Journal Therapy for Self-Healing
We all experience mental health issues at one point in our lives. If unattended, poor mental health can reduce our quality of life and may manifest into even worse mental conditions.
To heal a distressed mind, we recommend journal therapy. It is a cathartic and creative exercise that can lift your mood, help manage your anxiety, make you better at solving problems, and give you a space to help you work through your emotions.
In this guide, you will not only know some of the most common mental health problems but also, more importantly, learn about journal therapy, its benefits to mental health, and the best ways of maintaining the habit.
Keeping a journal has been proven to improve mental health by doing the following:
- fighting stress
- relieving anxiety
- reducing depression
- breaking the cycle of brooding
- creating awareness
- regulating emotions
- speeding up physical healing.
These are the four types of journals:
- Expressive journal—this helps you understand your feelings and problems.
- Preplanning journal—this lays out future strategies and tactics that can help you deal with possible anxiety or depressive triggers.
- Gratitude journal—this lists the things or people you are thankful for. It brings about positive thoughts you can return to when you feel down.
- To-do list—this enumerates the things you like or can do.
Introduction to Mental Health
Mental health largely dictates the quality of life. With good mental health, you can deal with everyday stresses, discover your raison d’être, and contribute to society. In reality, however, a healthy state of mind is not easy to maintain, let alone achieve.
Common Mental Health Problems
Poor mental health doesn’t mean you have a mental disorder. We all have bad days. Usually, though, some symptoms of mental health problems overlap with those of diagnosable mental illnesses. Most of the serious and persistent symptoms can have very real negative impacts on emotional and cognitive functioning, increase the risk of self-harm, harm the economy, and cause disabilities.
Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults every year, making them the most common of all mental illnesses in the US. There are about 9 million who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Anxiety disorders do not refer to the transient feelings that go away once you deal with what’s causing them, like worrying about your exams or making ends meet. These feelings are persistent, chronic, and sometimes unprovoked that can disrupt your routine. The most common types are generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and specific phobias. The symptoms are mainly psychological (e.g., uncontrollable fear, restlessness), physical (e.g., trembling, sweating, rapid heartbeat), and behavioral (e.g., avoidance of potential triggers).
Major, or clinical, depression affected 21 million adults in 2020. Depression is a state where the patients have chronic feelings of sadness, hopelessness, emptiness, and general disinterest, among others. These pessimistic feelings increase the risk of self-harm and invite suicidal thoughts.
Each year, over 12 million adults in the US have serious suicidal thoughts. Among people aged 10 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death. Most people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with depression.
Factors That Affect Mental Health
Early signs and symptoms of poor mental health are often ambiguous and erratic. The most common factors include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Heredity is a major risk factor. For instance, if you have a parent with a depressive disorder, that leaves you predisposed to developing the same condition.
- Traumatic experiences, especially during childhood, can cause PTSD, which may drive victims into abusing substances or inflicting self-harm.
- Repeated exposure to stress or stressful life changes like getting fired from a job, going through a divorce, or surviving a disaster can cause anxiety or depressive episodes.
- Substance abuse or toxin exposure may alter the brain chemistry.
Mental illnesses can affect mental health. If you live with them, it is possible to regain a sound mind.
Besides professional treatment, though, we recommend keeping a journal. Journal therapy has been proven to improve mental health.
Journal Writing as a Therapy
Some health care experts use journal therapy as an adjunct to more traditional therapies. This speaks volumes as to its effectiveness.
Journal therapy lifts your moods. Writing in itself doesn’t involve dopamine (the “happy hormone”) release. But getting your emotions down on paper gently and gradually improves moods. Writing in a journal can help you work through painful events in your past. You are wading through your emotions and trying to understand where they are coming from.
Negative thoughts are like a ball and chain shackled to your leg. Penning them down helps to remove their emotional weight and free you up.
Writing therapy is more than a recall exercise, though. It is a creative cathartic indulgence that also makes you realize you can regain control over and recreate your life. A sense of control is a psychological need. This therapy gives you a better picture of the problem at hand so that you can control how you respond to it or any future triggers.
Deeper into the exercise, you will see improvements in your mind-set and become more optimistic about your life. It gives you a chance to exercise positive self-talk to help overcome waves of negative thoughts. By coming up with positive goals and gratitude entries, you are reevaluating your abilities and rediscovering your worth as a member of society.
Four Writing Techniques
There are four types of journaling we recommend (although, trying all of them is optimal):
Writing is a classic method of elaborate self-expression. Expressive writing therapy helps to declutter your mind—a mental detox that allows you to make better sense of your emotions and present situation.
Journal therapy can give you an understanding of obsessive thoughts and rumination. You can parse them and put them in perspective so you become detached from them. In other words, it is like holding up a mirror so that you can have a clear view of who you are and what is emotionally affecting you. Awareness increases your chances of accepting the reality of the situation. Without acceptance, treatment will be difficult.
As the name suggests, this exercise involves coming up with contingency plans for when the going gets rough. Once you become aware of the problems, you can work through them and identify potential situations that may trigger anxiety or depressive episodes. You can then come up with countermeasures that you think will appease the situation.
Preplanning complements expressive journaling. We recommend doing this exercise when you’re feeling a little better because it can be tough to come up with good ideas when you are stressed out or your mood dips.
Coming up with a list of things can divert your focus from what ails your mind. It can include a list of comforting songs, a collection of motivational quotes, or even photos that can instantly lift your mood. When you feel yourself slipping, you can just refer to this journal.
Count your blessings! Giving gratitude makes people happier and less anxious. Bringing into focus the things you are grateful for gives you a broader perception of the world. You can be thankful for a family member, your pet, a good movie, etc. Nothing trumps pessimistic thoughts instantly like this exercise.
What Are Journal Prompts?
Journal prompts are questions or ideas that can help you get started. It gives you something to write about. You can always write without prompts, especially if you are exploring your feelings. Often, these help you write faster and easier. If you look up “journaling prompts” or “mental health journaling prompts,” you can find more prompts to add to these.
Prompts to Start Writing
- How are you feeling today? Describe your mood.
- Create one goal to accomplish today.
- What was your childhood like?
- Describe the hobbies you had as a child.
- Are there any aspects of your life you want to change?
Prompts to Raise Your Mood
- List 5 things that make you happy.
- What is your favorite place? Describe it.
- Write (or find) an affirmation that works for you today.
- Write 3 things you like about yourself.
- What are your favorite meals to cook or eat?
Prompts to Address Stress
- Vent about something that stresses you out.
- What 5 things can you do today to relieve stress?
- What do you do to relax?
- Can you improve how you react to stress? How?
- Describe a problem that you have solved.
Prompts to Address Trauma
- How do you take care of yourself? Describe your self-care routine.
- Can you pinpoint an emotion that you think stems from a traumatic experience? If so, describe it.
- Who were you in the past? Who are you now? Who do you want to be?
- Do you think that your traumatic experience is affecting your relationships with others? If so, how?
- What did you learn from your traumatic experience?
Bullet Journal Prompts
- What are your current worries?
- Write a positive message to yourself that you can read when you feel low.
- List 5 songs that make you happy.
- Describe 5 of your healthy social media routines.
- Describe a recent event where you felt content.
Gratitude Journal Prompts
- Enumerate 3 things you are grateful for today.
- Name a person you are grateful for, and explain why.
- Describe a positive thing that happened today.
- Write about something that cheers you up when you feel down.
- Describe 4 objects found in nature that you are grateful for.
Going-deep Journal Prompts
- Write a letter to someone who has caused you pain (but don’t send it).
- When you were a child, what were you afraid of? Why?
- Picture a perfect day. What makes it perfect?
- Where do you feel the stress in your body? What does it feel like?
- What are you afraid of? Why?
Again, these prompts simply put things in motion, especially when you don’t know where to start. While the goal is to iron out the creases in your mind, when you’re having fun at certain points in the exercise, it makes it all worthwhile.
Tips for Starting
There are no hard-and-fast rules in starting a writing therapy. To some people, writing comes naturally. If you’re having a hard time gathering your thoughts, that’s okay. You don’t have to write complete, well-thought-out sentences. Just write down the first word you associate with a certain event, person, or feeling. You can even try writing about things that are meaningful to you. You don’t have to dig deep every day.
Making a list is probably the easiest way to begin self-healing. A list of your favorite songs is a really good idea. Sometimes, there are no words to describe what’s happening inside you. Our response to music is visceral but enigmatic. Good music taps into and heals your soul and makes you feel alive again. When you’re having a bad day, read this list.
You can also sketch in your journal. It doesn’t matter if you have talent. Sketching is a creative exercise that begets creativity and makes you more patient, attentive, diligent, and self-satisfied.
Keeping a journal is a private and organic exercise, so don’t think about the thought or grammar police. If you can write daily, that is great. If you can’t, at least set a place and time during the week to make it a regular thing. Eventually, you will find your rhythm, and new thoughts and ideas will come pouring in faster than you can probably handle.
What You Will Need
- Pen and notebook. Getting a notebook and pen that fit your needs and suit your personality will help you return to the project. Stickers add visual vigor. If you’re serious about sketching, the right type of pencil and paper will always get you in the mood.
- Phone. Your phone is a good substitute for a pen and notebook, especially when you’re always on the go. Since your phone is on you most of the time, making it a regular habit becomes so much easier. Find good journaling apps. These apps will keep things organized, and some even allow you to keep voice notes and add images, so you can even keep a record of your most random thoughts.
- Timer. Set a timer if you are worried about going too long. Setting it for 3 to 5 minutes gives you enough time to pin down your thoughts and emotions but not get sucked in when you don’t want to.
The hardest part of journaling is getting started. It can feel like a mountain standing before you and you must climb it. Remember, you will not solve all your problems on the first day. Start with something easier. Starting with lighter subjects (e.g., your pets, favorite smells) makes the exercise inviting.
Being busy stops you from journal writing. You may think, “I’m tired today. I will just get to it tomorrow.” But then that tomorrow stretches out to next week. Carry a small journal with you. That way, you can grab five minutes to do it perhaps at the bus stop or over your lunch break. Writing a small amount counts. Just keep writing.
As you write, you may stir up some tough feelings. These can keep you from doing it anymore, and the habit breaks, but this is an essential part of the therapy—to face the problem so you can create a solution. And the best way out is through.
The Bottom Line
Journal therapy reduces depressive and anxiety symptoms, which usually impair your ability to stay in sync with yourself and society. Keeping a journal can lift your mood, make you more level-headed and resilient, and boost your creative energy. With a healthier mind, you can handle everyday stresses and even drastic life changes better.
Sitting down to write can be difficult, but there are ways to make the writing process easier. The key is to make it a habit and, thus, a priority. It only takes a little bit of your time, a pen, and some paper (or a phone/computer). And if you stay religious to the habit, eventually you will feel its profound effects on your psyche.
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