Countless sites list the benefits of journaling for mental health – a quick Google search will uncover them all. Instead of just repeating the same stuff, I thought I’d share with you which benefits I’ve personally experienced by journaling in this way, as well as some caveats and tips I’ve found.
What is journaling for mental health?
I say all kinds of journaling is really journaling for mental health so long as it yields something positive, but here are the usual ways it’s done:
Many people gear their journaling specifically towards mental health by keeping things like habit and mood trackers, to-do lists, and self-care routines. That’s the practical/organisational aspect of journaling for mental health, often kept in a bullet journal.
Another aspect of journaling for mental health is exploring and managing your inner life, which is usually done simply by writing about whatever is on your mind. Some say that to reap the full benefits you should aim for 20 minutes a day, every day, but I say don’t sweat it — just write whenever you feel the need to. We don’t want to turn it into a chore.
With that out of the way, here are some tried-and-true (for me, at least) benefits of journaling for mental health:
The aforementioned habit trackers, mood trackers, to-dos and so on can all contribute to a sense of having it all under control. I used to journal in this way for a time, before it got overwhelming. And therein is the caveat: It can quickly turn into a chore, at which point you might feel worse for failing if you’re struggling with self-defeating thoughts.
I’ve found that the way to keep this kind of thing going is to pare it down to the absolute essentials. That means not letting novelty and excitement make me over-commit, but instead just track what I actually think I need to keep track of. For me, this is the occasional habit and important to-dos. All else I don’t bother with unless I trust myself to commit to it.
The chief way to bring more happiness into your life through journaling seems to be keeping a gratitude list. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Write down the things you are grateful for each day, or write letters to people expressing your gratitude. You don’t have to send them, of course.
This article shows how a group of adults who participated in a study reported significantly better mental health after 4 weeks of gratitude writing, and even better after 12 weeks. Science says there’s something to it! I have never kept a gratitude list for 4 weeks or more, which according to this article means I have never given myself the chance to reap the benefits. I’m more inclined to give it another try now…
3. Emotional honesty & change
Achieving awareness of what you really feel opens up for change. I have many times realised my true feelings about a person or event by writing about it. Sometimes that felt scary, because it meant I couldn’t ignore it anymore, but in the end that awareness always turned out for the best.
Without it I would have stayed longer in relationships that weren’t working, pushed my dreams away, continued longer with bad habits and unhelpful coping mechanisms, and in general just stayed rooted to the spot. What you know of, you have a chance of changing. Without any awareness at all, things stay the same. Which brings me to…
4. Identifying negative patterns
To change things for the better we need to know what isn’t working. Journaling is a great way to identify unhelpful patterns both in thinking and behaviour. All we need to do is write about our lives, really – what we do, what we’re thinking, the results of our actions. The patterns will emerge over time. I reckon this is part of why journaling often and consistently is so often recommended: The more data, the easier it is to draw conclusions.
But I don’t journal every day, and I don’t think my life suffers from it. I journal about the things that really bug me – usually my own habits or my reactions to things – when I feel like I need it, and that’s absolutely fine. I’ve still managed to identify many patterns within myself. I repeat: Don’t sweat the guidelines if they’ll turn you off journaling altogether.
5. Uncovering & managing stressors
Knowing what stresses you out gives you a much better chance of figuring out healthy ways to deal with it. After journaling for a period of time you can look for entries where you felt stress/anxiety/fear and try to understand what caused it. Usually it’s right there in the pages, staring back at you. If not, keep at it. You’ll figure it out in time.
6. Negative belief awareness
Writing down the thoughts currently buzzing around in your mind lays them bare. This is great news, because now you can begin to manipulate them if you want to.
If you write freely and honestly you stand a chance of uncovering distorted thinking and beliefs that might be making you deeply unhappy. I’ve done this many times: Just by letting myself be honest about my thoughts and feelings I’ve uncovered some seriously limiting baggage. I’ve then went on to discuss it with my counsellor, bringing me one step closer to inner peace.
However, sometimes by being honest we also need to write about painful past events. Be careful with digging too hard. You don’t want to open things you aren’t equipped to deal with. Let your intuition guide you, and if you think you need help safely exploring a topic you might want to wait until a professional can help you.
Another caveat here is that wallowing does no one any good. It took me some time before I could productively write in the voice of my anxiety or depression without falling straight down into the rabbithole and staying there. Just something to keep in mind.
Well, sort of. My mind is pretty much constantly active, which feels like a curse a lot of the time. I’ve tried many stupid ways of dealing with that, but the most effective and healthy way I’ve found is writing by hand on some nice, smooth paper. It doesn’t matter what I write about, the point is to feel all the sensations that come with guiding the pen across the paper. I’ve filled many journals this way, so it’s not super economical if you tend to buy Moleskine notebooks and the like, but boy, does it feel good.
Journaling can be a really powerful tool! But we’re talking about human minds here, so a little awareness of the pitfalls one might stumble into goes a long way. All the same, journaling can help you get organised, feel happier and calmer, understand yourself better, and help you make positive changes in your life.
All that for just 20 minutes each day, or less? I call that a steal.