How to start a daily journaling habit

Mental Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Apr 7, 2021

What if there was a simple way to reduce stress, improve immune function and boost your mood? Journaling, a simple activity, has shown to do this and more! Let’s explore how journaling can be an effective way to process thoughts and boost your mental health.

Mental illness affects millions of people every year. Interestingly, it is estimated that only half of the people affected receive treatment. This sheds light on the importance of talking about and prioritizing your mental health. It is important to find effective ways to process thought, emotions and difficulties in order to take care of your mental health. While this may come easier to some people, others may engage in activities like mindfulness or journaling to have a clearer mind. 

Why journaling?

Journaling is a simple activity that has shown to improve physical, emotional and mental health, so let’s talk about that. Journaling can be a helpful activity when you feel “stuck,” need to check in with yourself or are overwhelmed. It can be practiced in many ways such as writing a list, poetry, drawing or making flow charts. The ways to process your thoughts through journaling are endless. Still, it may be difficult to start when you are staring at a blank page.

Finding what works best for you will make the process easier. You could choose to write every morning, once a week or whenever you have time. It can also help to find a comfortable spot, always keep a journal with you, ask someone to remind you to write, and try different methods of writing.

What to journal about

So, what do you write? There are different approaches to writing, each of which can allow you to process your thoughts.2,6

  • Free writing: Open your journal and begin to write down whatever is on your mind. It can be something that happened, how you are feeling or any thought on your mind. 
  • Lists: This can be a list of goals, things you enjoy, budgets, affirmations. Writing lists can allow you to organize thoughts. 
  • Art journal: If you are an artistic person, you may find that drawing or painting will allow you to get in touch with your creativity and sense of expression. You could also draw art and write in the same journal.
  • Unsent letter: Writing a letter to a person helps with closure. Choose a person to write to and pretend you are writing a letter to them expressing your feelings towards them or something they did. You could even write a letter to your past or future self!
  • Bullet journaling: If you feel that you have a lot of different unrelated thoughts, you could write them out in bullet points. These can be ideas, errands, reminders and other thoughts that pop into your head and you do not want to forget. 
  • Reflection journal: If you had an experience that you keep thinking about, writing about it may help you process it and understand how you feel about it. 
  • Gratitude journal: Write down things you are grateful for.
  • Worst-case scenario journaling: Write down what worries you and how that could lead to a worst-case scenario. Although this may look like a pessimistic approach, it may help you realize your fears and anxieties are irrational.

You may find that one or multiple methods work best for you. In the end, journaling will allow you to declutter your mind. You could also track your progress by noticing differences in your stress levels, mood and anxiety after journaling.

The problem with worry

It’s no secret that we all worry about things from time to time and typically this can be a healthy practice in problem solving. Like anything, however, worrying can quickly become burdensome and destructive when done in excess. “Over worrying” and ruminating on the stressors in our lives takes us out of the present moment and steals our focus away from what truly matters. The truth is, while it is good to be prepared for potential problems, over worrying may make these problems worse. Feelings of anxiety and stress may stem from over worrying, resulting in reduced problem-solving skills and even destructive behavior.

Working to be mindful of our thoughts and worries allows us to have more control over what thoughts we choose to pay mind to. While we can’t shut our brains off, we can learn to quiet the thoughts that aren’t helpful to us. 

Through journaling, we are able to arrive at solutions that benefit our mental health and help us cope with the various problems we face in our day to day lives. Journaling invites a chance to organize the many thoughts that bounce around our minds, helping us to find solutions that may not have been previously evident. 

Journaling also helps us practice and identify the coping skills that work best for us. By keeping track of the trials you face, how you chose to cope with them, and whether or not that skill benefitted you, you can quickly identify methods of coping that are (or aren’t) conducive to bettering your mental health. For example, if reminding yourself that practicing deep breathing worked to calm your anxiety earlier in the day, journaling about that experience and how it specifically helped may reinforce that practice for future use. Journaling allows you to gather research into your own mental health, helping you learn the best ways to calm yourself for different situations. 

It is important to recognize that journaling may not completely solve your problems or improve your mental health, and that is absolutely okay. If you find that journaling does not aid in improving your mental health or feelings of rumination, insomnia or anxiety, it may be best to speak to a therapist or your primary care physician.

Find mental health support near you.

This article was contributed by dietetic interns Valeria Aceves, Carolina Muñoz and Kamran Khan.

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