Expressive writing, commonly known as journaling, can provide many mental health benefits.
Keeping a journal is a powerful tool, according to Viviane OberlingPsyD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Virtual Group Therapy Platform Rhythm. Indeed, journaling can provide a safe space to process and explore the thoughts and emotions that affect your mood, and to reflect on life events and experiences that have an impact.
If you are living with depression, you may have come across a number of recommended strategies for dealing with unwanted or painful emotions, including keeping a daily journal. You may have also wondered, does it really work?
Depression is usually not something you can treat on your own. Still, journaling can help you cope with symptoms, especially when you combine your writing practice with professional treatment.
Here’s what to know about the potential benefits of writing for depression, along with some tips for getting started.
Journaling can help relieve symptoms of depression by:
“Journaling your current thoughts and feelings, or your visual and other observations, can help you become more aware,” says Kimberlee ChronosterPsyD, licensed clinical psychologist in private practice.
“Journaling can make emotions manageable,” says Danielle RoskePsyD, psychologist and Vice President of Residential Services at Newport Health. “When there are a lot of negative thoughts floating around in your head, getting them out and putting them on paper will help put things into perspective, making it all less daunting.”
“The more you journal about what’s going on in your daily life, the more you’ll be able to become aware of events, thoughts, or behaviors that may be making you more depressed,” says Roeske.
You may also start noticing certain patterns. Perhaps you notice a worsening of your mood:
- at certain times of the day
- after talking with some people
- when you adopt certain habits, such as saying “yes” to something you don’t want to do or spending a lot of time on social media
Say you’ve been feeling quite depressed recently, but you don’t know why. After keeping a journal of events that occur in your life for a week, you notice that you experience constant feelings of self-doubt in various situations.
Oberling notes that journaling can help you identify a pattern in which you react to these situations by socially withdrawing, engaging in negative self-talk, or mentally dwelling on what happened, which can perpetuate the depression.
Identifying the underlying trigger can help you deal with it, any specific situations that are fueling it, and think about other coping strategies.
Here’s how it could go:
- A friend does not reply to your text for days.
- It triggers the thought that maybe they are mad at you or that they don’t like you anymore.
- Eventually, you find yourself moody and sad, constantly worrying about the loss of that important friendship.
According to Chronister, journaling provides an opportunity to recognize and challenge these thoughts, and to reframe them in a more positive way.
For example, you could write a journal about other reasons your friend didn’t respond to you. Maybe they’re waiting for enough time to give a thoughtful response, or they’re just overwhelmed by other life stressors and have forgotten.
Chronoster notes that you can also use your journal as a space for positive inner dialogue. Writing about all the valuable traits you bring to your friendships, for example, could help eliminate insecurities that compound feelings of depression.
One great thing about journaling? It does not require any specific method or formula.
The routine, format and topic that is best for you may depend on factors such as your personality, lifestyle, severity and symptoms of depression.
To start, Roeske recommends setting a timer for just 5-10 minutes and allowing yourself to mindfully journal everything that comes to mind. Try to avoid self-publishing so you can express yourself freely.
Another good strategy for beginners? “Try journaling about your intentions or goals in the morning, then reflect on how you followed up in the evening,” says Chronister. As you reflect on the events of the day, be sure to recognize small victories to boost your self-esteem.
If you’re struggling with negative thought patterns that trigger or worsen depression, Roeske recommends using your journal as a space to write about positive affirmations, like “I’m lovable, and here’s why” or “I’m strong and capable of handling anything, and here’s the proof.
Pen and paper or digital?
Does it matter whether you keep your journal on a computer or other digital device, or write with a traditional pen and paper? Chronister shares that it all comes down to which method you’re most likely to stick with.
Writing with pen and paper can be less distracting than using a computer, while still giving you the ability to draw pictures if you want to express yourself artistically.
On the other hand, journaling on a computer can be more convenient if you type faster than you write. You can also save digital diaries, so you don’t have to worry about losing the content. Digital journaling also provides an extra layer of privacy, if you’re worried about someone reading your physical journal.
Don’t know what to write about?
Roeske, Oberling, and Chronister recommend these prompts:
- One challenge I overcame today was…
- Something I’m looking forward to is…
- One thing I learned about myself today is…
- The person who makes me feel good when I’m with her is…
- Those are three things I’m thankful for today…
- Here’s how I plan to practice self-care today…
- That’s the best compliment I’ve ever received…
- Here is a letter to my future self…
- Here is a letter to someone who left a positive impact on my life…
- What are my favorite qualities about me and why?
- When was the last time I felt truly happy, and what were the circumstances?
- Here is a description of my “happy place” — what emotions it evokes and what I see, smell, hear and feel when I am there.
When it comes to topics you might want to ignore, it’s usually less helpful to just focus on negative thoughts. But you can put them on paper, if necessary. You might even find it offers a sense of release or catharsis.
Just try to avoid spending your entire journaling period on negative thoughts or re-reading them after you’ve finished writing.
“Above all, journaling should never feel like a chore,” says Roeske. So strive to write about things that bring you joy and foster feelings of self-compassion, not self-punishment.
Although journaling can be a great coping strategy, it won’t cure depression. Also, journaling isn’t necessarily helpful for everyone.
That’s why Chronister recommends rating your symptoms of depression on a scale of 1 to 10 each time you journal, before and after you write.
Assessing your symptoms can highlight patterns of when and why your depression is getting worse or better. If your self-reported depression score doesn’t improve after about a week of journaling, or if it often rises after journaling, getting help from a therapist is usually a good option.
According to Roeske, Oberling and Chronister, it might be time to consider getting help from a therapist if you are:
- suffer from depression that makes it difficult to maintain relationships, perform your job, schoolwork, or manage daily tasks
- have desires to hurt or end your life
- notice changes in your eating or sleeping habits
- using alcohol or other substances to help relieve symptoms of depression
A qualified mental health professional can offer more advice on identifying the causes and triggers of depression, and help you determine the most effective treatment for your needs, whether that means:
Here’s how to find the right therapist for you.
When it comes to coping with the symptoms of depression, journaling is just one of the many tools at your disposal. A regular journaling practice can do more than help you through stressful or upsetting events. It can also help you:
There’s no right or wrong way to keep a mental health journal. That said, it’s best to make journaling a regular part of your routine and avoid prompts or topics that feed negative thought patterns.
If keeping a journal doesn’t seem to be doing much for your symptoms of depression, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Depression often requires professional treatment, and a therapist can help you find the most helpful treatment for your specific symptoms.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. His work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen and Elite Daily.