Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/7/2021
If you have even the slightest bit of interest in personal development, you’ve probably come across the growing popularity of journaling for mental health.
Whether you’ve encountered Instagram ads for the latest “daily journals to boost your productivity” or your friend won’t stop talking your ear off about how bullet journaling has been “completely life-changing,” the benefits of journaling for mental health have been well documented and studied.
But before we dive into the deep end, it’s worth understanding a little about the history of journaling. We know you’re here for the science, but we’re going somewhere with this — we promise!
Many moons ago, the earliest known diary or journal-type text, Meditations, was written by Marcus Aurelius.
You know — “King of the Roman Empire,” “Legendary level-headed philosopher” Marcus Aurelius? Yeah, that guy.
Anyway, he wrote down all these musings on life and philosophy sometime in the first century AD, almost 2,000 years ago.
While we can’t ever know Aurelius’ personal motivation for keeping such detailed records of his thoughts, feelings and theories on life, what we do know is that since then, journaling has become an accessible tool for everyone from kings, queens and celebrities, to normal everyday folks.
People journal for a variety of reasons. Whether we’re trying to catalog memories or experiences, whether we’re exploring new ideas or reflecting on previous thoughts or even if we just feel like jotting down those random ideas that pop into our head, journaling has grown into a valuable tool for all types of people, for all types of reasons.
Journaling has even proven useful in the mental health space. At least, according to the research we have available.
By and large, research indicates that journaling can help with everything from stress and anxiety to grief and depression.
And since we promised you science, let’s get into it.
While it’s still a relatively new topic being explored by researchers, the concept of journaling specifically for mental health has some really solid work behind it that suggests it offers several unique benefits.
When looked at more specifically, according to the area of mental health it’s being used to treat, the picture becomes a lot clearer.
As far as the psychological benefits of journal writing are concerned, numerous studies report an array of benefits for those suffering from depression. For example:
There were notable results in lower depression scores in participants with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) who practiced expressive writing.
Expressive writing was also shown to help lessen the symptoms of depression in women recovering from intimate partner violence.
Depression-vulnerable college students who practiced expressive writing reported lower depression symptoms.
Using different journaling techniques for mental health has shown promising results.
Journaling was shown to lower anxiety and increased the sense of well-being in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) patients.
After participating in a gratitude reporting exercise, students showed higher levels of meaningfulness and engagement in the classroom.
Journaling may also treat symptoms of anxiety and stress and depression by helping you identify feelings and emotions.
The goal here is being able to put a name to what you’re feeling, so that your fears and concerns become a little less mysterious and ominous and a little more manageable.
In one study, researchers noted that participants who were prompted to write about traumatic events reported “improvements in both physical and psychological health.”
In another study, participants suffering from addiction used mood journals to take notes on mood changes, interpret their feelings and note the early warning signs of relapse. Researchers also noted that this allowed participants to implement appropriate strategies to avoid relapse as soon as they became aware of their intensifying symptoms.
When considering whether or not to start journaling, the physical health benefits may not be front and center as your start-up motivation.
However, there are numerous studies that show promising results for improved physical well-being.
One showed that patients with asthma who were tasked with writing about stressful experiences show improved lung function when compared to a control group, which showed no marked improvement.
In a study of patients with HIV tasked with emotional writing, results showed a pattern consistent with improved immune function.
And in another study involving students tasked with gratitude reporting not only felt more optimistic and had a higher sense of general well-being in their lives, but also spent significantly more time exercising.
While the theories as to why journaling is so beneficial for mental health are numerous and far-ranging, one thing that’s certain is that there’s no one-size-fits-all journaling style or technique.
From gratitude journals to organization journals to daily micro-commitment journals, personal journals can offer an array of different styles aimed at helping specific mental and emotional challenges like grief, stress, anxiety and depression.
With different journaling prompts for mental health, these tools, as part of a comprehensive mental health strategy, can aid individuals in tackling their most difficult mental health issues and promote psychological well-being.
This style of journal writing is becoming increasingly popular because of the guidance offered and ease of use.
Using different journaling prompts for mental health, users have a starting point and targeted areas to explore.
With prompts like “describe a goal,” “list and describe your emotions,” and “write about how you’d describe yourself to a stranger,” users are able to explore ideas and topics they may not normally explore and reach conclusions they normally wouldn’t, with the goal being giving them the ability to address and cope with complex thoughts and emotions.
If words aren’t really your thing and you’ve got an artistic streak, visual journaling may be more your speed.
Using a combination of prompts and artistic expression, this journaling technique allows users to get creative and sketch, paint, collage etc., in order to express their thoughts and feelings.
And since the benefits of art therapy have been studied and widely accepted for years, this form of journaling for mental health is an option for those looking for a less conventional journaling experience.
Great for those who have a hard time letting go and would classify themselves as perfectionists, this journaling practice challenges writers to write whatever comes to mind without overthinking and without editing — regardless of whether it fits a narrative or even makes logical sense.
This form of writing allows writers to practice letting go of self-judgment and the need to control every outcome.
While there’s still lots to learn about the mental health benefits of practicing gratitude, incorporating a daily gratitude journal exercise into your routine is gaining traction as a way to improve moods, shift perspectives and basically just improve your outlook on life in general.
The idea is that if you’re more focused on the things you’re grateful for, the less mental space you’ll have to give to negative thoughts and the things you can’t control.
Similar to gratitude journaling, this journaling practice prompts writers to think about what’s going well in their lives.
The difference here is that these prompts are more focused on goal setting and action-taking.
For example, while you may be grateful for your friendships, reflection journaling encourages writers to explain the “how?” and “why?” surrounding that feeling — “My relationship with my partner is becoming deeper and stronger because I’m finding more opportunities to spend quality time with them.”
Everyone needs to let off some steam every now and then. However, spewing out precisely what’s on your mind the moment we think it or feel it isn’t necessarily the healthiest or most productive way to cope with said thoughts or feelings.
So, rather than running through scenarios over and over again in your head and thinking of all of the things you should have said to that jerk who cut in line at Starbucks — or to that ex who you never got full closure with — this form of journaling requires you take the time to actually write it all down.
Knowing that you have the freedom to get it all out without the intention of it ever getting back to that person can be a cathartic experience.
If you’re new to journal writing, keep in mind that just because one style of writing worked for your cousin Pam doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be the best fit for you.
So, if you’re not sure which of these options is right for you, here are a few tips on how to keep a basic mental health journal until you can get a feel for what technique you’re drawn to.
Make sure to take your time picking it out and be intentional about it. Is it your favorite color or pattern? Does it have that new notebook smell? Do you like the prompts in this journal the best?
Regardless of what you choose, make it something you’ll be excited to pick up and write in.
Same goes for the pen you choose, so make it a good one! While a paper journal is a safe bet, you can always opt for a digital journal as well. Whatever feels more YOU!
Think about what you’re hoping to get out of the journaling process. Are you looking to cut down on stress? Depression? Anxiety?
Are you hoping to shift your mindset or outlook on certain things? Are you looking to form new and healthy habits for your mental health?
Being specific about your goal can help you decide what questions to ask yourself and inform the type of journaling you choose.
For journaling prompts for anxiety, try a journal entry on any of the following:
This fear is unrealistic because…
I can’t control everything, but one thing I can control is…
The next time I encounter a stressful event, I’ll try _________ to help me cope.
If you’re looking for journaling prompts for depression, here are a few to get you started:
Today I am grateful for…
These are the reasons I deserve to be happy…
These are the things I like most about myself…
And finally, if you’re feeling stressed, try these prompts to help you find some relief:
The things and people that help me the most right now are…
What was a past challenge that ended up better than I expected?
What advice would I give a friend who was feeling this way?
This study had participants engage in expressive writing for 15-20 minutes, three to five times. Challenge yourself to do the same see how you feel. Try a few rounds of this if it feels good for you!
Like anything new, journaling habits aren’t easy to form, but discomfort is part of the growth process and, in the long run, the benefits have the potential to outweigh the upfront time investment.
Not to mention, you, your mental health and your physical well-being are worth it.
While any of these forms of journaling can be a helpful tool to alleviate stress, anxiety and depression, this exercise alone is not meant to be a treatment or replacement therapy for anyone experiencing serious mental health conditions, any manner of anxiety disorder or a mental illness diagnosis.
However, when done in combination with professional therapy, like hers online therapy, journaling can prove to be a powerful addition to your mental health care strategy.
Or, if you’re not ready to explore therapy yet, hers also offers online anonymous therapy. Each session is an hour and FREE of charge because we know individual therapy isn’t for everyone, but having attainable support for your psychological well-being should be.
We’ve learned that the practice of keeping a diary or a journal dates back thousands of years.
We’ve learned that even today, prominent personal development and mental health advocates keep journals themselves and speak to its benefits.
We’ve learned that there are different forms of journaling to help with any number of challenges, including stress, anxiety and depression.
And finally, we’ve learned that whatever mental health challenges you may be facing, there are countless tools, resources and individuals available to you so that you never have to feel like you’re facing it alone.