How I use journaling to support my wellbeing
I see a lot of mentions of journaling on social media. Some of the personal development books I’ve read include journaling prompts at the end of each chapter. Any search of the term will turn up a lot of content on the benefits of journaling. But what I don’t really see anyone talking about, is what journaling means to them, or how they go about it.
When I started journaling about three years ago, I didn’t follow a guide or do any kind of research about it, I just did what felt right at the time. I was quite happy to forge my own path, and then learn more about it later. But of course there were times when I wondered: am I doing this right? I know not everybody is comfortable approaching things this way. Recently, multiple friends have reached out to me asking about journaling. They’ve heard of it, and think it sounds like a good idea, but don’t really know where to get started.
So, what is journaling?
Simply put, journaling is the practice of keeping a diary or journal that explores thoughts and feelings surrounding the events of your life. That’s it. There are a bunch of different ways you can do that, and different things you may want to get out of it, but generally speaking, it’s all journaling.
In this post, I’ll go through the different kinds of journaling I do, how I got started with them, and how I feel they have benefitted me. I’ll also include a few tips on how I get the most out of journaling and try to link out to others with the credentials to explain why it’s beneficial.
1. Reflective Journaling
Or just “journaling”. This is where my journey started.
I’ve always taken a relatively long time to fall asleep. I have a very active mind, and I find it difficult to switch it off. If there’s something I’m stressed or anxious about, or even just a problem I haven’t solved yet, it can take even longer. I remember as a child, my Dad suggested I keep a notepad and pen by my bedside. If I found myself overthinking something, I could write down what I was thinking to get it out of my head and allow me to go to sleep.
I didn’t do this a huge amount in my childhood, but the idea really stuck with me. At some point in my adult life, this advice came flooding back to me. I was having a lot of anxious thoughts going around in my head, so I picked up a pencil and just wrote them all down in a notebook. It felt like such a simple act, but it really helped bring some peace to my mind.
In a crisis
This became the first way that I used reflective journaling as an adult: in a crisis. If I’m struggling with something - whether it’s the way I feel, something I’m worrying about or some persistent thought I’m stuck on - I take myself to a comfortable place, I sit and I just write it all down. There’s no format to it really. I just start writing what’s on my mind and follow where my thoughts go - like a stream of consciousness. I try not to pay too much attention to spelling, grammar, or even how legible my handwriting is. I don’t worry about what extra context I might need to add, unless it’s helpful to explore, because I’m not writing this for anyone but me.
I just start writing what’s on my mind and follow where my thoughts go - like a stream of consciousness
Sometimes all I write is a couple of paragraphs and it takes me all of 5-10 minutes. On rare occasions I’ve written as much as 2-3 pages and have spent as long as an hour and a half just writing. Usually though it’s about 1-2 pages of a small notebook. I don’t set a target or limit on the amount I write though, I just write until I’ve explored the thoughts I want to, or sometimes I just write until I feel better.
Often, the act of writing alone is enough to help. Simply drawing the thoughts out can be beneficial. When I’m ruminating inside my own head, a thought can appear much bigger and scarier than when I can look at it in its entirety on paper, and see it for what it really is, just a thought. There’s the old idiom about how “a problem shared is a problem halved” and for me that stands up even when I’ve only shared it with my journal.
Applying CBT to your writing
Sometimes, writing it out alone isn’t enough to help. On these occasions I try to take what I’ve learned in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and apply it to my writing. When I first started journaling, if I was writing something particularly negative or distressing, I would leave lots of space around my writing. Then I would go back over what I’d written and look at ways to challenge the assumptions in it. I’d look out for things like back-and-white thinking, mind reading or catastrophising. In the spaces I’d left I would try to write a more balanced view or provide an alternative reason for something that I hadn’t considered. As I’ve continued with the practice, I’ve become better at catching these things as I write them, and so don’t leave spaces so often anymore.
A letter to a friend
Generally speaking, we’re all pretty bad at being kind to ourselves, or taking our own advice. In order to bring about our true kindness or objective thinking, it can help to remove ourselves from the situation for a moment. A practice I’ve used in journaling when I didn’t know what to do, is pretend I’m helping my best friend with a problem.
I start by writing out how I would explain what I’m going through to a friend. I describe the situation that I’m in, making sure to capture the things I’m thinking and feeling as well as the facts. Then I read back through what I’ve just written and imagine it’s a letter I’ve received from my best friend asking for my help.
In order to bring about our true kindness or objective thinking, it can help to remove ourselves from the situation for a moment.
Next, I write back everything I would say if my best friend was going through this. I acknowledge how tough the situation must be for them, show them real compassion - a thing that can be so hard when it’s directed at ourselves. I offer my thoughts on the situation and maybe even give some advice.
Finally, I read back through everything I just wrote, and re-apply it to myself: the compassion, the more objective view on the situation, the advice of what I should do next, everything. When I do this, it always amazes me how kind and helpful I can be to myself, and how much of a difference it can make.
I don’t journal think there is anything in particular on my mind. I like to create dedicated space for my thoughts.
My entries don’t follow any particular format or pattern. Though I have found it helpful to include the date in case I ever look back over them. It usually begins as a stream of consciousness. What’s been important to me lately? Has there been anything on my mind recently? Are there any situations I’ve been reflecting on that went particularly well, or could have gone better? What patterns have I noticed in my mood or behaviour? How do I feel right now, and what could be contributing to that?
How will I support my wellbeing today?
When I journal at the start of the day, sometimes I like to set my intentions for that day. How will I support my wellbeing today? What will be the highlight of my day today? In particular, I’m likely to do this if it’s at the start of one of my non-working Wednesdays and again some time at the weekend.
For quite a while, I made an effort to journal at the end of each day. In these entries, I would focus on the events of the day and reflect on how they may have contributed to my mood. Was there anything I could have handled differently or better? What can I learn from today? What did today lack and how could I introduce this tomorrow? That sort of thing. For this kind of reflection, I found having some prompts helpful.
Right now I’m choosing to do all of my journaling free-form. I think it’s working well for me, and I like the flexibility that comes with it. When I started out though, I found having some prompts for the everyday reflection type of journaling particularly helpful. I would write out a few on a post-it note and use that as a bookmark in my journal so they were always there to remind me.
Here are some of the prompts from those post-it notes in my first journal:
- What have I done today to expand my comfort zone?
- Did I make time for things that bring me joy?
- Did I prioritise sleep last night?
- What about my situation can be reframed more positively?
- Write down something that I am proud of today:
- What went well?
- What is troubling me?
- Any loose ends today? How and when will I handle them?
- Anything I’m looking forward to?
- Anything that’s worrying me?
There is a wealth of information out there on different journaling prompts. If you search online for “journal prompts for _____” I’m sure you will find a variety of suggestions for whatever you’re interested in working on. For me though, the prompts I’ve used have either come up organically as something I wanted to remember to ask myself, or were inspired by topics in the personal development books I was reading at the time and the questions my therapist asked me.
If all of this possibility still feels a little overwhelming, or you’re really not sure where to start, then something a bit more structured might suit you better. While shopping the other day, I stumbled upon this book which, while I haven’t used it, I thought looks like a really nice starting point for journaling. So much so that I bought a copy for a friend who had been asking me about journaling.
I’m sure there are plenty of other good templates out there if this seems interesting to you.
If you’re someone who prefers a more structured experience than freeform, Bullet Journal is a very popular structured journaling format. It’s not something I use myself, but I know others who swear by it.
2. Gratitude Journaling
Gratitude journaling is a really simple practice, and one I’ve seen recommended in a bunch of places from Woebot to the brilliant Why has Nobody Told me this Before by Dr Julie Smith. In its essence, you simply write down three things you’re grateful for, that’s it. It could be something that went well in your day, something you’re proud of doing, or just something you appreciate right now. The idea is that if you make this a daily habit, it can help you to see things more positively in the day-to-day of life.
It could be something big, or something tiny that you’re grateful for, but try to be specific about what it is. You don’t have to write a lot either, most of my entries are only a single sentence, fewer than 15 words. A few examples of recent entries in my own gratitude journal:
- 1492, It rained today and watered the plants for me.
- 1529, The lemon drizzle cake I baked was delicious, and didn’t come out at all dry.
- 1562, I started writing today for the first time in ages and really enjoyed it.
I try to do this every single day (and mostly I’m successful). At time of writing, I’m on entry 1782.
I find it’s a good way to start my day focusing on what’s going right and what I do have going for me.
I make time for gratitude journaling in the morning. Before I start work I sit down at my desk and reflect on what went well yesterday. I find it’s a good way to start my day focusing on what’s going right and what I do have going for me. But I also used to really enjoy doing this practice at the end of the day as part of my wind-down before bed. While I don’t have any real data to back up the benefits of the practice to me, I did notice a difference when I stopped doing it. I noticed my perception was shifting to be more negative again. Anecdotally, I also received feedback in my annual review at work, towards the end of 2020 (the year I started this practice) that I seemed to be more of a positive person now – though I’m sure this was far from the only factor.
You could simply include gratitude journaling as part of a daily journaling practice in your main journal. Personally, I like to keep it in a separate little book. I have a tiny notebook (a bit smaller than A6) where I just write the number of the entry in the margin and then what I’m grateful for, usually taking only a couple of lines.
3. Personal Truths ("Yay me" journal)
As I mentioned in my first post about my own mental health, the term "Yay me" journal comes from someone I used to work with. It’s what they called the folder they used to keep all the emails of successful project launches or positive feedback they’d received, in order to reflect on it if they felt down or needed to remind themselves of what they did well at work. It’s since lined up nicely with other things I’ve read about.
When I was making a habit of keeping a "Yay me" journal, I would dedicate some time every Sunday to sit down and reflect on the week. If anything had gone particularly well, or if I had exhibited some skills in a way I was proud of – maybe someone had paid me a particularly sincere compliment – then I would write these in a notebook. I divided the book into the following sections:
- Truths I believe about myself
- Things others have said about me
- Professional feedback
Depending on what I might be wrestling with in my mind, I can turn to the relevant section of the journal. If I’m feeling down at work and thinking that I’m doing a lousy job, I can turn to the professional section of my "Yay me" journal and read some of the feedback I’ve had to the contrary. If I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and not replying to messages, I might have it in my head that it makes me a bad friend. But I can look at the personal truths, or things others have said about me and find several reasons why I’m not. Whatever the situation, I’ve got something I can turn to to bring some positive contrast.
Writing a “Yay me” journal can be hard, especially if you feel you’re in a bit of a slump or experiencing a period of low self-esteem. It can feel really alien to write positive things about yourself. The goal is to come up with something you do believe in, however small, and write it down. Simply the act of writing it down can help to cement that belief.
Using the feedback you get from others can be an easier way to start off. When I first talked to my sister about how I was doing this, she right away volunteered some positive things that she believed about me to add to my journal. It was a lovely gesture, and it got me thinking: this could be a great exercise to do with a close friend. Helping each other to see the strengths and great qualities you have to start off your "Yay me" journals. It’s much easier for most people to see the best in others than in themselves.
Writing down positive personal truths can be a really helpful way to remind yourself of your own worth.
I don’t use my "Yay me" journal anywhere near as much anymore, and I’m not in the habit of regularly adding to it. There have been times when I have found it really helpful to reflect on, especially when I’ve had challenges with self-esteem or imposter syndrome. I’m pleased to say I’m in a much better place with these challenges now. At the time that I benefited most from it, simply the practice of starting the journal and filling a few things in was a really positive experience. I do know several people who have made really good use of theirs and gotten a lot out of it. For me, even when I’m not actively using my “Yay me” journal, it can be really nice just to know it’s there.
4. Habits Journal
Maybe this isn’t quite journaling in the traditional sense, but for me it’s a little book I’ve been using for just over a year to work on the habits I want to build into my life and keep track of how well I’m looking after myself in any given week. Rather than repeat myself here, if you’re interested in learning more about Habits Journaling, check out my previous blog post: New Year's Resolutions going up in smoke? Try habits instead.
5. Audio/Video Journaling
It’s not something I’ve tried personally, but audio journaling is something a close friend talked to me about, and it sounds really interesting. Essentially you start a recording (audio mainly, but video would work too) and you start talking about whatever is on your mind, as you would to a friend (or a professional) where you talk through your thinking and explain things to the same level. You don’t have to show it to anyone, or even listen to it yourself if you don’t want to.
To me it seemed like somewhere between Journaling and Talking Therapy. It also reminded me of how in coding, we have the concept of “rubber ducking”, where by simply explaining all the details of a problem to someone else – even if they don’t say anything at all – you can end up seeing the issue differently and coming up with your own solutions.
To anyone who doesn’t like the idea of writing about things, or perhaps if you find yourself using voice notes in WhatsApp more than you type your messages, this might be of interest. I did some light internet research on the topic and this seemed like a nice introduction to video/audio journaling from someone with more experience in it.
General thoughts / making it stick
The best piece of advice I could give on making journaling work for you, is to make it an enjoyable experience.
Find a nice journal to write in. My first was a leather-bound Firefly journal with an impression of Serenity on it that I’d had for a while, but hadn’t found a use for. Being left handed, I’ve always found writing in pencil easier, so I journal in pencil. Later, I was very thoughtfully gifted a really nice mechanical pencil to journal with. It made the practice feel kind of special, using nice equipment.
Find a pleasant space where you can sit comfortably. I use my desk at home. It sits directly facing a window, looking out onto my garden. I swing my monitor arm out of the way so I can get an unobstructed view, and maximise the light it lets in. I would recommend not sitting in bed to journal. While it was comfortable and cosy when I did this for a while, I found I was gearing my brain up to think and reflect while in bed, which made it much harder for me to fall asleep at night.
Set the mood. For a while I would put some instrumental background music on, make myself a cup of tea (other hot drinks will likely work just as well) and even light a candle or set my diffuser going to create a nice atmosphere for journaling.
Make time for it. The same could be said of any habit. We have a finite amount of time each day, and many different things competing for portions of it. Time is rarely just found. The only way to guarantee time for the things that are important, is to make time for them. If you decide that practising journaling is something you want to do, then create space in your day where you can do it. For me, I found before work is a much better fit than at the end of the day. I find it easier to create space when there’s plenty of time left in the day, rather than towards the end where I might have to choose between journaling, or going to bed on time.
Make it your own. There’s no one-size-fits-all of journaling, and no right or wrong format. If one way of journaling isn’t resonating, try another - do whatever works best for you. The journal is yours, so if you want to annotate, colour code, doodle in the margins or even turn every other page into an art piece, then more power to you!
The pen (or pencil) is mightier than the keyboard. There are additional benefits to journaling by hand, rather than typed on a computer, to do with the way it engages the brain and how slowing down and taking more time on what’s being written can help in how it’s processed. I’ve read it in multiple books, and a quick google search will provide a lot of articles on the subject.
While journaling can seem abstract and intangible, when you break it down, it’s really quite accessible. Hopefully by sharing my own experiences, I’ve helped to demystify the topic a little. Whichever of these forms may have appealed to you, I encourage you to give journaling a go and see how you find it. If none of these forms have really spoken to you, but you have another idea, go for it! Exploring and expressing your thoughts and feelings is a really helpful thing, whatever form it takes. I never would have considered audio journaling if a friend hadn’t mentioned it to me. I really don’t believe there is a wrong way to do journaling. We’re all different, and just have to figure out what works best for us.