Journaling for Mental Health

by Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC

Journaling is a common technique used to manage stress, anxiety and overall mental health. It seems simple enough, but many people find themselves stumped on what they should be writing about or how they should even begin.

Have no fear. This post will at as your guide in making use of journaling to your full advantage.

Why journaling?

Journaling is a great way to reflect upon the countless interactions, thoughts and feelings we experience on a daily basis.

Whether we realize it or not, we often go throughout the day acting or reacting based an infinite amount of situational triggers. Our brains are so accustomed to processing this stimuli that we move from one thing to the next on autopilot. When we let these experiences continue to build up without proper reflection, the complex thoughts and emotions behind them can take over and cause us to feel overwhelmed and anxious.

While it may feel more effective to act quickly and get things done as fast as possible, the truth is that we are most powerful and effective when we are in control of our intentions. The good news is that we can get ourselves “unstuck” from this cycle by pausing to practice mindfulness though journaling.


But what should I write?

Journaling is simply a conscious and deliberate effort to maintain awareness and become more attended to our thoughts, sensations and emotions.  There is no “right” or “wrong” method to journaling in terms of what topic we chose to focus on.

Some people find it helpful to write a “stream of consciousness”—set a timer for 5 minutes and challenge yourself to write whatever pops into your head, allowing your mind to naturally wander from one topic to another. This may lead to an “aha!” moment when it lands upon a significant, subconscious thought.

Ideas for journaling also include:


Thought record journal

  • A thought record journal, or a thought log, looks like this. It is a structured way to reflect upon a situation that caused you irrational thoughts, unpleasant emotions and subsequent behaviors. You can refer to this cognitive distortion worksheet for help in determining what type of irrational thoughts you might have been unintentionally engaging in (hint: most irrational thoughts involving ourselves are generated by cognitive distortions to some extent).
  • Reflect upon the relationship between the irrational thoughts, emotions and behavior. Then, identify an alternative, more rational perspective to see the situation from a more objective perspective.

You can refer to this example of a completed thought log

Goals or intentions for the future:

  • Think about what you hope to accomplish in the upcoming days, weeks, months or years. Ask yourself what avoidance behaviors have prevented or slowed down your progress toward these goals, and what that avoidance has cost you. Then, make necessary adjustments to those goals by accepting what you cannot control and identifying what behaviors you do have control over.


  • Challenging yourself to write down new things you are grateful for at the end of each day is a great way to keep yourself actively engaged in the process.
  • Practicing gratitude provides numerous benefits. The act of reflecting upon things that bring us joy triggers more positive thoughts, which in turn lead us to experience an increase in positive emotions. The benefits don’t stop there. Increased emotional well-being is also linked with stronger immune systems, better sleep and increased energy. Gratitude can protect us from stress by increasing our feelings of appreciation about everything we have and making us less susceptible to feeling like we are not “enough.”

Just like a muscle, journaling exercises become easier with practice. Start by setting aside a few minutes a day to practice attunement to your thoughts and it will soon become a well-develop skill you can utilize to decrease anxiety in minutes.


Seeking Mental Health Support

While journaling is a great way to process and reflect on the feelings that have been building up throughout the day or week, it is not a substitute for professional treatment. Scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center may be the first step among many in successfully managing overwhelming thoughts and emotions.


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