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How to start journaling for mental health

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

Discover how to get started with journaling for improved mental health and wellbeing...


How to start journaling for mental health

Discover how to get started with journaling for improved mental health and wellbeing.

Journaling has exploded in popularity, and little wonder – it’s a great way to gain insight to your problems, connect with yourself, and it can be a lot of fun, too. Rachel Garnet discovers how to get started with journaling for your mental health…

Since I started journaling a few months ago, it’s become one of the most helpful and insightful things I do for my mental health and wellbeing. Yet, for a long time, when friends talked about their ‘journals’, I dismissed the practice as the same as diary-keeping – to be restricted to teenagers wanting to detail their days away from prying parental eyes, or for reminders, such as ‘give cat worm pill’.

Away in far-flung places, I never wrote a word – why recount experiences when I was living them? How wrong I was. Diaries may fundamentally be logbooks, but journals are your words about who you are.

My mind was changed by a work event. There, I met a woman who had impressed me with her self-belief and confidence. She amazed me by saying that when her insecurities arise, she journals, and that by leaving them on the page she frees herself from them.

Getting started with journaling

I was skeptical, but heeding her encouragement and wanting her tenacity, I bought a cheap book full of blank pages, with a pretty gold and pink cover; there are no printed dates in a journal, so none of the guilt of chronicle – free days.

At first, I was unsure how to start journaling. I wrote how I worried that my presentation and perceptions at a meeting would not be well received. The words poured out. It felt weird, even furtive. I hid my journal among other books on my bedside table.

But days later, as I felt worries bubbling up again, I journalled that I felt like a balloon about to pop, still stuck years on with a lack of self-worth. Letting rip on the page became a self a regular thing. Already, I credit it with feeling less self-critical which, for me, is like a 10-tonne weight lifting.

Why is journaling good for your mental health?

Jackee Holder, leadership coach and author of 49 Ways to Write Yourself Well (Step Beach Press, £12.99), says: ‘A traditional diary is factual, it doesn’t externalize your inner dialogue, but a journal does. Journaling is the opportunity to express your inner thoughts and emotions, your creativity and your vibrancy.’

No wonder then, that journaling is powerful for our mental, physical and future health; recording experiences now can be a vital tool for memory as we age.

Research, carried out by universities from Lancaster to Arizona, shows that journaling can help maintain heart health, increase immunity and reduce stress. It is a detox for the brain and soul; writing down thoughts imposes structure on them and literally gets them out of our heads.

How to start journaling for mental health

When you’re first learning how to start a journal, decide where and how you want to write. I journal in my bedroom in the evening, but Holder points out: ‘You may feel safer when you write in a public place…Noisy spaces are a good way to distract your inner critic, who will do all it can to convince you not to journal. If it’s not practical to designate a fixed place, make your journal as portable as possible.’

A friend who is dealing with intense issues, but also has four kids and a full-time job, journals on her phone on the bus home from work. Holder puts the case for a regular journalling pattern, be it every three days or whatever works for you.

Find a time when you are not distracted and try to allocate at least 10 to 15 minutes for each session. ‘It will give you enough time and space to express yourself and dip beneath the surface,’ says Holder.

How to start a journal: 4 writing prompts

A word or an essay? It can be hard to know what to write when learning how to start journaling. ‘One of the most common reasons people give for not keeping a journal is that they don’t know what to write,’ says Holder.

She advocates writing prompts as ‘a way to access topics if you are worried about having a blank mind when you first learn how to start a journal’. Writing prompts could include:

  • What you are thinking now

  • A concern you have

  • The view from your window

  • The best job you ever had

One of my journal entries is a single swearword; it summed up how I felt at the time. As my journal filled, I began to feel release. Holder understands this: ‘I had a relationship break-up two years ago and my journal never left my side,’ she says. ‘It kept me afloat and helped me regain my buoyancy. ’...


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