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Life can be overwhelming. We all worry, stress, or feel out of control at some point. Whether you’re dealing with mental health issues or just need an outlet for your thoughts, guided journaling may help.

Of course, journaling isn’t a substitute for professional help. Still, it can be a helpful tool for sorting out your thoughts, goal setting, or just plain reflecting on your day.

Some people can jump into journaling without guidance, while others may need some direction and encouragement to sit down and reflect. Looking inward can be scary, but it can also help you get better acquainted with your beautiful self.

Psychotherapist Haley Neidich, a journaler herself, incorporates journaling into all of her client’s treatment plans, though the practice differs from person to person.

Some people might journal before a therapy session to organize their thoughts. Others prefer to journal in the morning as a way to clear their mind for the day ahead. “I’ve witnessed journaling serve as a powerful booster to therapy, and it’s a very creative way to get to know oneself,” says Neidich.

Neidich also points out that research supports the powerful, therapeutic benefits of journaling.

One 2013 study found that people with major depressive disorder who wrote down their thoughts and feelings for at least 20 minutes a day for 3 consecutive days had lower depression scores than people who wrote about mundane events in their day.

Neidich adds that although there are certainly benefits to journaling, they aren’t a substitute for therapy or other treatments.

“What I’ve experienced anecdotally is that journaling helps people to get to know themselves and become awake to the reality of their inner world,” Neidich says. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. But some people react negatively to looking inward, so having a therapist who can guide you through and help you process those feelings is important.

Journaling also isn’t universally helpful. It may even worsen mental health symptoms for some people, explains Neidich. “One of the biggest mistakes I see folks making is reading back over what they wrote in the past.” Revisiting expressions of powerful emotions can have a negative effect.

Neidich adds that people with personality disorders may find themselves triggered when journaling. Naturally, pouring your heart out can leave you reeling from surprising self-discoveries. Talking to a therapist before embarking on this type of deep reflective practice may be helpful —especially if you need a stronger support system.

Neidich recommends incorporating a journaling practice into your daily routine. She assures that long, drawn-out sessions are not necessary. Two to 5 minutes is absolutely enough time to express yourself and reap the benefits of this habit.

She offers some tips for making journaling a habit:

  • Work it into an existing routine.
  • Find a comfortable spot to journal.
  • Set a timer.
  • Write your thoughts down without editing yourself.

“You don’t need to read what you wrote or feel that it’s a complete or cohesive journal entry,” says Neidich.

She recommends free journaling for beginners but understands that some people need more structure. Gratitude journaling is another form of journaling that some people find helpful. Neidich suggests combining journaling practices (e.g., free and gratitude) for the maximum benefit.

Goal setting

Journaling can be a helpful complementary treatment approach for people with mental health concerns. But when I put a call out to hear about people’s experiences with guided journaling, most of the people who responded found the practice helpful for personal and professional goal setting.

Colin Palfrey, CMO of Majesty Coffee, says that after receiving a guided journal as a gift several years ago, he’s kept up the practice. “It’s a simple [exercise] to just write down one thing about your day every day. It’s amazing to see how life has changed over the last 3 years…[it’s] a good reminder of how far I’ve come.”

For Ian Sells, CEO and founder of RebateKey, the habit began when he purchased a planner with space for journaling. “[A] lot of my personal goals are tied into my business goals… I like working out my thoughts in writing because it forces me to think clearly,” says Sells.

Self-care

Natasha Davis, mom and small business owner of One Sassy Scribe, says that gratitude journaling is a form of self-care. It allows her to focus on her successes. “My gratitude journal makes me take stock every day of all the positives, however small,” says Davis.

It also encouraged her to create a visual representation — what she calls a positivity wall — of what she’s been writing down in her journal. Her 6-year-old son even asked to have his very own positivity wall.

“[N]ot only has my journaling experience helped me, it’s also helping my son, too,” she says, adding that she eventually plans on introducing her son to journaling.

Introducing young people to journaling is something that Neidich encourages. She says, “If you have a pre-teen or teenager in your life, a beautiful new journal is one of the more special gifts you can give them. Journaling is an important, lifelong, mental health practice, and encouraging it early can really help to bolster resiliency.”

For Davis, journaling is a nightly habit. A phone reminder nudges her every night at 10 p.m. to get to it. When she misses a few nights of journaling, she says it’s definitely noticeable.

Want to try journaling for yourself? Here are a few guided journals to consider.

Pricing guide

  • $ = under $15
  • $$ = over $15

A Year of Zen: A 52-Week Guided Journal

Price: $

This guided journal features 52 weeks of prompts inspired by Zen Buddhism. You don’t have to be spiritual to get something from it, though. Reviewers say the prompts are approachable and easy to respond to.

None of the prompts are dated, so skipping a day doesn’t mean you’ll end up with a backlog of prompts to complete. Writing space is limited, though, so keep that in mind if you’re someone who wants a lot of room to express yourself.

The 5-Minute Gratitude Journal: Give Thanks, Practice Positivity, Find Joy

Price: $

This journal is Neidich’s personal recommendation. It’s designed to help people create a journaling practice. Each prompt takes just a few minutes to respond to.

Reviewers say writing in the journal helps boost their mood and positive emotions.

Let That Sh*t Go

Price: $

Hear that? It’s a long sigh of relief, the sound of you letting go of what’s on your mind. Reviewers love this vulgar little journal and say that it’s helped them with their mental struggles.

One reviewer does point out that the tone may be too glib for people dealing with serious mental health issues. But many people say the prompts are helpful, and the inspirational quotes and passages are funny and entertaining.

Burn After Writing

Price: $

This aptly titled journal has over 25,000 positive reviews on Amazon. Some reviewers were disappointed to find that the book doesn’t, in fact, come with matches to set it ablaze. But many find the prompts fun and edgy.

Reviewers also point out that it’s probably best suited to younger journalers.

F*cking Brilliant One Line a Day Journal

Price: $$

There’s enough space in this journal to write down a line a day for 5 whole years. It’s a great way to preserve memories, but you can also use it to quickly get out your thoughts and feelings.

Reviewers say it’s surprisingly compact and easy to take anywhere. People also appreciate that it requires a very minimal time commitment.

Remember that guided journaling (or journaling of any kind) isn’t a substitute for professional help. If you’re having difficulty with your mental health, speak with a mental health professional.

And don’t take guided journaling too seriously. It can be a fun, cathartic way to get your thoughts on paper, but it doesn’t have to rule your life. You won’t lose points if you accidentally skip a day or two. Do it as long as it makes you feel good.


Steph Coelho is a freelance writer with chronic migraine who has a particular interest in health and wellness. When she’s not click-clacking away on her keyboard, she’s probably nose-deep in a good book.