and documents the one life we get to live, journaling can become a lifelong habit with tremendous benefits. When we become strongly attached to an activity to the point where it begins to mean something to us, losing it means that we were truly reaping the benefits. In a way, journaling can be the singular way to gain clarity to solving many of life’s problems before we turn to others.

But to reap the benefits of journaling, where can you begin?

3 methods for journaling

  1. The handwritten method

The traditional method of journaling employs the simple use of pen and notebook. You can begin by journaling in small durations (5-15 minutes) done over a few weeks, which will allow the habit to form without disrupting other parts of daily living. As the weeks pass, you may be able to find more ideal times for writing that are less disruptive or more conducive to your lifestyle. 

If it helps, taking the time to try out different pens and notebooks by visiting a local office supply store or stationery store can help you enjoy the experience of taking pen to paper.

  1. The typed method

Others may find handwriting their journal entries sluggish or unappealing, so typing them may be a more fitting (and potentially faster) approach. Websites and apps such as Day One, Diarium, Penzu, Memento, 750 Words, or Journey.cloud may be useful.

There are also alternative options to typing out your journal entries through well-known note-taking apps such as Evernote, Obsidian, Apple Notes, and Notion.

  1. The vocal method

As a more uncommon (but still useful) route to journaling, you can also take your journal entries to an audible format that can be dictated into a written format. Online applications like Apple Dictation, Dragon by Nuance, Google Docs Voice, and Windows 10 Speech Recognition can all be useful for journaling. This approach will allow you to reflect uninterrupted, possibly by looking out a window, in your comfortable space, or while looking in a mirror.

Journaling has become one of the most accessible habits available today, dates far back into ancient times, and has plenty of flexibility for personalization. With a habit like journaling whose benefits can lead to memorable results, it just might be the next best thing to build a compassionate relationship with yourself.

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