About two years ago I fell into a pretty bad depression. I came home to my parents in Scotland to recuperate, and while there pretty much all I did was journal. It was all I could think to do at the time, and slowly, I began finding some fighting spirit again. I can’t attribute the whole of my recovery to journaling, of course, but I’m 100% certain it played a big part in me finding back to myself again.
[Only here for journaling ideas for depression? Click to skip the intro.]
That was the first I’ve experienced of that kind of hard-hitting, paralysing depression. When it happened again a year later I was more equipped to deal with it, in part thanks to journaling. Journaling during my first big depression helped me remember a lot about the experience, so it took less time to realise what was happening the second time around. I also took comfort in knowing that journaling could be a respite and a place to forget the world around me when I needed to (which was all the time for quite a long time).
This is my personal list of journaling ideas for depression. I’ve only included the ones I use myself or truly believe could help.
A fair warning to anyone wanting to try journaling for depression: No matter which method you choose, dwelling on negative thoughts for too long will be counterproductive. “Too long” is hard to define, but in my personal experience it’s whenever hope starts draining out of me and I find myself genuinely lost in a bad inner world. If I sense that my writing is making me see myself and the world in a worse light, and I don’t sense a way to turn that around, I stop writing or change tack.
Also I want to mention that these ideas might of course not work for everyone, and that I am not a mental health professional, just a layperson well versed in mental misery.
1. Write freely
Writing can be cathartic if you’re in the right mindspace to be honest and non-judgmental of what comes out. I realise that isn’t always easy when depressed, but we’re rarely the same amount of depressed all the time, and free writing can be good for those times when you find yourself with a little energy and perspective.
I don’t mean the “set a timer” type of freewriting, by the way, but just… writing freely. Writing down your thoughts with no particular agenda other than to let your mind’s content out. You can pause when you need to, you can not write thoughts you don’t want to write down.
Not all guides would agree with me on the latter, but I’ve found the key to an emotionally rewarding writing experience is first and foremost to listen to yourself. If a part of me says “No, I don’t want to go there now”, I heed that and trust that it will come up again later when I’m more equipped to deal with it.
2. Set small goals and tick them off as you do them
This is a little brainhack I use a lot. I think it’s pretty universal to feel a little jolt of satisfaction when we’ve accomplished something, however small that sense of satisfaction may be. This idea takes advantage of that. However, when depressed or abnormally anxious, I just lower the bar so much that the only way I wouldn’t have accomplished anything is if I flat out died.
Getting out of bed, getting dressed, eating something, drinking water – whatever is a struggle but accomplishable that day goes on the list. It’s important to listen to yourself when you’re setting the goals: If you don’t think you’ll do it, don’t write it down. Only write down what there is a good chance of you doing, and once you’ve done it, tick it off and try to remember that you just fought an uphill battle and won. Anything you do when your mind and body tells you to shut up and lay down is a massive achievement.
3. Write down what you already did
Kind of related to nr. 2, I also do this a lot when struggling. When I still bullet journaled I would write little hearts to signify something I did without prompting myself, like “took out the rubbish” or “did the dishes”. Now I keep a list in my journal app called “Good things I did”.
Maybe it sounds insignificant, but it feels so good to do this for as long as you need it only to suddenly realise you’ve stopped doing it. I love that feeling – it means I’ve started taking those tasks for granted again, which means I’m feeling more able and working. I have no qualms about returning to the list when I need it, though. It’s a great way of coming to terms with where I am mentally at the moment, and for noticing my progress.
4. Keep a mood journal or tracker
I don’t know if you noticed, but further up I said we’re not feeling the same amount of depressed all the time. The reason I say that? I once took a course in cognitive behavioural therapy for people suffering from depression. Everyone in the course kept a mood journal over the few months we attended, and we were made aware that our moods did actually fluctuate even as we felt like disinterested zombies. Sure, on a scale of 1-10 we might have ranged from 1-7 (where 10 is feeling great), but there was variety in our moods that many of us weren’t aware of until then.
This discovery led me to realise that my experience wasn’t as flat and same-y as I thought it was, which in itself helped. But it also trained me to check in more often, noticing when I was feeling not-as-bad so I could maybe seek out more of those situations in the future.
The way we did it in the course was just to note down a number between 1-10 for morning, evening and night. That was enough for me to get the benefits, but some people might benefit from checking in more often or noting which feelings they have in the moment.
Many apps will take out the hard work for you, too: I’ve tried a lot of them, but my favourite one combines awareness of thought patterns and moods. It’s called YouPer, and I used it a lot during my last depression. If you just want to track your moods, though, I liked MindCare the best for that.
5. Self compassion exercises
I don’t know about you, but I sorely lack compassion for myself when I’m depressed. I fully realised this a while ago and sought out books to help. I found Self Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff, and later I discovered her website with self compassion exercises free to use.
Through these and other resources I’ve managed to become much more aware of the critical dialogue constantly happening in my head. I’m also more able to dismiss it as a thing that just happens as opposed to an authority to shrink from.
Self Compassion is becoming more popular, and I think it’s one of the best things to practice for someone prone to and struggling with depression because it doesn’t focus on “improving” you in some way. All it helps you do is accept yourself as you are, which is a much safer ground to stand on than the need to see yourself as great and successful all the time.
6. Start a mental health bullet journal
After bullet journaling took off, the world has been enriched with a bazillion beautiful and useful ways to stay on top of your mental health. Bullet journaling can be a great creative outlet as well as organisational system, so it can give back in more ways than one. But there’s nothing in the way of starting simple (and keeping it that way!) to keep track of things that are important to your mental health.
Personally I don’t bullet journal about mental health anymore because apps make tracking easier, but I once did, and it was a great way to do something. At a time when everything felt impossible I found something fun and creatively engaging, and doing it made me feel better. The magic seems to happen somewhere between the organisational and creative aspects, and it’s definitely worth a try for anyone at all curious.
Delving into bullet journal spreads is outside the scope of this post, but here are some great ideas. Or if bullet journaling is new to you, here’s the creator’s own guide to the basics (which is all you need, really).
I’ve only scratched the surface of how journaling can help with depression, but in my opinion these ideas are all worth a try. Expression, insight, self compassion and creativity are all components of a healthy life, and these exercises may help in developing those areas.
Do you know of any other journaling ideas for depression? Please let me know in the comments section!