How to Journal: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide to Therapeutic Writing and Drawing

Medically Reviewed

Many of us kept a journal as kids, then gave up the habit as we grew older. But recording your experiences, thoughts, or feelings can offer you many mental and emotional benefits as an adult, and it might be a good time to bring back the practice.

The best part? There’s no right or wrong way to journal. Whether you tap out quick notes on your phone, doodle in a notebook, or pour out your heart with lengthy prose, when and how you practice journaling is entirely up to you. Here’s how to get started.

The History of Journaling

The practice of journaling is thought to have originated thousands of years ago with the beginning of written language. The mindfulness concepts that support journal therapy are rooted in ayurveda, a natural system of medicine that originated in India more than 3,000 years ago, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Ayurveda encourages lifestyle habits that help you regain balance between the body, mind, and spirit. Your environment and mindfulness practices, like journaling, are key to building awareness and cultivating healthy shifts.

“From an ayurvedic perspective, journaling is essentially mindfulness in action, since it gives us a chance to proactively and healthily process our emotions,” says Meera Watts, founder and CEO of Siddhi Yoga, a yoga, meditation, and ayurvedic training school based in Singapore.

But while journaling has been around for millennia, it wasn’t widely recognized as a form of therapy in the United States until New York psychologist Ira Progoff, PhD, began offering classes and workshops in the 1960s, according to the Center for Journal Therapy.

Dr. Progoff created what he called the intensive journal method, which involves a series of writing exercises about different areas of your life, including personal relationships, body and health, life history, and dreams and imagery. The purpose of the exercises is to help you get to know yourself better, so you can work through issues over time, according to the Progoff Intensive Journal Program website.

As journaling caught on, researchers began studying its potential health and wellness benefits. One of those researchers was James Pennebaker, PhD, a psychologist who discovered that people who wrote about emotional events or feelings for 20 minutes a day for three or four days saw improvements in immune function.

After the publication of Dr. Pennebaker’s studies, the medical community started taking a closer look at journaling and how it affects mental, emotional, and physical health, according to the Center for Journal Therapy.

Today, many people practice journaling, though their approaches vary.

How Journaling Works

Journaling functions in many ways, but it’s often recommended to reduce stress and anxiety.

Research found that putting feelings into words, known as affect labeling, may have a therapeutic effect in the brain. When participants saw a photo of an angry or scared face, the amygdala, a region of the brain that serves as an alarm to protect us from danger, activated. But when people labeled the face as angry or scared on paper, the amygdala appeared to calm down.

“By putting our feelings into words on paper, we’re hitting the brakes on our emotional response,” says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a Greenwich, Connecticut–based licensed clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich.

For some, journaling can also be a form of meditation because it requires that you focus your attention on what’s happening in the present. Often, journaling involves writing down your thoughts and emotions — good or bad — and working through them to gain a better understanding of yourself. “Reconnecting with oneself and rediscovering who you are happens when you practice [forms of] meditation,” Watts says.

As the?Mayo Clinic notes, meditation may help clear away information overload that can build up and contribute to stress levels.

Journaling may also be an effective tool for reaching your healthy living goals, whether they include lowering blood pressure, losing weight, making more time for family, or paying off debt.

“With daily journaling, you can start to rewire what lies beneath your actions and behaviors, which is your identity, or who you identify as,” says Kate Kali, a psychosomatic hypnotherapist and neuro-linguistic programmer in Los Angeles.

For example, let’s say your goal is to reduce your blood pressure medication needs (with your doctor’s approval). You can journal about the identity of a person who doesn’t have high blood pressure. How does that person go about their day? How do they walk and talk? What are their habits or behaviors? Kali recommends using a journal to work through these types of questions and come up with an action plan you can take that day to align yourself with that new identity and potentially help cultivate shifts in your health and wellness.

You can begin a journaling practice on your own or get help from integrative doctors, therapists, life coaches, yoga instructors, or ayurvedic practitioners.

Types of Journaling

When it comes to journaling, your options are broad. Here are a few styles you may be interested in trying.

Setting Intentions

You can use your journal to set intentions for the day, week, month, or year; record daily events; track progress toward your goals; reflect on the past day; and note all of your present thoughts and feelings. You can even create an art journal and draw thoughts, emotions, goals, and events instead of writing them down.

Gratitude

Many people also practice gratitude journaling, including Watts. “Gratitude journaling is my favorite exercise because it helps us let go of negative thoughts and focus on feeling grateful and optimistic in unexpected circumstances,” she explains.

To do it, simply write something or someone you’re grateful for. Or you can jot down several things. “Then you gradually increase this practice each day by going into greater detail about each aspect and why you’re grateful for it,” Watts says.

Expressive Writing

This type of journaling involves writing for a set amount of time (usually 15 to 20 minutes) about a situation that’s causing you stress, frustration, sadness, or another perceived negative emotion, according to Utah State University. Aim to write without worrying about grammar or punctuation, or even creating complete sentences — just let your feelings loose.

Morning Pages

Morning pages, popularized by artist Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, are a type of expressive writing many people are familiar with. They’re three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing done by hand first thing in the morning, according to Cameron’s website. But unlike other kinds of expressive writing, morning pages can be about anything and everything that comes to mind. In essence, it’s a way to jump-start your creative juices, process feelings, and ease into your day for whatever comes next.

Bullet-Point Journaling

Bullet-point journaling is a productivity-focused practice that incorporates mindfulness aspects, per the Bullet Journal website. You can use a bullet journal to organize and process your goals and define the steps it will take to reach them.

Possible Health Benefits of Journaling

Journaling is more than just a method for unpacking thoughts, feelings, and desires; it can also be a powerful wellness tool. Here are a few of the potential health benefits of writing.

Decrease Anxiety

Cornelia Gibson, EdD, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Agape Counseling Center and Network in Fairfield, California, recommends journaling to patients with anxiety. “Anxiety is typically connected with thoughts, so what we want to do is externalize those thoughts, or get them out of their head,” she says. “We’re not getting rid of the problem, but we’re moving it to paper so people can recognize it.”

That said, it’s also beneficial to write about cheerful things.

In a study published in the October–December 2018 issue of JMIR Mental Health, adults with anxiety and other medical conditions who wrote about positive experiences saw greater improvements in well-being than those who received usual care. Journaling took place for 15 minutes three days per week for 12 weeks. As there is no standard treatment for patients with mild to moderate anxiety symptoms, the control group simply received usual care for their medical conditions during the study.

Improve Memory

Expressive writing, or writing down your thoughts and feelings as they come, may help boost your memory.

Research in college students found that those who wrote about negative personal experiences, thoughts, and feelings about coming to college had greater gains in working memory than students who wrote about positive experiences or trivial thoughts. The researchers speculated that writing down stressful thoughts and experiences helped encourage the students to confront them, instead of keeping those thoughts and experiences tucked away in their brains. This may have freed up space in the students’ working memories, researchers argued.

However, the groups studied were relatively small. Larger studies are needed to confirm these findings.

Improve Sleep

It’s not uncommon for unwanted thoughts and worries to get in the way of sleep, but journaling may help ease your mind and clear the path for better rest.

In a study, poor sleepers were divided into three groups: a problems group wrote about worries and concerns, a hobbies group recorded interests, and a control group didn’t write at all. Both writing groups jotted down their thoughts for three nights and reported their sleep patterns. The problems group reported falling asleep faster than the hobbies or control groups, which may suggest that writing about the stress we experience during the day can help us process it. By using this technique, researchers claim, those thoughts and worries may subside, enabling us to relax and fall asleep.

This study, however, has limitations. Not only was it small (only 42 subjects) but people self-reported their sleep patterns, which means that researchers can’t check the accuracy of those reports.

Boosts Immune Health

Putting pen to paper may strengthen your immune system.

In a study, researchers asked some medical students to write about traumatic experiences, while others wrote about daily events and plans for four days. After the trial period, all of the students received the hepatitis B vaccine and two booster shots. Blood tests revealed that students who wrote about negative experiences had greater levels of antibodies (proteins created by the immune system when it detects harmful substances) right before and two months after the last dose than those who wrote about neutral experiences.

Another study found that the mental effects of journaling may also help once you’re infected with a virus. Some students who tested positive for Epstein-Barr, the virus that causes mononucleosis (with symptoms including extreme fatigue and swollen glands), wrote about stressful events three times a week for 20 minutes, while others wrote about their possessions. The students who wrote about stress had higher levels of antibodies in their blood compared with students who wrote about possessions.

According to Greater Good Magazine from the University of California in Berkeley, holding in negative thoughts and experiences is harmful for our health. Writing, drawing, and other forms of journaling may help release the negativity from our brains so we don’t dwell on it.

Risks and Side Effects of Journaling

Journaling is generally a safe and effective activity. However, there are a few caveats.

For people with anxiety, it’s best to limit yourself to five minutes if you’re recording anxiety-provoking thoughts. You want to write down what’s making you anxious so you can reference it later, but you don't want to think about it too deeply. If you do, you may wind up perpetuating those anxious thoughts, Dr. Gibson explains.

Similarly, writing in-depth about your feelings following a sad or traumatic event, like divorce, may do more harm than good. If you find that writing is potentially worsening your symptoms, it may help to meet with a licensed therapist to more deeply explore your experience.

In a study involving 90 recently divorced or separated people, researchers discovered that journaling led some to feel more emotionally distraught months later —?in particular, those who sought to figure out the cause of their failed marriage.

Who May Want to Try (and Avoid) Journaling

Journaling can fit many goals and lifestyles. “Journaling can be a way to log private thoughts, expel negative emotions, begin building and manifesting your dreams, or simply track something over time,” says Amy Sullivan, a health coach in Los Angeles.

Journaling can also help people with anxiety track their triggers and identify what’s causing them to feel overwhelmed. This allows you to prioritize what’s important and come up with potential solutions, Gibson says. If you’ve partnered with a therapist, you can even bring your journal to your sessions and share insights.

For those with sleep troubles, jotting down your thoughts and feelings before bed can help declutter a busy brain, so you can fall asleep faster.

However, take care not to journal about anxious thoughts for extended periods of time or to dwell on negative experiences. You may end your journaling session feeling more stressed, anxious, or depressed than when you started.

Tips for Getting Started With Journaling

Before you can start journaling, you need to decide what tools to use. Some people jot quick notes in a smartphone app, whereas others use pen and paper. If you get tired with writing or typing, you could also try dictating a note on your phone or recording audio of your spoken thoughts.

“There’s something really special about finding a journal that speaks to you,” Kali says. While companies have created guided journals for gratitude journaling, meditation journaling, and morning pages, you don’t need to buy a specific notebook. What’s more important is that you find a journal that holds meaning for you, because that will create a sacred space for writing, Kali says.

As you begin journaling, consider what will make the process easier for you. “Some of my patients enjoy prompts, while others like to journal free-form, almost like a stream of consciousness and just write down whatever comes to mind they want to get off their chest,” Dr. Schiff says.

In addition, choose a time of day for journaling that fits your schedule and preferences. Perhaps you prefer to journal in the morning as soon as you wake up, or maybe you’d like to include journaling in your wind-down routine at night.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to set aside two hours for journaling — it can be as short as five minutes. How long you spend journaling depends on your schedule and how much you have to write or draw. “There are days when I feel more inspired to journal and sometimes I just need a quick refresher,” Kali says.

The key to creating a journaling habit is not to force yourself to do it if you’re not feeling inspired or don’t have anything to write. “As human beings, we have a natural propensity to move toward pleasure and away from pain, so if you create any discomfort around the journaling process, you’re going to end up fighting yourself on it,” Kali says. “So it’s okay to skip days.”

Resources We Love on Journaling

Favorite Organizations for Journaling Information

American Psychological Association

As the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, the American Psychological Association is a helpful resource for finding research and articles about journaling for mental health. The association also offers podcasts, books, and videos.

International Association for Journal Writing

If you’re looking to take a deep dive into journal writing, consider becoming a member of the International Association for Journal Writing. This organization provides online journaling courses, podcasts, books, members-only events, and a helpful blog where you can find journal prompts. Nonmembers can sign up for its online newsletter and receive journaling tips and exercises.

Favorite Podcast for Journaling

The Power of Journaling

This podcast is hosted by Rebecca Kochenderferer, author and founder of Journaling.com. There are more than 50 episodes, and each focuses on a different aspect of the practice, including journaling to create calm, to meet goals, and incorporating art.

Favorite Books

Expressive Writing: Words That Heal

Written by Pennebaker and John Evans, this book shows you how and when expressive writing can help you overcome trauma, resolve issues, improve health, and build resilience. You’ll also find a four-day, 20-minute writing program and a six-week writing program so you can put expressive writing into practice.

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

This bestseller introduced the concept of morning pages to millions of people. The Artist’s Way for Parents helps you encourage creativity in your kids.

Favorite Websites

Journaling.com

With this wealth of information about journaling, from interviews with leaders in the journaling movement to techniques to incorporate into your practice, you can learn how journaling can enhance creativity, productivity, physical health, mindfulness, and emotional well-being.

BulletJournal.com

If you’re interested in learning how journaling may help you stay organized, check out this website. Take a course on bullet journaling, sign up for weekly tips and newsletters, and read helpful blog articles with how-to information. You can also join an international social network to exchange ideas with others using bullet journals.

Favorite Apps

Happyfeed

Reflect on good things every day with a gratitude journal app that securely syncs across all your devices. Add more meaning to your entries by uploading photos to go with them. At the end of the month, create a photo grid to see positive memories at a glance. You can also connect with friends through the app and share your favorite moments with one another.

Diaro

You can use this diary app across your devices, so you can jot down quick entries on your phone or tablet, or have longer writing sessions on your computer. You can attach photos to your entries, customize your journal’s look, and organize entries by tag, folder, or location.

Reflectly

Reflectly encourages daily reflection through motivational quotes and challenges, and AI-generated journal prompts help you dig deeper. It also serves as a mood tracker by providing daily, weekly, and monthly insights based on your journal entries. If you’ve been depressed for the past week and can’t figure out why, Reflectly may help you answer.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

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