The goal of journaling for mental health in general is to take the feelings and emotions that are pent up within you and make them explicit by giving them voice. Writing them down helps put your feelings into words.
More specifically, writing things down by hand is preferable as it tends to be more detailed, personalized and accurate. In addition, a Japanese study found that writing things down by hand triggers brain activity and is connected to stronger neural encoding and memory retrieval. This allows the writer to be more connected to their emotions and helps with the accurate recalling of the events.
Although more women tend to use journaling for mental health, men benefit from journaling more than women do. According to professor James Pennebaker, “by writing, you put some structure and organization to those anxious feelings. It helps you to get past them.” In his book Opening Up by Writing It Down he further explains that when men get depressed they tend to hide their feelings and are much more reluctant to seek help. Therefore, using a journal to process their emotions can be a very important tool to improving their mental health.
Consistency Makes all the Difference
Journaling for mental health is not an overnight cure. It takes time and consistency to see positive results.
A great analogy to illustrate this point is to look at seeding your garden. Your seeds won’t become flowers or fruits overnight. It takes gardener’s daily care and dedication for them to grow, bloom and to produce fruit. The same can be applied here.
In order to improve your mental health and to learn how to effectively process your feelings you’ll need to apply the journaling techniques mentioned below on a daily basis. You can use the processes that best help you deal with your feelings on that particular day. And you can change and vary techniques depending on your goals, your circumstances and even on your daily events. But as long as you practice journaling for mental health consistently and systematically you are bound to see improvement.
9 Ways to Process Your Emotions Through Journaling for Mental Health
1. General Journaling
No agenda. No rules. No constraints. This is just a general way jot down the events of your day and recall the events that happened. You can write whatever comes to your mind.
Include your feelings. In order for this type of journaling for mental health to be effective it is important to attach any emotions that cross your mind as they relate to each one of the events of the day. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter. Just write it all down as if you were writing your biography.
How long should you journal for? That depends. Some prefer a specific time frame, like 5 to 10 minutes. Others try to fill up a certain amount of pages each day. The choice is yours.
2. Stream of Consciousness Journaling
This is sometimes called “brain dump”. The best time to apply this technique is when you are upset or anxious. This type of journaling for mental health is especially effective before going to bed.
Write anything and everything that you are upset about. Just write. Your spelling doesn’t matter. Your grammar doesn’t matter. Legibility of your handwriting doesn’t matter. What matters is that you get all of your feelings out and onto the paper.
Some people, especially those who type faster than they can hand-write, prefer to use a computer. This allows them to get the thoughts out much faster and in a more efficient manner.
When you’re done, you will have poured out all of your negative feelings and emotions and released them from your system. This will help you achieve a sense of relief and / or clarity. And, since you have let go of all of the emotions, you will most likely sleep better as well.
3. Intuition Journaling
Getting back in touch with your intuition is very important. This type of journaling for mental health is especially helpful when you get stuck or when you feel in conflict with what you are feeling and experiencing, and with what others around you are saying.
The best way to try Intuition Journaling is to ask a specific question and then let your heart do the writing. Don’t think about it, don’t rationalize it. Don’t justify it. It does not mean that you have to act upon the thoughts that come up. Just write them down. Let the heat and your gut speak.
This will allow you to get in touch with your inner self and connect with your true values often times leading to clarity.
4. Brain Mapping & Graphic Journaling
Sometimes it is easier to organize your thoughts and ideas into graphic organizers than it is to write them down in full sentences or paragraphs.
Charts, diagrams and brain maps are a very handy technique when you are trying to keep track of ideas related to a specific topic, come up with ways to solve problems or to clarify your ideas.
Lists are also very handy, especially when looking at pros and cons of a situation or trying to separate facts from emotions.
They don’t need to be neat or pretty. A web of words or phrases linked by lines or arrows is perfectly fine as long as you know how to read it. It’s a simple and reliable way to help you figure our processes and organize ideas.
5. The Three Good Things Journaling
The Three Good Things is a very simple yet powerful way to use journaling for mental health. It helps you dig a bit deeper into things you are grateful for and make them more meaningful.
This exercise is based on three simple steps.
- Write down three unique things that happened on that day that you are grateful for.
- Now, for each of the gratitudes, identify if your role was active or passive? Did you do something that made you appreciate it or did someone else do something that you are thankful for? You may want to consider elaborating a little on your or someone else’s involvement.
- Finally, explain what does this event mean to you right now? Will this event potentially influence your future in any way? If so how?
Answering these few questions will take a few more minutes than just completing the first step. However, it will make you pause and look at what meaning this event brings to your life.
6. Unsent Letter Journaling
Writing a letter that you never intend sending to the potential recipient can be especially helpful for teenagers and trauma survivors. But it can also be helpful in situations when you are angry with someone or feel misunderstood or judged.
Unsent letter journal technique is great for people who, for various reasons, are unable or unwilling to communicate their ideas or feelings to the person they want to address.
It is a great way to express the feelings that you would normally never share with the person you are writing to. It can provide closure, especially if the person is no longer alive or if you are no longer in contact with them. And finally, it allows you to express your needs and wants without any expectation for action from the recipient.
In general, it is a great way to help you heal.
7. Wins of the Day Journaling
As our day progresses we often get stuck on the things that are not going so well. Wins of the Day journaling focuses on daily events that ARE going well. You can jot down things that are going your way or are at least neural throughout the day. You can use bullet points or full sentences, whatever works best for you. The main idea here is to focus on the tiny positive events that are happening throughout the day.
This type of journaling helps you consciously concentrate on the things that are positive in your life. It is best if you can add points to the journal right on the spot as you’re thinking about the events throughout the day. So having a journal nearby at all times can be very handy.
Also, since it takes significantly more effort for our brain to focus on the positive, the research suggests that you come up with at least three positive aspects for every negative situation that arises.
8. Locus of Control Journaling
This simple journaling for mental health technique will help clarify your locus of control within the situation you are stressing about.
For this technique, use an entire journal page. On the top of the page write the problem you are facing. You can use bullet points or a short paragraph to describe it.
Then, divide the page into three columns:
Things I CAN control
Things I CAN NOT control
Things I CAN INFLUENCE but CAN NOT CONTROL
This journaling technique is great to help you find clarity and see things that you have control over in a more logical way. It can also help you shift your focus to the things that you can control, oftentimes helping you alleviate stress and anxiety related to the situation you are in.
9. Alternate Outcome Journaling
Often, when things are not going our way and we get stressed over the situation we are in, we tend to imagine the worst case scenarios and the worst possible outcomes. Alternate Outcome journaling focuses on different possible outcomes of a situation that you are in.
It is solution-based journaling for mental health. The point of this journal is to consider the outcome you would like to see.
In the journal, write down how you’d like things to be going and how you’d like to be feeling. Consider how you’d like to be handling the situation. Focus on yourself. What kind of person do you need to be in order to achieve your desired outcome? Think about your core values and traits that are important to you. List the actions you’d have to take. How would that make you feel? Make sure that you’re concentrating on things that are in your control.
Writing it down, will give you a different perspective and potentially help you realize that there are other ways out of this dilemma or situation than the one you’ve been playing in your head. And that those ways are realistic and much more positive than what you have considered so far.
Overall, regardless of which technique you suits your situation best, journaling for mental health has proven to have significant positive effect on those with mental health issues. And even if all you’re facing right now is a simple one-off stressful situation, using one of the techniques that works best for the circumstance you find yourself in, can be beneficial as well.