Expressive writing through journaling can be a powerful way to process stress, trauma, and different emotions.

Woman journaling in coffee shopShare on Pinterest
Carolin Voelker/EyeEm/Getty Images

Whether you’re living with a mental health condition, adjusting to a major life change, or managing everyday stress, self-care techniques can help. One particular tool that you may want to consider is journaling.

People use journaling in different ways and for various reasons.

For some people, it can be a way to record specific aspects of everyday life. For others, it’s a more spontaneous exercise and a way to process experiences through creative writing.

It’s common for children and teens to keep journals, but the habit can fall by the wayside as people get older. No matter your age, journaling is a powerful, evidence-based strategy that you may find helpful for managing mental health conditions and stress.

Journaling is an example of an expressive coping method, which is a technique that helps a person process negative thoughts, feelings, or experiences by releasing them. By putting these things on the page, they can have less power over you.

People living with anxiety disorders often have to manage excessive worry and intrusive anxious thoughts. It’s common to dwell on negative thoughts or situations — aka ruminate.

Journaling can help you cope with rumination by allowing you to externalize your anxious thoughts, put them into words, and then put them aside rather than letting them become an obsession.

Journaling can also help you explore alternatives to anxious thoughts. For example, if you’re worried about losing your job, your thought may sound something like: “If I lose my job, I’ll never get another one.”

After writing about your anxiety, you could then write about other possibilities: You might lose your job and find one you like more. Or you might stay and get a promotion.

A 2018 study involving 70 adults with elevated anxiety found that online journaling for 12 weeks significantly reduced their mental distress. Long-term journaling was also associated with greater resilience.

Journaling seems to be effective for people living with depression, too.

In a 2013 study involving 40 people living with major depressive disorder (MDD), participants were asked to write about an emotional event or non-emotional daily events. They performed this writing repeatedly over several days.

Emotional writing significantly decreased symptoms of depression, while the more mundane writing didn’t.

This suggests that if you want to start journaling to improve your mental health, you’ll likely have more benefits when focusing on deeper feelings and thoughts rather than recording your daily experiences like a traditional diary.

Keeping a gratitude journal is another specific approach that can help with depression.

Research in 2021 suggests that making a conscious effort to practice gratitude can have a positive effect on mental health and can help counteract the negative thought patterns that depression creates.

A gratitude journal entry can simply be a list of things you’re grateful for on a given day, or it can be a longer piece of expressive writing.

People living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or trauma-related symptoms usually benefit from processing the traumatic event. Psychotherapy is the most effective way to do this, but journaling may be an effective self-help technique for some.

A 2015 research paper explains that consistent expressive writing may help reduce PTSD symptoms. It also suggests that writing at length about a traumatic or stressful event can help manage PTSD symptoms.

Because expressive writing usually involves recounting a traumatic experience, it can be a triggering activity, so it’s important that you take care of yourself. It can be a good idea to practice this type of writing under the guidance of a therapist or other mental health professional.

One of the best things about journaling is that it’s accessible. You don’t need to run out and buy a special journal to get started — although if you find it motivational, you can. All you need is some paper, a pen, and a little time.

Consider what time of day you’re most likely to stick with a journaling practice. It might be first thing in the morning, late at night, or at a specific time during your workday.

Try not to worry about sticking to a consistent time every day. Journaling can fit your schedule.

If you’re not sure how to get started, consider using one of the following prompts:

  • What are you grateful for today?
  • What challenges are you dealing with in your life right now?
  • What are your goals for the next week?
  • What was the best and worst day of your life?
  • Write about a childhood memory that had a big impact on you.
  • What would you do tomorrow if you had no obligations or restraints?
  • Where would you like to be in 5 years?

Need some additional help getting started? You can learn more about how to start a journaling habit.

If you’re looking for a simple, accessible way to manage negative thoughts and symptoms of mental health conditions, trauma, or stress, journaling might just be a great option for you.

It’s a low risk approach that’s easy to incorporate into most daily routines. And there’s a wealth of evidence to suggest it can make a real difference.

Journaling may be effective for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions. It may also help you manage daily stress, monitor your mood, and create a sense of gratitude.

When you first start journaling, it’s a good idea to start small. You might aim to write a paragraph or write down five things you’re grateful for each day. You may also find yourself immediately wanting to write pages and pages.

There’s no right or wrong way to journal. You can just pick up a pen and see where it takes you.

If your journaling habits bring up a lot of feelings that you don’t think you can manage on your own, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for further support. You can start here.