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5 Reasons You Should Start Journaling and How to Start

Many turn to Journaling to cope with anxiety, depression and PTSD. Here's what to know.

Hedy Phillips CNET Contributor
Hedy Phillips is a freelance lifestyle writer based in New York. While she's not writing on topics like living on a budget and tips for city dwelling, she can usually be found at a concert or sightseeing in a new city. Over the past 10 years, her bylines have appeared in a number of publications, including POPSUGAR, Hunker, and more.
Hedy Phillips
7 min read
Close up of woman journaling on a bench in a park.
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Journaling has become pretty popular the past few years. It can be a powerful tool for mental health and personal growth. You can use a journal to channel thoughts and emotions while working through anxiety, depression and even your dreams and goals. If you've been looking into journaling but not sure where to start, I've got you covered. Find out different types of journaling you can try if you're experiencing overwhelming feelings, want to try a new way of managing stress or simply want to track your progress and growth. 

For more mental health resources check out these mind-changing exercises and seven foods to boost your happiness.

What is journaling? 

Journaling is any form of patterned writing that helps you get words on paper. It looks different for everyone, but typically, it's a daily entry in a notebook or journal about anything from thoughts and ideas to activities. Some people journal for accountability, others to have a place to store their ideas. You can journal on your phone, tablet or computer if it's easier -- it doesn't have to be in a physical book. As long as you're writing things down with a regular pattern, you're journaling.

Benefits of journaling for mental health

While journaling can be a way to record what you did during the day, it can positively affect your brain. Here's how:

Manage anxiety and reduce stress 

A study in Pennsylvania on people with anxiety found that spending just 15 minutes a day writing positive journal entries significantly reduced the amount of stress they were feeling. These journal entries were meant to help people focus on the good things in their lives rather than the things that bring them stress and anxiety. Over the course of several weeks, there was a marked improvement in their anxiety levels, thanks to them focusing on positive aspects in a journal entry.

Close up of woman writing in her journal landholding a mug with her other hand
MundusImages/Getty Images

Helps cope with depression 

Research has shown a correlation between gratitude and lower levels of depression. One way to lean into any gratitude you feel toward your life and the people in it is to write it down in a journal. While openly sharing gratitude with those around you is a great way to boost your mood, not everyone is comfortable doing that. And that's OK. If you want an alternative, try writing down your feelings of gratitude in a journal and focusing on the positive things in your life. This, coupled with mental health professionals, can help you work through depressive feelings.

May help reduce PTSD symptoms 

One way to try to reduce PTSD symptoms is with journaling. Research has shown that journaling can assist with this stress. A study showed that people experiencing PTSD saw an improvement in their mental health when journaling in a narrative format. Those in the study were tasked with facing their trauma head-on and writing about it, then writing further narratives about working through it. While this can seem scary, sometimes the best way to move past trauma is to look right at it and conquer it -- but only if you're ready to.

Strengthens immune cells 

Some research has even linked journaling to improved immune function. An analysis of patients with HIV who journaled about emotional events showed that they had stronger immune cells afterwards. The analysis suggested that it was due to a lack of inhibition in this journaling method. However, the research is limited on this topic.

Helps you achieve goals

Writing things down can help you visualize better, plan ahead and keep yourself accountable. Try writing down your goals in a journal and either writing further entries about achieving them or writing out a plan to get there. When you write it down and read it back, it makes the goal feel real and helps you work through a way to make it happen. You could write out your goals in a journal and read them back to yourself every day so you believe in your ability to achieve them.

Track progress and growth 

Journaling is a great method for accountability and documenting your day. You can do this for a number of reasons, like tracking your food if you want to understand a dietary restriction or see what's triggering headaches or other physical pain. Tracking can help you with your mental health by helping you identify things in your day that cause you stress or anxiety. Write these down in a journal when you experience the emotions and look for a pattern. Understanding these triggers -- and working on them with a medical professional -- can help you with your mental health.

Types of journaling 

You can dive into journaling in a variety of ways. It doesn't have to be a diary entry each time that talks all about your day and how you're feeling. In fact, mixing up your journal with different types of writing could make it more enjoyable, which means you'll keep up with it.

  • Reflective journaling: This is a common type of journaling: Write about your day or your life and then describe your feelings about what's happened. 
  • Dream journaling: These journal entries will include the dreams you have while you're asleep, but also daydreams you might have. Any of those dreamy thoughts -- both good and bad -- can go here.
  • Gratitude journaling: Gratitude journaling is the act of writing down the things and people you're thankful for. You can expand it into all positive aspects of your life.
  • Food journaling: This type of journaling is a way to write down everything you're eating. It may be because you want to lose or gain weight, discover an allergy or understand other reactions you're having to food.
  • Fitness journaling: Similar to a food journal, a fitness journal is a place to track your workout habits. This may be because you're trying to train for an athletic event, like a 5K or because you want to start exercising more. 
  • Bullet journaling: Bullet journaling is designed for organization. Here you can keep track of your schedule, to-do list, appointments, goals and other trackable things.
  • Event journaling: Event journaling is a way to keep track of major (or minor, if you choose) events. This will probably be a lesser-used journal because it's designed to document events rather than your day-to-day life.
  • Art journaling: If you want to add color and flavor, an art journal does just that. These journals usually incorporate drawings and other visual aspects.
Close up of mental health to-do list.
Mariia Symchych-Navrotska/EyeEm/Getty Images

How to get started with journaling for mental health 

The most important thing about journaling for your mental health is simply getting started. Here's how to do it.

1. Get a journal: You don't have to use an actual journal if you don't want to. You could simply "journal" by texting yourself every day, as long as you're keeping a record of it. You could also type out your journal entries in an email to yourself, or simply write in a regular notebook or on sheets of paper. Whatever you want to use, designate a "journal."

2. Decide the purpose of your journal: The overall purpose of your journal is for your mental health, yes, but consider more than that. Do you want to alleviate stress? Do you want to work through trauma? Do you want to write about your day because you feel like you don't have anyone to talk to? Mentally prepare yourself for what your journal will be for. You can even use your first journal entry as a letter to yourself and your journal about the purpose. 

3. Write with consistency: Journaling will be more effective if you stick with it. Write down your thoughts, feelings, ideas, dreams, goals, etc. as often as you feel you need to. This might be daily, it might be a few times a day, it might only be once a week. Make time for it, though, and then pay attention to how it's affecting you. Do you feel like it's making an impact in relation to its purpose?

4. Let go of expectations: Your journal is for you. It doesn't matter if it's in incomplete sentences or if words are spelled wrong. It doesn't matter if it's just a list of things you thought of when you woke up that morning. It only needs to make sense to you.

5. Decide if you need more help: Taking care of your mental health isn't always something you can do alone. Journaling is one way to try and improve your mental health, but don't be afraid to seek professional help if you feel like you need it. 

Journaling prompts to get you started

Sometimes it's hard to know what to write about, especially if you're new to journaling. For the most part, you'll be the only one who reads your journal, so you can write whatever you want. If you need some ideas for what to write about, though, try one of these prompts.

1. List three things you'd like to tell a friend, family member or partner right now.

2. Write three things you love about yourself.

3. What are you grateful for at this moment?

4. What is your favorite childhood memory?

5. Who do you trust the most and why?

6. What motivates you?

7. What is a negative childhood memory that you've been holding onto and how can you work through it?

8. What is one of your biggest regrets and what can you learn from it?

9. What has been one of your biggest accomplishments in your career? 

10. What are some of your biggest fears and why?

11. What is your top goal for this year? What about for the next five years?

12. How are you feeling right now?

13. Write three positive things you want to remember if you're having a bad day.

14. How would you describe yourself to someone?

15. What brings you stress and how can you alleviate it?

Journaling for mental health FAQ 

What are the benefits of journaling?

Journaling can help improve your mental health by helping you focus on the positives. It can also help keep you organized and visualize your goals.

What is bullet journaling?

Bullet journaling is a method of organization. You can fill out your bullet journal with your schedule, your to-do list, your goals and anything else you want to see organized in a bulleted list or easy-to-digest format.

What should I write?

You can write anything you want. While previously studies have shown that writing about trauma can help you work through it, you may not need to journal for that reason. Get in the habit of writing and see where your journal takes you.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.