Starting a Journaling Practice: Types and Prompts
THC Editorial Team December 23, 2021
Journaling can be an extremely beneficial practice to maintain your mental health and well-being. Benefits from this form of writing therapy can include insights into inner processes such as thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, reduced anxiety, improved physical health, better body image, improved learning, critical thinking and achievement, improved attitude, and more.1,2,3 Journaling therapy works best as a means to reflect upon and write about your deep emotional processes and traumatic experiences—a daunting idea for many. Thankfully, there are several different types of journaling practices that you can choose from to get started.
Types of Journaling
Although journaling therapy traditionally consists of delving into your emotions and traumatic experiences, different types of journaling have developed and been shown to have various benefits.
Reflective journaling is often used in classroom or counseling settings. It is meant to help you discover ways to create meaning in your life.4 Entries focus on your values, beliefs, and experiences related to a class discussion or a counseling session. It can be helpful to reflect upon different aspects of your life to find and create meaning in day-to-day life.
In classroom settings, reflective journaling encourages:3
- Reflection and articulation of thought process
- An increase in cognitive skills
- Independent thinking and problem-solving
According to Barbara Ganim and Susan Fox, in their book Visual Journaling: Going Deeper Than Words, “… visual journaling involves using one’s inner vision to imagine what a thought, feeling or emotional reaction would look like if it were expressed as a color, shape or image.”5 Visual journaling has shown promise as a technique for stress reduction and mood improvement.6
A gratitude journal is a place to reflect upon and write down things you are thankful for. This can be as detailed as an entry for each item or as simple as a daily list. Researchers have found that this method of journaling can bring improved health and happiness; it can help you cope with stress, positively affect suffering and the quality of life, improve sleep quality, and promote generosity.7,8
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Journaling
For this journaling method, you must first learn about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a common form of psychotherapy, and different CBT skills. Then, as you use and integrate these skills into your life, you can write about instances in which you’ve used CBT. This may be a helpful self-guided method of therapy.9 In CBT, the “ABC model” is commonly used; this includes exploration of an activating event (A), your beliefs about the event (B), consequences (C), and sometimes an additional category called disputing (D). The disputing stage, which the below prompts encourage, challenges your thinking and works to find an alternative thought process based on healthier, more positive beliefs and an action plan to support it.10
In health journaling, you can write about your current health issues. This is commonly used throughout lengthy and difficult medical conditions like cancer. Research shows that writing about the negative emotions associated with a medical condition can reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.9 In daily life, health journaling can look like jotting down your physical feelings as well as your thoughts about health.
This structured form of journaling is based on setting goals and plans and tracking activities. Setting manageable goals effectively builds self-confidence because it helps set you up to have successful experiences.11 An effective approach is to set “SMART” goals—those that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.12
Audio / Voice and Video Journaling
With the ability of many phones to also serve as audio and video recording tools, audio/voice journaling is easier to practice. People who are comfortable with technology have shown interest in using audio journals compared to text journals. In some cases, voice journal entries are “more lengthy and less concise” than traditional text journals.13
It can be challenging to get started, especially when faced with a blank page or a brand-new notebook. Here are some prompts to help you begin.
Gratitude Journaling Prompt14
- I am grateful for my family/friends/loved ones because…
- Describe a lesson you’re grateful to have learned.
- List three things you used today that you are grateful for.
- Discuss three privileges you have that you are grateful for.
- Who was the last person who helped you? Describe how that made you feel.
- List three accomplishments you’re proud of.
- What do you love most about your life?
- Describe something unique about yourself that you’ve grown to appreciate.
- I am grateful for all I have and all I am because…
Reflective Journaling Prompt15
- What do you want to be doing a year from now? Ten years from now?
- Write about some things that you have found surprising in your life lately.
- Discuss someone you admire. Consider what similarities and differences you have compared to that person.
- Are there things in your life you need to let go of? What are they?
- Transcribe your favorite quote or poem. What does it mean to you?
- What things in life do you need to start saying no to?
- How do you define peace/love/success?
- Recall a time when you mistreated another person. How does it make you feel? What have you learned from that experience?
- What do you see as your most significant weaknesses? Consider where these qualities might stem from and how you can improve or accept them.
CBT Journaling Prompts16
- Are you using emotional reasoning rather than logical reasoning? Try to consider whether your thought process is logical or based on emotion.
- Explore the evidence for and against a thought or belief.
- How does accepting these thoughts and beliefs make you feel and behave?
- What would you advise your best friend if they were thinking this way?
- Is there some other thought or idea that would be more true to say? Why?
Health Journaling Prompts17
- Consider and write about how you feel about your body.
- Write about the healthy habits you want to build.
- Focus on and listen to what your body is telling you. Write about this in your journal.
- How do you recharge? Do you need to practice more rest and physical self-care?
- List your health goals and how you can focus on them over the next week or month.
- How do you feel after a good night’s sleep versus a poor night’s sleep? How can you cultivate good sleep?
- What small lifestyle change would have a positive impact on your health?
- What can you do to prioritize your well-being?
Goal Journaling Prompts18
- Write about what you want to achieve over a certain time (this week, month, year, etc.) and why.
- What are your top priorities?
- What motivates you?
- Write about some lessons you learned recently that you want to keep in mind as you work toward your goals.
- What beliefs do you hold that limit you or hold you back?
- How can you step outside your comfort zone?
- Consider how you spend your time. Could you be spending it more wisely or in a way that helps you achieve your goals?
- What is one habit you want to break?
- What kind of person do you aspire to be?
General Journaling Prompts
Write a letter to the person other than yourself who was most affected by a traumatic event you experienced. Use this opportunity to tell them anything you have wanted to say; additionally, explain why you wanted to say it and why you feel the way you do. The letter is simply for your therapeutic use, not to send to the other person.19
Consider whether a traumatic event has had any positive effects on your life. Have you learned about yourself because of how this changed your life? If so, how?19
Return to earlier entries and consider whether you could add any events or emotions that you now recall or that have since changed.19
Write about an important, but not significantly traumatizing, event in your life in great detail, including the setting and each of the people involved, down to their hair color and your attire.
Reflect upon what you learned from this event and whether writing about it changed your perspective of this event.19
Write about what makes you feel anxious. How can you redirect these anxious thoughts to make yourself feel calmer?9
Write about the last time you were angry and what caused it. How can you use this anger to positively impact your life or the world?9
Consider the hardest or one of the hardest things you have gone through. Write about this event or period and reflect upon how you dealt with it.9
- I feel happy/sad/anxious when…
- When I feel angry, I tend to…
- My favorite things I do to calm myself are…
- I feel ashamed/guilty about…
- I would describe my relationship with my parent/friend/sibling as being…
- A challenge I am trying to overcome right now is…
- Something I want to do for myself/my mental health today is…
- Something I like about myself is…
- The last time I cried was because…
As with most practices that are worth pursuing, commitment, persistence, and patience are helpful in the development of an effective journal writing practice.20