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How to Journal (7 Benefits for Improving Your Mental Health)

Journaling is one of my favorite tools to get clarity around my thoughts and feelings. It helps me organize the mess and mayhem of questions, curiosities, memories and dreams raging around in my head. Not only does journaling give mental chatter clarity and direction, but it can also increase gratitude and help manage feelings of anxiety and depression. Best of all? It only costs a few minutes of your time—plus a few bucks for a pen and a notebook. In fact, journaling as a mental health exercise is one of my top recommendations for people setting out on the path to getting well.

So, are you wondering how to start journaling? Let’s get into it.

What Is Journaling?

Journaling is a practice of writing down your thoughts, feelings, ideas, concerns, questions and dreams. You can journal in a notebook or on your computer (though I highly, highly recommend using an old-fashioned pen and paper). You can even journal on the back of a napkin if you have to. Journaling is a low-pressure, private exercise you can start immediately. It’ll help you pause and self-reflect as you write about your experiences, get your thoughts and ideas out of your body and on to the page, and let your mental chatter come into sharper focus.

When I journal, I like to carry around a notebook with me at all times and write down the stories I’m telling myself. I write about things I think about myself, as well as things happening with my kids, at work and in my marriage. I write down my automatic limiting responses and ideas for next steps. Then I examine those thoughts and ask myself, Is what I think about this thought or situation true? Doing this helps me, and it will help you too. (Are you wondering, What’s the difference between a diary and a journal? Diaries are used to record daily events, and journals are used to log your thoughts, observations and ideas.)

7 Benefits of Journaling for Mental Health

Here’s the great thing about journaling: You don’t have to be the next great American novelist to start. You don’t even have to enjoy writing.

Sitting down for just a few minutes a day to jot down your thoughts and feelings can start a huge transformation in your mental health, identity and overall wellness. Journal writing has plenty of benefits for mental health, so let’s look at them.

1. You can practice self-reflection and gain self-awareness.

Journal writing encourages self-reflection and looking within. By writing down your thoughts, feelings and experiences, you get a deeper understanding of what’s going on in your heart, body and mind. Journaling lets you explore your emotions, motivations and beliefs and helps you see behavior patterns, strengths and areas where you can improve. (And it can even help you see when it’s time to talk to a trusted therapist or mentor.)

2. You can experience an emotional release.

Expressing emotions through writing can be refreshing and satisfying. If you’ve ever had a workout that left you swimming in a pool of sweat on the floor or buzzing on a runner’s high, then you know the physical feeling of getting that energy out of your body. Journaling can be the same for your emotions and anxiety. Journaling gives you a space to release pent-up feelings, own your disappointments, and turn down the volume on nonstop mental chatter. Often, things look much less scary when written down on paper. And the scary things that are truly scary stop hiding in the shadows. Either way, there’s relief.

3. You’ll get a new perspective on problems and how to solve them.

Writing about challenges or problems lets you analyze them objectively. Is your boss really the biggest jerk in the world, or did you not get enough sleep last night? Is divorce really looming in the distance, or have you not been spending enough quality time with your spouse, and now you feel the distance of a thousand miles between you?

book

Want to build a non-anxious life? Learn how in Dr. John Delony’s new book.

As you put your thoughts on paper, you can see the situation more clearly. Journaling helps you organize your thoughts and break down big, ugly problems into bite-sized pieces. This change of perspective can give you insights about how to fix whatever’s going on.

4. You can track your personal growth.

Ever found an old iPod (or mix CD if you were born before 1990) in the junk drawer and clicked through your high school playlists? When you find a time capsule like this, you remember exactly how it felt when Stacy dumped you and you listened to Tori Amos on repeat for days.

Journaling has the same effect. You can look back at your entries to see how you were feeling and track your healing and growth progress. You’ll see how you’ve grown, pinpoint repeating challenges, and take stock of how you reached your goals.

5. You’ll improve your critical thinking skills.

When you journal, you give yourself margin to think about things differently. By organizing your thoughts, you can approach situations logically and demand evidence of your feelings. Say I write down, “I’m the worst dad in the world!” I can look at that statement and ask myself, Why do I think that? Then, I can examine what I’ve done (or not done) to justify that feeling. Often, I’ll see my emotions took off on me, and what I wrote isn’t based in logic or reality. It’s an important reminder that our thoughts and feelings are often untrue.

6. You can reduce stress and regulate your emotions.

Writing about stressful events or tough emotions you’re wrestling with helps you process them—and this can lead you toward peace of mind. Journaling can also improve emotional regulation by letting your negative emotions see the light of day. When you dump your rageful, anxious, confused, excited or frustrated thoughts in a journal, they’re suddenly out of your body, and you can take a deep breath. You’ll have to deal with the negative stories, or the truly abusive relationship, but your body will stop trying to get your attention—because you’re in the driver’s seat of your own life.

7. You can plan and measure your goals.

The simple act of writing down your goals can really boost your motivation. Some people like to use a framework when they’re journaling about setting goals. Using goal-setting guidelines gives people a clear picture of how, when and why they’re going to achieve their goals. Here are some questions you can answer when you’re journaling about your goals:

  • What’s your goal? Make your vision as nitty gritty and detailed as possible.
  • Why is this a goal? Is it your goal or someone else’s?
  • How will you know if you’ve hit your goal?
  • Will you need resources or other help to reach your goal?
  • When do you want to complete this goal? What has to happen between now and then?

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How to Journal: 8 Ways to Get Started

When you’re learning how to journal, there are a few things to think about before you get started.

1. Pick out the kind of journal you want to use.

You can use a physical journal, the Notes app on your phone, or Microsoft Word.

2. Get the room right.

Find a quiet and comfortable spot where you can focus and write without distractions. I like to write in my basement gym and even in my car when I need to get some thoughts out.

3. Decide you want to journal each day—and stick with it.

If your goal is learning how to journal daily, put your energy into journaling consistently rather than writing a large quantity. Choose a pace that’s doable for you—whether that’s answering a single prompt, writing a full page, or hitting a time goal each day.

4. Set a time for journaling.

Scheduling time to journal makes it more likely it’ll become a habit. I’ve found that setting an alarm or calendar reminder helps keep me on track.

5. Start with a writing prompt or topic.

You can find writing prompts online, use a journaling app that offers prompts, or even brainstorm your own topics so you have a starting point for your writing. (Keep reading for some writing prompts.)

6. Track your journaling.

Keep track of how often you’re journaling by dating and rereading your entries. You’ll see patterns around when you’re “on” and when you get thrown off track—and why.

7. Make your journal personal.

Your journal can be artsy, logical, full of paragraphs or scribbles or bullet points or stickers or whatever else you want. Go crazy with whatever feels right to you.

8. Bring your journal with you.

I always have a little notebook with me, and I recommend bringing your journal with you too. Pack it in your bag, take it to the park or work, and give yourself a chance to write when the mood strikes.

Tips for Journaling

Wondering what you should write in your journal? It doesn’t have to be the same for everyone. That’s what makes journaling so valuable as a mental health tool—you can write about whatever you want to write about. Remember that a journal is a safe and private space for you, so you have the freedom to be completely authentic and honest without worrying about others' opinions. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

1. Try freewriting.

Freewriting is when you write continuously without pausing or censoring yourself. Just put your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and allow your thoughts to flow freely, without worrying about grammar, punctuation or if it makes sense.

When you freewrite, you don't need to worry about making sense or following any recommended structure. The goal here is to quiet your inner nerd and let your stream of consciousness flow. Write whatever comes to mind. Your thoughts, ideas and emotions will surface spontaneously. It's a way to tap into your subconscious mind and access ideas or insights that may be hidden beneath the surface.

2. Get started with prompts and guided exercises.

If you have no idea where to start journaling, don’t freak out. You can use a journal with prompts or answer a few of these questions and prompts to get started:

  • What stories are you telling yourself? Are they true?
  • Write a prayer to help center your mind.
  • Did something frustrate you today? What would make that situation better?
  • Do you have pain or sensations in your body? When you think of something negative you did or something that happened to you, note where you feel this in your body. (Did you feel it in your chest, stomach, neck, legs, etc.?)
  • Describe a moment from your day that made you smile or brought you joy.
  • Reflect on a favorite childhood memory and what made it special.
  • List five things that inspire you and explain why they have a positive impact on you.
  • Write a letter to your future self. What advice or encouragement would you give yourself?
  • Describe a place that holds special meaning to you and why it’s significant.
  • Write about a book, movie or song that has influenced you and explain how it’s impacted your life.
  • Reflect on a personal goal you want to achieve and brainstorm steps to move closer to it.
  • Write about a challenge or obstacle you've faced recently and what lessons you learned from it.
  • What activities or practices help you recharge and take care of yourself?

3. Wrap up with gratitude journaling.

In a gratitude journal, you write down specific moments, blessings or things about your life that you appreciate or feel thankful for. Writing what you’re grateful for shifts your focus toward the positive parts of your life, gives you a sense of appreciation, and can increase overall well-being. By writing what you’re grateful for, you can shift to a more positive mindset, reduce stress, and feel more contentment and happiness. For example, I like to start each day writing down five things I’m grateful for. This sets me up for a mindset of peace and contentment.

Take the Next Steps to Heal

If you’re looking for more resources when it comes to getting well, I invite you to read my new book, Building a Non-Anxious Life. You’ll learn how to connect with people, take the next right step when you feel paralyzed, and cut through the feelings of depression and anxiety that can feel so overwhelming. Journaling is a great start—and I’m super proud of you for taking that step. And when you’re ready for more, reading the book is the next step.

And if you’re looking for a perfect intro to journaling, take a look at my friend Rachel Cruze’s Contentment Journal. It’s a 90-day guided writing journey to help you love your life—not someone else’s. Check it out!

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Dr. John Delony

About the author

Dr. John Delony

Dr. John Delony is a mental health expert with two PhDs from Texas Tech University—one in counselor education and supervision and the other in higher education administration. Before joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, John spent two decades in crisis response, walking with people through severe trauma. Now at Ramsey Solutions, John writes, speaks and teaches on relationships, mental health, anxiety and wellness. He hosts The Dr. John Delony Show and also serves as co-host of The Ramsey Show, the second-largest talk show in the nation. In 2022, John’s book Own Your Past, Change Your Future instantly became a #1 national bestseller. You can also find John featured on DailyMailTV, Fox Business and The Minimalists Podcast. Learn More.

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