If you're feeling stressed, anxious, or down, try therapeutic journaling. While it’s not a total replacement for therapy, it is one tool that can help you to create meaning and feel better, or serve as a helpful addition to traditional talking therapies.
Here's what to know about therapeutic journaling, plus guidelines and suggestions for keeping a therapeutic journal of your own!
Therapeutic journaling is a deep-dive into internal thoughts and experiences, in order to gain new self-perspective
Therapeutic journaling is the process of writing down our thoughts, emotions and experiences.
It differs from the process of recording daily events in a diary, which many of us are probably familiar with. Therapeutic journaling is about delving a little deeper; writing in a way that helps us to make sense of our internal experiences, learn, and gain new perspectives on our challenges.
Writing about our thoughts and emotions enables us to express them in a way that can help work through difficulties and move forward.
How to keep a therapeutic journal
There is no right or wrong way to keep a therapeutic journal. However, the following tips might help you to get started:
Create a routine of your journaling habits
Many people begin journaling with the best intentions, but find that the habit is difficult to establish. Scheduling time in advance is one way to enhance your commitment to journaling.
For example, you might schedule that every day between 5 and 5:15 p.m., you’ll write your journal entry.
Find somewhere quiet to write
Find somewhere quiet to sit and write, where you won’t be disturbed by other people or alerts on your phone.
Decide on the topic you want to explore
Consider writing about any events that have brought up difficult emotions for you, such as sadness, anxiety, anger, shame or guilt.
(Please note that if the emotions are strong and you find it difficult to cope with them, it’s best to stop writing and seek help from a therapist.)
You might spend 15 or 20 minutes exploring your thoughts and feelings about your difficult experience.
That said, there aren’t limitations to what you write about, and many people find that the flow of writing leads them onto quite different thoughts and ideas. That's okay!
Let your ideas flow, without worrying too much about spelling or grammar.
Try to write every day for two weeks (or however long it takes you to form new habits), even if it’s only just for a few minutes.
Sample prompts for a therapeutic journal
A prompt for your journaling may help get your creative and healing juices flowing. Here are just a few to consider when starting out:
- What are your five favorite qualities about yourself?
- Write a letter to someone who has had a positive impact on your life.
- List out three of the best compliments you've ever received.
- Write down five positive things you'd like to remember the next time you're in a bad mood or spot.
- List 10 things that make you smile, no matter what.
- Write a letter of forgiveness to someone in your life who has caused you pain.
- Write a letter of forgiveness to yourself for past actions you're not proud of.
How therapeutic journaling can help mental health conditions
Journaling can help people who are experiencing symptoms of common mental health challenges such as:
It can also be a tool used to complement progress in talking therapies.
Additionally, researchers have found that therapeutic journaling can help people who are experiencing physical health problems such as chronic illnesses (1, 2).
However, if you have experienced trauma, journaling should be approached cautiously. It can create more distress if not undertaken with the help of a mental health professional. If you would like to journal, it’s best to discuss in therapy first.
Benefits of therapeutic journaling
Therapeutic journaling can help improve physical and psychological wellbeing in various ways, by:
- Keeping a record of ideas and concepts, or things you learn in therapy
- Tracking your progress
- Helping to make sense of thoughts and experiences, and organizing them in a meaningful way
- Helping you to recognize patterns in thoughts, feelings or behavior
- Providing an opportunity for self-reflection
- Providing an opportunity to consider experiences from alternative perspectives or practice helpful thoughts
- Helping to boost the immune system (1)
How therapeutic journaling works
It’s likely that therapeutic journaling can help people in various ways. A recent study found that therapeutic journaling can help to improve psychological wellbeing by:
- Reducing intrusive thoughts
- Decreasing the avoidance of negative thoughts
- Improving working memory
By doing this, it is thought people become able to deal with stress more effectively (3).
Therapy types to consider combining with therapeutic journaling
To maximize the effectiveness of therapy, try journaling as a complementary tool to just about any therapy type, including:
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness Practices
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Psychodynamic Therapy
- Motivational Interviewing
- Solution-Focused Therapy (SFT)
- Holistic Therapy
Keeping a therapeutic journal can help you tap into deep-set emotions, and manage your mental health.
Whether you keep at it consistently, or save it for occasional use as part of your self-care arsenal, it's a great way to strengthen your mindfulness and self-reflection abilities.
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