Journalling as therapy: How to, ideas, and prompts

Journalling is a little like meditation in that most people agree it’s wonderful for mental health and they intend to make it a practice, but it just never seems to happen. Not sure where to start, what to write about, or feel concerned you won’t do it right? Whether you’d like to get started, or if you’d like some new ideas for your regular writing, this article will help.

The evidence based benefits of journal writing or ‘writing therapy’ are long and varied including: improved memory, reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms, reduction in physical health symptoms, assistance in addiction recovery, and helping to process grief and trauma. However you don’t need to be dealing with mental or physical health issues in order to benefit from journal writing. It can help you to get to know yourself better, improve your gratitude and mindfulness, help you to find meaning in your experiences, clarify your goals and strengths, and enable new insights or a fresh perspective. I see it as helping us to live in a more present and connected way.

What might stop you from getting started

“I don’t know what to write about”

Staring at a blank journal can be daunting.  What on earth should I say?  It’s important to know that there is no should, and you can’t get it wrong.  Having some prompts can help to get you started if you are overwhelmed by what to write.  Check out the ideas below.

“I’m an awful writer”

You might be relieved to read that the therapeutic benefits of journaling have nothing to do with the end product and everything to do with the process.  It doesn’t matter what you write, and you don’t need to be constrained by grammar and spelling, There are two helpful things to remind yourself if the quality of your writing is what makes you hesitate about journaling – “This is raw writing, not a finished piece” and “This is not meant for others to read”.  It can reduce the pressure.


“I won’t do it right”

There is no ‘right’ way to write therapeutically. You cannot do it wrong. Pick up the pen, and what happens next will provide some insight no matter what happens. Keep second guessing yourself? Well, maybe that happens in your life too? Staring at the paper feeling pressure to do it perfectly or not at all? Where else does that show up in your life? See, there’s something to learn no matter how the writing goes.

Ideas for therapeutic journalling 

Write about something you can’t stop thinking about

Have you got something that keeps running through your mind and you have a hard time letting go of?  These kinds of ruminating thoughts can make it hard to sleep, distract us from the present moment, and can affect our relationships and enjoyment of life.  A ‘brain dump’ and just putting all those thoughts on paper can sometimes be the relief to stop the rumination.  You may find clarity about a decision, a new perspective, or you simply may be able to finally let go of it.


Write a letter to someone

Writing as if you’re communicating with someone can help the words to flow.  You might choose to write a letter to someone you trust to open up about what you’re going through, or alternatively write directly to someone you’re experiencing conflict with.  This is not a letter to send.  You’ll be much more honest and vulnerable if you feel safe that the letter won’t be read.

Write a letter to your past or future self

What would you like to tell your 8 year old self or your 16 year old self?  It might be offering compassion, gentle advice you would have needed back then, reporting on how well you’re doing now, or a reminder of what you could have appreciated more at the time.  What would you tell your future self about what you’re going through now?

Write about something you’re grateful for

If you love lists you could write a daily gratitude list of five things you’re thankful for each day. Or choose one thing you’re grateful for and write on it. Practicing gratitude has been associated with improved mood, enhanced relationships, lower depression and anxiety, improved wellbeing, higher quality sleep, enhanced empathy and more ethical behaviour. All wonderful ingredients for a more fulfilling life.

Write about one of your strengths

We can often get so focused on what’s ‘wrong’ with us, what we need to improve on, or how we’re lacking. Reminding ourselves of our strengths, skills, resourcefulness, and resilience helps us to see the full picture of our humanity. Yes we have challenges, but we also have many examples of where we’ve worked through such challenges! Clarifying our strengths helps to empower us to create the change we want, rather than feeling like we’re some hopeless problem.

Take a look through this list of strengths and choose one.  Write about situations when it served you well, why you’re grateful to have this strength, or how you came to develop it. If you have a current problem or dilemma you might want to write on how this strength might assist in your current circumstances.


Write an imaginary dialogue

What if you were to write a dialogue between you and your inner critic?  What about you and food, your body, or physical activity?  Or you and your adolescent self could shoot the breeze?  It’s similar to writing a letter to someone, except that you’re imagining and writing what they would say back as well. 


Describe a memory

Writing down memories can help to make them more vivid and elicit more information.  We might be able to see a new perspective, or we might be able to reframe it.


 Write to a timer

Set a timer for 5, 10, or 15 minutes and just write.  This can be really helpful if you feel that there’s no time for journaling, or if you find you keep avoiding it somehow.


Write your stream of consciousness

What does that mean?  Simply write everything that enters your head.  It doesn’t have to make sense, have correct grammar, nor correct spelling.  It definitely shouldn’t be edited as you go, just think of it as emptying your brain onto the page in a steady stream.  This one is great for perfectionists or anyone with an overactive inner critic – especially if you promise yourself you won’t re-read the writing.  It’s about the process not the product!

 Taking time out for yourself to journal is wonderful self-care - even if it’s just 5 minutes a few times a week. I invite you to give it a go and see what you discover. If you’d like assistance with the process, or any material that journaling brings up, I’d love to work with you.


by Jodie Arnot

Jodie is a registered counsellor with a Masters in Counselling from Monash University. She provides counselling via telephone, Skype, and in person, and is passionate about helping women to improve their relationship with their body.


Self-careJodie Arnot