Expressive writing, commonly referred to as journaling, can offer many mental health benefits.
Keeping a journal is a powerful tool, according to Vivian Oberling, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with the virtual group therapy platform Pace. This is because journaling can offer a safe space to process and explore thoughts and emotions that affect your mood, and reflect on impactful life events and experiences.
If you live with depression, you may have come across any number of recommended strategies for coping with unwanted or painful emotions, including daily journaling. You might have also wondered, does it actually work?
Depression typically isn’t something you can treat on your own. All the same, journaling may 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, plus some tips for getting started.
Journaling may help ease depression symptoms by:
Mindfulness refers to a state of being totally present in a given moment — and
“Journaling about your current thoughts and feelings, or visual and other observations, can help you to become more mindful,” explains Kimberlee Chronister, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive clinical director of Key Transitions, a Los Angeles-based adolescent treatment program.
“Journaling can make emotions feel manageable,” says Danielle Roeske, PsyD, a psychologist and the vice president of Residential Services at Newport Healthcare. “When there are a lot of negative thoughts floating around in your head, getting them out and onto paper will help put things into perspective, making it all feel less daunting.”
“The more you journal about what’s happening in your daily life, the more you’ll be able to become aware of which events, thoughts, or behaviors may be making you feel more depressed,” says Roeske.
You may also start to notice certain patterns. Maybe you notice a worsened mood:
- at particular times of the day
- after talking with certain people
- when engaging in certain habits, like saying “yes” to something you don’t want to do or spending a lot of time on social media
Say you’ve felt pretty down recently, with no clear idea as to why. After journaling about the things happening in your life for a week, you notice you’ve been experiencing consistent feelings of self-doubt across a range of situations.
Oberling notes that journaling might help you identify a pattern in which you respond to these situations by withdrawing socially, engaging in negative self-talk, or mentally dwelling on what happened, all of which can perpetuate depression.
Pinpointing the underlying trigger can help you address it, along with any specific situations fueling it, and brainstorm alternate coping strategies.
Here’s how it might play out:
- A friend doesn’t respond to your text for days.
- This triggers the thought that maybe they’re mad at you or no longer like you.
- Eventually, you find yourself in a low, sad mood, worrying constantly about the loss of that important friendship.
According to Chronister, journaling presents an opportunity to acknowledge and challenge these thoughts, and reframe them in a more positive way.
For instance, you might journal about alternative reasons why your friend hasn’t texted you back. Maybe they’re waiting until they have enough time to give a thoughtful response, or they’re simply overwhelmed with other life stressors and forgot.
Chronister notes that you can also use your journal as a space for positive self-talk. Writing about all the valuable traits you bring to your friendships, for example, might help eliminate the insecurities that worsen feelings of depression.
One great thing about journaling? It doesn’t require any specific method or formula.
The routine, format, and subject matter that works best for you may depend on factors like your personality, lifestyle, and depression severity and symptoms.
Consistency is key
Journaling consistently tends to make the most difference, when it comes to mental health benefits.
As a general guideline, Oberling recommends finding a place where you can journal that’s free of distractions, and committing to a specific time of day and amount of time for writing.
To get started, Roeske recommends setting a timer for just 5 to 10 minutes and allowing yourself to journal in a stream-of-consciousness manner about whatever comes to mind. Try to avoid self-editing so you can express yourself freely.
Another good strategy for beginners? “Try journaling about your intentions or goals in the morning, and then reflecting on how you followed through in the evening,” says Chronister. While reflecting on the day’s events, make it a point to acknowledge small wins to build up your self-esteem.
If you’re having a difficult time with negative thought patterns that trigger or worsen depression, Roeske recommends using your journal as a space to write about positive affirmations, like “I am worthy of love, and here’s why,” or “I am strong and capable of handling anything, and here’s proof.”
Pen and paper or digital?
Does it matter whether you keep your journal on a computer or other digital device, or write with traditional pen and paper? Chronister shares that it all comes down to the method you’re most likely to stick with.
Writing using pen and paper may pose fewer distractions than using a computer, while also allowing you the flexibility to sketch images if you want to express yourself artistically.
On the other hand, journaling on a computer may offer more convenience if you type faster than you write. You can also back up digital journals, so you don’t have to worry about losing the contents. Digital journaling also offers an extra layer of privacy, if you’re worried about someone reading your physical journal.
Not sure what to write about?
Roeske, Oberling, and Chronister recommend these prompts:
- A challenge I overcame today was…
- Something that I’m looking forward to is…
- One thing I learned about myself today is…
- The person who makes me feel good when I’m around them is…
- These are three things I’m grateful for today…
- Here’s how I plan to practice self-care today…
- This is the best compliment I’ve ever received…
- Here’s a letter to my future self…
- Here’s a letter to someone who left a positive impact on my life…
- What are my favorite qualities about myself and why?
- When was the last time I felt truly happy, and what were the circumstances?
- Here’s a description of my “happy place” — what emotions it evokes and what I see, smell, hear, and feel when I’m there.
In terms of topics you might want to skip, it’s generally less than helpful to focus only on negative thoughts. But you can put them down on paper, if needed. You might even find this offers a sense of release or catharsis.
Just try to avoid spending your entire journaling period on negative thoughts, or reading them over again once you’ve finished writing.
“Above all, journaling should never feel like a chore,” says Roeske. So, aim to make a point of writing about things that bring you joy and promote feelings of self-compassion, not self-punishment.
While journaling can be a great coping strategy, this habit won’t cure depression. What’s more, journaling doesn’t necessarily prove helpful for everyone.
That’s why Chronister recommends rating your depression symptoms on a scale of 1 to 10 every time you journal — both before and after you write.
Rating your symptoms can highlight any patterns in when and why your depression gets worse or better. If your self-reported depression score doesn’t improving after a week or so of journaling, or it often gets higher after journaling, getting support from a therapist is generally a good option.
According to Roeske, Oberling, and Chronister, it may be time to consider getting support from a therapist if you’re:
- experiencing depression that makes it tough to maintain relationships, perform your job, do schoolwork, or manage daily tasks
- having urges to hurt yourself or end your life
- noticing changes in your eating or sleeping patterns
- using alcohol or other substances to help ease depression symptoms
Need to talk?
If you’re having thoughts of suicide, know you don’t have to carry these thoughts alone.
You can get free, confidential support from compassionate crisis counselors by:
- calling 800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- texting HOME to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line
A trained mental health professional can offer more guidance on identifying depression causes and triggers, plus help you determine the most effective treatment for your needs, whether that means:
- participating in therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to interpersonal therapy
- practicing behavioral activation on your own
- taking antidepressant medication
- joining a support group for depression
- making certain lifestyle changes
When it comes to coping with depression symptoms, journaling is just one of the many tools at your disposal. A regular journaling practice can do more than help you work through stressful or upsetting events. It can also help you:
- increase self-awareness
- explore difficult emotions
- reframe negative thoughts into positive ones
There’s no right or wrong way to journal for mental health. That said, it’s best to make journaling a regular part of your routine and avoid prompts or topics that fuel negative thought patterns.
If journaling doesn’t seem to do much for your depression symptoms, don’t hesitate to reach out for support. 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. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.