A close-up photo of a woman journaling for mental health with a small notebook and a pen.

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Want to Start Journaling, but Unsure Where to Begin? Follow These Pro Tips to Make the Habit Stick

Experts explain why writing down your thoughts is worth your time (even if it’s only for a few minutes).

By Michelle KonstantinovskyApril 10, 2024

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Crammed into a corner of my bookshelf sits a pile of sad, neglected notebooks. At one point in time, each of these notebooks held so much promise and potential, practically begging to be filled with my deepest thoughts, biggest dreams, and most meaningful ideas. And yet, literally every single one of these notebooks has been abandoned within months of purchase—hence the sad pile. 

What is it about journaling that makes it such a tough habit to maintain? Many of us have heard about the purported benefits of journaling for mental health, yet struggle to sustain the practice (despite accumulating so many perfectly good notebooks). So we turned to the experts to discover why the act of journaling is beneficial for our health, and to learn the nuts and bolts of how to solidify the habit. Below, find step-by-step tips on how to journal for mental health (and physical health!) so you can feel stronger in every way.

Benefits of Journaling for Mental Health

It seems like just about every wellness professional, educator, and influencer advocates for a journaling practice. But why would writing down your thoughts help boost your well-being?

“When you do a journal practice, the ‘emergency alert system’ regions of your brain slow down, and the executive reasoning, logical, ‘thinking’ regions of your brain activate,” says Britt Frank, a psychotherapist, licensed specialist clinical social worker, and author of The Science of Stuck. “When you’re in the ‘driver’s seat’ of your brain, it’s easier to make better decisions and respond to stressors rather than react to triggers.”

Journaling has numerous mental health benefits, including reduced stress, improved mood, increased insight, greater self-reflection and a sense of control. But the practice offers benefits for your physical health, too: A 2018 research article published by Cambridge University Press in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment cites improvements to athletic performance, blood pressure, immune system function, and lung and liver function as just some of the longer-term benefits of expressive writing.

According to psychotherapist Tessa Gordon, there are several reasons why journaling—and, specifically, the act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)—is a healthy habit. “Writing about thoughts and feelings has resulted in improved moods, increased positive outlooks, and greater physical health,” she says. “Writing helps to process the thoughts in your mind, can lead to deeper understanding of yourself, and enables you to discover new voices with which to re-story your life.” 

A man sitting up in bed in a sunny room while he journals for mental health.

Sunwoo Jung / DigitalVision via Getty Images

How to Journal for Mental Health

Sometimes, the hardest part of committing to a healthy habit is finding the motivation or strength to start. To address that common beginner-level anxiety, Frank has a three-step plan that she says can help kickstart a new journaling routine.

“Journaling can feel overwhelming when you first start, so to increase the odds that you’ll sustainably practice, you can follow these steps to build your journaling ‘muscle,’” Frank says. “Do this for three weeks and once it’s become a habit, then you can expand the practice, purchase more in-depth journals, or get creative.” 

Here’s Frank’s step-by-step cheat sheet for how to start journaling for mental health:

  1. Decide how much time you have. “It’s OK if it’s three minutes or 30 seconds or an hour,” she says. “Any journaling is preferable to none.”

  2. Get out your journal, notebook, or a notes app on your phone. “Digital journaling is preferable to none at all, but old-fashioned pen-to-paper journaling seems to have the most immediate and powerful impact on the brain,” Frank notes. Once you have your apparatus of choice, “write down one good thing that happened to you today and one uncomfortable or unpleasant thing that happened to you today,” she suggests.

  3. Congratulate yourself. “Give yourself a pat on the back for journaling,” Frank says.

  4. Repeat until this practice is a habit. “Yes, it seems small. Yes, it sounds silly. Yes, it works,” she adds.

If you’re still struggling with how to express yourself, Gordon offers a reminder that “journaling” doesn’t necessarily mean pulling together Pulitzer-worthy prose. In fact, a journaling practice can include using arts, crafts, or even stickers to channel your feelings. 

“Figure out what method of journaling works for you,” Gordon says. “The idea is to get the thoughts and ideas that are swirling about inside your head outside so they are taking up less space, and so that you are able to think about them in different ways. Let go of expectations on what journaling is supposed to look like; this includes length of time, style, [and] consistency.”  

A few other alternative journaling suggestions from Gordon include:

  • Emailing yourself entries 

  • Writing a bulleted note or list

  • Practicing a “brain dump” by jotting down everything that comes into your mind, with no rules around grammar or full sentences—words and phrases are just fine 

  • Recording a voice memo to talk through your thoughts

  • Using whatever form of tech feels right. “If you feel like your thoughts are going faster than your hand can write, or for some reason, you have noticed you can express yourself better when typing on your phone versus the computer or using pen and paper, use that!” Gordon says.

Is There a ‘Best’ Time to Journal?

Just like with exercise, there are lots of theories regarding whether there’s a universal “best” time of day to journal. And, just like with exercise, the “best” time of day is the time that works for you.

“Some say the first thing in the morning is the best time to journal, and others say to do it at the end of the evening,” Frank says. “I think that the best time to journal is whatever time you’re willing to journal.” 

Gordon echoes that sentiment, adding that the stress of committing to someone else’s “ideal” schedule may actually be detrimental to sustaining your journaling habit. “I have some clients who journal in the morning, others in their car, and some before bed,” she says. “While some may say that having a set time and place is important to establishing and maintaining a habit, I have found that this isn’t true for everyone. And that the pressure of what journaling is ‘supposed’ to look like (i.e. nice notebook, sitting on a couch, writing pensive thoughts) can actually cause more distress and invite feelings of expectations and fear of ‘not doing it right.’”

Tips for Maintaining a Journaling Habit

Once you’ve overcome the hump of initiating a journaling practice, you may find yourself struggling to stay consistent. (Understandable!) Luckily, there are some tried-and-true tips for staying on track with your journaling habit:

  • Start small. “Even writing down one or two words is preferable to none,” Frank says. “And don’t think it has to be long and drawn-out sentences and paragraphs.” 

  • Pick a specific direction. “Have a prompt to respond to or a focus versus open-endedness,” Gordon says.

  • Use whatever materials you have. “There’s no specific notebook or type of pen that will magically get you into journaling,” Frank says, noting that there are plenty of options available. “If you’re overwhelmed, a regular notebook will be fine,” she adds.

  • Throw out any preconceived notions. Remember that “there is no one way to journal,” Gordon says. “Let go of expectations on what journaling is ‘supposed to look like.’”

  • Consider using a compact canvas. “Trick your brain by buying a small notebook instead of a big, heavy, cumbersome journal,” Frank says. “A tiny little notepad might be easier for your brain to digest than a complicated ‘journal system.’”

Another piece of the journaling puzzle to consider: tracking your fitness journey. Just as writing down your daily thoughts can help you process your emotions and work toward future goals, keeping notes about your workouts can keep you accountable and on track. And just like regular journaling can be a helpful habit for anyone at any time, fitness journaling is a great tool for any athlete, regardless of their level or experience. 

Start with some simple post-workout notes, jotting down your exercises and the duration of your activity. As you get more comfortable with the practice, consider getting more in-depth with notes about mileage, weight levels lifted, number of sets or reps, or other metrics. Over time, keeping a fitness journal may just help you recognize patterns, break your big goals into actionable steps, and progress your training. (And remember, the Peloton App can help you stay accountable, too, with tools like goal tracking, scheduled workouts, and much more.)

Mental Health Journaling Prompts to Help You Get Started

As Gordon recommends, prompts can be a helpful way to get the ball rolling on a regular journaling practice. Here are some of her and Frank’s favorite go-tos:

  • What hopes are you holding onto for yourself that made you first decide to take up this practice of journaling?

  • If you are to keep up with this practice of journaling (however that looks for you), what do you imagine it will do for you, and your life?

  • When you hear the word “journaling,” what thoughts, images, emotions, words, and feelings come to mind? 

  • Where in your day today was someone helpful, kind, or in any way not a jerk to you?

  • What was something positive that surprised you about your day?

  • What do you wish someone asked you about today?

  • Who annoyed you the most today—and what about them specifically pushed your buttons?

  • What are three people, places, and things that you can look to when feeling anxious or overwhelmed?

  • What was the funniest meme/show/podcast you saw this week? What about it made you laugh?

  • Write a sentence about how you’re feeling, a sentence about how you wish you were feeling, and a sentence about “one tiny step” you can take in the direction of how you wish you were feeling.

The Takeaway

No matter how many times you’ve invested in a lovely new notebook, only to forget about it after minimal usage, you can absolutely restart your journaling journey. And there’s plenty of research to suggest that documenting your internal monologue and journaling for mental health can boost everything from your mood to your immune system. 

If the “Dear Diary”-style of writing makes you cringe or you just can’t commit to a long, daily journaling practice, that’s totally fine. Even just a few minutes of jotting down the first words or phrases that come to mind can start to give you deeper insight into your thought patterns and help propel you toward more meaningful discoveries. 

If beautiful notebooks give you writer’s block, try using technology to your advantage and channel your ideas and emotions into an app, email, or voice note. Not only will you help bolster your mental and physical well-being, but you may even collect enough material to write your own future bestseller.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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