If developing a regular journaling practice has been on your to do list for the last six years, like drinking more water and starting to meditate, you’re not alone.
If you’ve never tried it, or it’s something you did for a while but stopped, it could be because you struggle to know how to start. Not knowing where to begin is something I hear often, particularly among my self-identified perfectionists who feel like they have to get it “right” and among those who have been disconnected from their emotions for a long time.
There are different ways to approach journaling for your mental health, but I like to think about it as an opportunity to process experiences or emotions and to complete the stress cycle. The practice has been shown to be linked to decreased mental distress, improved coping, and even improved physical health (e.g. studies showed journaling led to faster healing from medical procedures).
When we journal, we discharge the emotions we’re experience and work to make sense of them in a new way. Even if it feels like “brain dumping,” our minds are developing a a new coherence through writing. Plus, we start to recognize insights that can help us know ourselves and our patterns better.
If you’re curious to get started, I’m sharing some foundational “rules of thumb” when it comes to using journaling for mental health, as well as giving you some prompts to get you started. Let’s dig in.
What to Remember
- Try writing on paper if you can. Studies have shown that we derive greater benefit from writing physically versus typing or other digital methods because of the physiology of putting pen to paper. That said, if you are more likely to keep up with the practice by doing it on a computer or even through audio, do what works for you.
- While journaling itself can be centering, it can help you get into the practice more quickly if you take a moment or two to find a quiet space and connect with your breath before you start. I personally think there’s a lot of value to ritualizing the experience when you can, so if you have a favorite pen, a pretty notebook, or a special spot to write, they can help you look forward to the experience.
- Let go of perfection and let it flow. You’re not looking to write an essay for publication. Think of this as an intimate conversation between you and parts of you that you don’t often connect with. Ditch conventions of grammar and spelling and let your mind meander. You’ll be surprised at what comes out.
- Strive for flexible consistency. Even consistency can feel like a pressure point, which isn’t the goal. But keep in mind that just like starting any activity from yoga to guitar, practice is what helps it feel more natural and less challenging.
Journaling Prompts to Get You Started
The beauty of journaling is that you can write about whatever is on your mind or heart. But some of us need a little structure to help guide the process. If you do, try reflecting on one of these questions. You could even write them down and pick one of out of a hat during each journaling session. Remember that you don’t have to answer it exactly. Rather, use it as a springboard to see where it takes you when you stop trying to get it right.
- In what settings do I feel most connected to my truest nature lately?
- What values did I grow up with that I continue to hold close to this day? What values that I grew up with don’t fit for me now?
- Which emotion do I find most challenging to let myself feel? Why might that be?
- When have I felt most loved and supported recently?
- What did I love to do as a child that I haven’t done in a very long time?
- Who or what creates envy in me? What might that envy tell me about what I’m longing for?
- What is an experience I had in my teen years that shaped how I view the world?
- What recent news story has created strong emotion in me? What could it be touching on in my own experience?
- What are some of my core needs in relationships? How do I feel asking for those from others?
- What is a strength that I possess that others might not recognize easily?
- What is a recent experience where I didn’t show up in alignment with my values? What pulled me from them?
- How do I express myself when I am hurt? What is effective or ineffective about this?
- If I could add an hour to every day that could only be spent on myself, how would I spend that hour?
- What is something that I want to do differently or better in my closest relationships?
- What stops me from letting myself experience more joy and pleasure?
- What do I fear will happen if I stop ____________ (e.g. being perfect, managing everything at home, people pleasing, working so much, drinking, etc.)?
- What fills my cup after a long day?
- What is an experience where I’ve overcome something I wasn’t sure I can handle?
- What is a core regret that I carry with me?
- If I felt like my time was my own, how would I spend it?
- When did I last feel turned on and what got me there?
- In what situations do I tend to doubt my own competency or worth? What about them contributes to this?