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Journaling to Better Mental Health: Where to Start

Write down your thoughts and follow these journaling prompts for mental health.

All too often, we get stuck in a pattern of waking up, rushing through the day, checking out for a bit by scrolling through social media or watching TV, and then getting too little sleep — only to start the whole cycle over again the next day. 

When we get stuck in this cycle, we forget to take the time to process and reflect on what is happening in our lives and how it is affecting us. Instead, we keep pushing forward and letting things pile up. It’s only when things feel like they are spinning out of control that we realize there are stressors in our life that require our attention. Those can range from more everyday stressors, like running late for an appointment and getting stuck in traffic, to more intense stressors, like a death in the family, difficulty finding a job, trouble paying bills, etc. 

When we don’t take the time to reflect on how we are affected by what is happening in our lives, we tend to only see the warning signs in retrospect. And that can make it feel like you are already behind in addressing whatever is negatively affecting you.

Journaling can be a great way to reflect and process your daily life as well as address the more out-of-the-ordinary stressors you might be facing. It can help you spot signs of increasing stress, improve your emotional awareness, identify changes in your mental health (e.g. anxiety, depression, trauma, etc.), and spot positive or negative patterns in your life. 

Journaling can help you spot these changes more quickly — and also help you find a solution more quickly. This practice has many research-backed benefits:

  • Journaling can actually help increase your ability to cope with stress instead of feeling stuck on a hamster wheel of worry where you cycle through the same thoughts over and over again. Journaling encourages you to process things differently because writing requires you to complete and express your thoughts and consider things from a different angle. This prevents you from feeling stuck and instead helps you be solution-focused and feel empowered.
  • Journaling can actually help you reduce intrusive and negative thoughts that come when a stressful situation appears (or is imminent). It’s a proven way to find rest from situations you can’t stop thinking about.
  • There are many mental and physical benefits to journaling. Studies show that journaling is linked to improved sleep, increased self-confidence, and an improved immune system.
  • What is the science behind journaling? Researchers say that journaling frees your working memory from being overtaxed by processing stressful or traumatic events. Giving yourself room to think and process, in turn, reduces the frequency and intensity of the stress you are experiencing.

So if you’re intrigued about journaling and want to give it a try, you might be wondering, “How do I get started? What do I even write about?” Here are some tips.

How to start? Don’t worry about being perfect or formal in your writing. After all, you are the only person who will be reading it. Plus, research has found that people who write in an informal style and express a lot of emotion in their writing experienced the greatest benefits. So just let your thoughts flow freely and don’t worry about saying it the “right” way.

When to write? Decide a schedule that works best for you. For example, I have journaled on and off for the majority of my life. For some periods of my life, I’ve journaled every day and for other periods, I only journal when I really need to think things through, process, and reflect. You can try journaling every day for 10 minutes, once a week, only when you’re feeling stressed, or some other schedule. You get to decide what works best for you.

What to write? You can let your thoughts flow freely or you can follow specific prompts to help you get started. Here’s a list of suggested journal prompts to help you increase your own self and emotional awareness:.

Cultivating emotional awareness

  • Write about something positive that happened to you and try to identify as many emotions as you can in that experience.
  • Now write about a negative experience and try to identify as many emotions as you can.
  • What were you taught about emotions in your family and school? Were emotions seen as something healthy and worthy or expressing, or something shameful that should be hidden? How do you think this affects your own expression of emotions?
  • How do you think your emotions are signaling how something is affecting you? Emotions can be powerful clues to how we are impacted by the things that are happening to us.
  • What emotions are you feeling but might be afraid to acknowledge? Why do you think you might be feeling that way?

Mental health check-In

  • When was the last time you felt anxiety, depression, etc.? What was going on at the time?
  • Write about a time when your symptoms were at their lowest.
  • What are some of the physical signs that your mental health is being affected? For example, some people have digestive issues, muscle tension, or difficulty sleeping.
  • What are some things you’ve found helpful in improving your mental health?
  • Have you thought about seeking professional help for what you are struggling with? Why or why not? If you answered no, what would it take to change your mind?

Identifying stressors

  • What are some things that happen in your life that cause you to worry?
  • How do these stressors impact your ability to function on a daily basis (if at all)?
  • What are some simple and practical ways you can address one of those stressors?
  • If you woke up tomorrow and everything in your life was as you imagined it to be, what would your life look like? What’s one thing you can do to get one step closer to that life?
  • Make a list of stress-relieving strategies you’ve found helpful or that you’d like to try.

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