For many people, the act of putting pen to paper and unleashing their feelings is naturally therapeutic. 

But what about those of us who don’t really enjoy writing? If the thought of filling a blank page — especially with your most personal thoughts and feelings — is intimidating to you, you’re not alone.

And yet, it’s hard to escape articles or people touting the benefits of “journaling.” It turns out,  journaling has been linked to increased positive emotions and better mental health.

If you’ve ever wondered what exactly journaling is, whether it has any quantifiable benefits, and just how to get started, keep reading!

What is journaling?

Journaling is just another word for writing or getting your thoughts down on paper. It’s been shown that writing down our thoughts helps us to get a better perspective and clarity. It often provides you with fresh insight into situations in your life.

And yes — ideally, journaling is done by writing with your hand and a pen or pencil. Turns out, your brain works differently this way than if you type into a keyboard or dictate into a device. Writing by hand has been shown to help you better engage with the information and also access your emotions.

Journaling comes in all shapes and sizes, ranging from formal to completely informal.

There’s freestyle journaling, where you just sit down once a day and write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Many people enjoy doing this first thing in the morning, so they can get clarity on their day before it begins. 

It’s also an excellent before-bedtime technique if you have trouble sleeping because of an overactive brain. By sitting down and recording all the thoughts, worries, ideas, or musings in your head, you might feel more able to relax and let them go before sleep. Think of it as “emptying” your brain!

You can also choose to use formal journaling prompts if you prefer. We have more information on this in the “How to get started with journaling” section further below.

man journaling

The mental health benefits of journaling

First off, please know that journaling is by no means a cure for anxiety, depression, or any mental health issues. While science has shown that journaling can help with symptoms of mental health problems, you should not use journaling as a substitute for professional help.

But, a review of 31 studies did show that using journaling as a complementary therapy to other forms of treatment was effective in the management of mental illness.¹

Other studies have demonstrated journaling’s ability to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Specifically, when we take feelings and translate them into words, it physically helps to calm our brains.²  Journaling has also been shown to help decrease symptoms of depression in some circumstances.³ 

The time you spend journaling can also be considered a form of meditation, which has myriad proven benefits for your mental health, many of which are rooted in its ability to help clear away stress.⁴ 

How to get started with journaling

Here are some helpful guidelines to help you get started.

Rule 1: You do you.

The most important rule of journaling is that there’s no right or wrong way to journal! What’s most important is that it works for you.

Rule 2: If you don’t know where to start, start small and informally. 

Just commit to sitting down with pen and paper and writing down anything that comes to mind. If this is hard for you, you can choose to use a journal prompt instead. You can buy journals with daily prompts, or just Google “mental health journal prompts”.

Rule 3: Time yourself and shut off distractions. 

When you’re new to journaling, it’s best to set a timer for yourself. This way, you can allow yourself to get into the flow without worrying about how much time has passed. 

We highly recommend silencing all other notifications on your phone, so you won’t be distracted during your committed journaling time. Start with a 10-minute session each day, and you can progress from there.

Rule 4: Zero judgment. 

If you’re worried about the words you wrote or how they sound, you won’t get the full benefits of journaling. Allow yourself to flow freely, with no regard for grammar, spelling, context, etc. You don’t even have to go back and read it if you don’t want to! Just be yourself — no censoring allowed.

Rule 5: Be consistent. 

If you want to derive benefits from a journaling practice, try to commit to a minimum of 10 minutes per day, every single day. If that’s too daunting, aim for at least five days per week. If your schedule has a tendency to take over your life, schedule your journaling time in your calendar to make sure it happens!

Rule 6: Be honest. 

This one should be self-explanatory. The purpose of journaling is to reflect on what’s actually happening in your life and how you’re truly feeling about it. If you don’t know how you feel, write that. Keep writing until you figure out how you feel, but don’t make things up.

man using calendar to organize work

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