If you’re craving a calm space, look no further than a blank page.
Given the state of the world right now, there is at least one thing certain: We could all use a little time to ourselves to improve our mental health. Even if you don’t struggle with depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder — more than 30 million Americans do, and that number is on the rise because of the pandemic — finding some calm in a chaotic world is a must.
Finding the right activity to help cope with stressful days isn’t always easy. After all, when you're stressed and exhausted, it's hard to generate the energy to try something new.
I’ve always turned to a journal when I hit a rough day (or week or month, let’s be honest). Maybe it’s the writer in me that feels at home on a blank page, but I’m never surprised when my friends mention their own journals and how important they are to their mental health.
Journaling can be a good place to start seeking calm and comfort, because it requires nothing more than a pen and a notebook. You have your own thoughts, and your journal is there to receive them. Because no one but you will ever read it, there's no pressure to perform - you can write about how you feel, what you did that day, a random thought you had, or even just a quote you like.
Often it's the act of journaling that is far for important and therapeutic than the content of what you write.
Even after writing all day for work, sitting down with my journal feels like a reprieve from the day’s stress or any anxiety I’m feeling.
There’s a reason for that.
Benefits of journaling
When I first started writing full time, I thought journaling was maybe a little amateur, like something that only teenagers do. But when you start looking around, you notice that all kinds of professional writers keep a journal. And for me, it’s a habit that’s stuck around too. The more I read about its benefits, the more I’m happy to have this practice.
There isn’t a lot of data on the long term effects of journaling, but the research that has been done points to a journaling providing some of the same benefits as therapy. It reduces stress and even boosts happiness. The reason? By writing out our emotions, we’re working through them.
James Pennebaker, a researcher and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, studies the impacts of journaling, which he often calls “expressive writing.” That writing, he said, can help us find meaning in our feelings, improve sleep by getting thoughts off our chest, and even improve relationships.
Some researchers have even shown that journaling can improve physical health in addition to mental health. One study of HIV patients found that patients who journaled actually showed greater improvement of virus in their system.
In short: journaling can be pretty powerful.
Experts advise, however, that journaling on its own is not enough to improve stress levels and boost mental health, particularly if you are dealing with serious mental health symptoms. In some scenarios, journaling can actually make things worse.
To reap the benefits of journaling, you must also process the emotions that come along with the practice. To just write them down is not enough. Taking time to think through the structure of your writing and the details you include is a good way to do this, psychotherapists say.
How to start
Journaling can be daunting; a lot of us feel an innate fear of the blank page staring back at us. Luckily, there really isn’t a wrong way to journal because the practice belongs to you.
You can free write, keep entries very structured, or wander somewhere in between as you see fit.
A blank page can understandably be intimidating when you have a lot on your mind, so you could try a journal that’s already designed with a method in mind. Ink+Volt’s Gratitude Journal makes a gratitude practice (which, much like journaling, has a lot of benefits) easy with prompts and writing exercises.
If you’re journaling for self-improvement, you can:
- Track goals, your mood, and habits. This is a good way of understanding what triggers you may have in your life, what’s working for you and what’s causing anxiety or stress. Recording your daily moods can help you take a more accurate inventory of how you've been feeling lately.
- Document your decision-making process. I’ve often found making decisions (even ones as simple as picking out new bathroom rugs) to be stressful. Having a place to organize thoughts can be helpful.
- Use a stream of consciousness writing session to better understand yourself and emotions. You might be surprised to uncover how your thoughts connect, and noticing those connections might help you better understand your reactions to life.
Remember, there’s no wrong or right way to write, but research has shown that making journaling a habit is the best way to make it effective. Block off some time each day or week in your schedule to write and see it as an appointment with yourself so you don't find an excuse to cancel.
Your journal should be a judgement-free zone, so there’s no shame in what you write. This has been among the most beneficial things for me. For emotions or thoughts I don’t feel I could adequately express to close friends or family members, journaling has helped me sort through a lot. Sometimes even preparing me for difficult conversations later on.
Mental health journal prompts
A quick Google search will land you hundreds of journaling prompts. It can be a little overwhelming to sift through them all, especially if you’re just starting your practice or are already battling anxious feelings.
To help you get started, below are 15 prompts that you can follow, tweak, or use as inspiration in your own practice:
- How do you feel right now? (physically, emotionally, spiritually)
- Describe a moment when you felt completely peaceful.
- Write a list of positive or reassuring things you want to remember during difficult times.
- Write out the things that are making you feel anxious and rate them 1-10, explain the rating and what would lower it.
- How do you pursue happiness in everyday life?
- Make a list of non-physical things you like about yourself. Explain why.
- What was the last positive habit you’ve introduced into your life? How has it impacted you?
- Write a thank you note to yourself.
- What motivates you? When do you feel most motivated?
- What is one lesson you’ve learned in the last month?
- List 5 things you wish people knew about you.
- How do you know when you’re in a funk and what do you usually do about it?
- Write a letter to somebody in your support system.
- What’s something you should forgive yourself for but haven’t yet?
- List 3 things you’d like to accomplish in a month, no matter how small.
While journaling can be a helpful tool, if you feel you need additional help, there are resources available.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline is a free, confidential, hotline that provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to find more resources.