When Lori Cangilla, PhD, was 14 years old, her father died by suicide. She had been writing in a journal for several years at that point, and the practice took on new meaning for her as she processed her grief on the page. Today, Cangilla is a licensed psychologist and author who recommends journaling to her clients and continues to practice it herself.
Whether you’re coping with a loss like Cangilla’s or simply looking for a way to record your feelings, thoughts, hopes, and adventures, a journal can be a good friend. And to get started, you don’t need to be a “writer,” a “thinker,” or a skillful self-analyst — just a human being with a little time and willingness.
“When we’re feeling a lot of emotion or a sense of stuckness, we’re right up close to whatever is disturbing us,” Cangilla explains. “By writing about it, it’s almost like you’re changing the lens and getting this wider view. You’re taking in more of the circumstances around you, more of your own history. When you do that, I think you have more ability to deal with the anxiety, the depression, the strain of being human.”
Research backs up Cangilla’s view. In one 2013 study, 20 people living with major depressive disorder journaled about a deeply emotional event over several days and found that their symptoms eased.
In a 2021 study, 35 adults with elevated anxiety who journaled online for 12 weeks noticed less mental distress. Their long-term journaling was also associated with greater resilience.
“Journaling in the morning can help you to set your intention for the day, so you’re more goal-oriented and focused,” says Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in ADHD and anxiety disorders. “That can help you stay grounded and centered.”
So far, so good, but the prospect of starting to journal — for mental health, self-awareness, or simple pleasure — can actually produce anxiety. How to begin? On paper or onscreen? Do you need a fancy notebook? How often should you make entries, and how long should they be? What if the very prospect of writing feels intimidating?
“It’s all about comfort,” says Cangilla. “I’ve seen people who want to use a $50 journal and a beautiful pen. I myself am just as likely to scribble on a sticky note or whatever else I have handy.”
The same goes for how much time you devote to the process and how often: It’s entirely up to you. If you need an idea or two to get going, you have a world of online options (search for “journaling prompts” and you’ll be amazed).
Cangilla encourages her clients to start by writing down a single word about the situation they are experiencing at the current moment. “What most people find is that this single word gets them started and takes them in a direction that’s meaningful.”
And there are so many different journaling formats — you’re sure to find one that suits you. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that journaling doesn’t even have to be writing.
Let’s explore this wildly personal, utterly liberated and liberating form of self-expression.
1. Narrative Journaling
This is where many of us begin, writing about what’s going on and how we feel about it. “You’re processing your feelings as you write,” says Sarkis. “While you’re writing, you’re thinking through the things that have happened to you and how they connect to earlier events in your life. You’re consciously or unconsciously formulating options for the future at the same time. And your brain is thanking you for getting all that out on paper.”
There can be downsides to this kind of review — especially if you’re prone to rumination, or if reliving a traumatic event might retraumatize you. Justin Puder, PhD, a psychologist and mental-health podcaster, recommends paying close attention to your body’s signals to determine whether your journaling practice is serving you well.
“Ask yourself, ‘Is this writing giving my body a heavy feeling?’” he says. “‘Is it deepening a negative mood, or do I feel lightness in the body, a little more mental clarity, a little more energy, like I released something?’” If you anticipate or experience negative feelings, seek the advice of a mental-health professional as you embark on journaling, Sarkis suggests.
2. Gratitude Journaling
Here’s a practically guaranteed mood lifter: Make a list of the continuing things in your life that make you feel calm, joyful, and happy.
Gratitude journaling can include everything from the basic good stuff (like a warm house and enough food to eat) to very special uplifting things about you, like your knowledge of French, your cooking abilities, or your skill as a figure skater. “It’s not about being in denial about the difficult things you have to face,” Sarkis explains. “It’s just a change of focus toward the positive.” (See “How to Keep a Gratitude Journal” for more.)
3. Intuition Journaling
Whether you’re seeking clarity about a new relationship or considering a significant career shift, this writing format can offer you fresh insight. “Anytime you have a question about something in your life or you’re making a big decision, you ask yourself the question and see what you write down spontaneously,” Sarkis explains.
A particularly effective version, albeit one that takes practice, is to write the question with your dominant hand and the answer with your other hand. Writing with your nondominant hand (whether right or left) slows you down and challenges your creativity.
4. Stream-of-Consciousness Journaling
This is a great way to deal with writer’s block — you simply scribble down whatever comes to your mind, no matter how nonsensical, snarky, or strange it may be. There’s no right or wrong way to use this format.
Sarkis recommends stream-of-consciousness journaling in particular for people struggling with anxiety or perfectionism. “It can be a freeing experience, especially if you tend to overanalyze yourself,” she explains. “But it can take practice. It’s OK if you find yourself stopping and saying, ‘Well, I shouldn’t have written that!’ You don’t have to do it right — just keep going.”
5. Visual Journaling
This is where you get to break free from the written word. Visual journaling involves making representations of how you’re feeling in the form of pictures, abstractions, scribbles, doodles, or whatever else you like. It’s great for visual thinkers, of course, but it can help anyone who feels that words are hemming in the expressive process.
And it’s adaptable in interesting ways. Cangilla, an avid photographer, loves using her photos as a kind of visual journaling. “You can set some of your photos in front of you for reflection, arrange them in a collage physically or with an app,” she says. “You can even do some writing in response to your pictures or to photos other people have taken.” (See “Draw Your Day” for more inspiration.)
6. What-Is-Going-Well Journaling
Whereas gratitude journaling is about the ongoing positive elements of your life, this style instead focuses on the specific events of the day. This small shift can make a difference in your mindset over time.
“It could simply be ‘I got to catch up with an old coworker. I got to go on a good walk this evening. The weather is nice,’” Puder says. “It’s a mindful practice to notice the smallest things you’re grateful for.”
There are many more ways to journal. You can write a letter that you never send, record voice memos on your phone or computer, or journal with music by playing tunes that express your feelings and recording the results. (If you aren’t trained on an instrument, you can make most anything into a drum!)
All three experts agree that your choice of journaling structure and style is entirely up to you and is infinitely customizable. You can start with one and switch to another whenever you like, or stay with one the whole time. “It’s whatever gets you flowing,” says Puder.
A consistent journaling practice also gives you an archive to revisit if you choose, which Puder says is his favorite part of the process. “When I hit a hard time in my life, I really like looking back at old journal entries,” he adds. “I’m so grateful that I was tracking and expressing myself, because I can clearly see how I worked through my toughest times. It reminds me that I’m going to make it through this one, too.”
(Looking to enhance the mental health of a loved one — or yourself? We’ve curated a range of articles to help you support your mental health needs here.)
This article originally appeared as “Dear Diary” in the December 2022 issue of Experience Life.