Two years ago, I experienced a life-shaking panic attack on an airplane that forced me to embark on a long journey, both figuratively and literally. I was a wellness influencer who felt like I was living a double life, and it all caught up with me on that trip. While the literal journey forced me to skip my next flight and drive 46 hours home, the more important journey, for me, was the figurative one I’ve been on since then—one that started from an incredibly broken place of anxiety, stress, and tears.
During and after that episode, I felt vulnerable. My world was shaken. I felt like someone could have put their hand on my head and it would have crumbled to dust. I would carry out the same everyday tasks as I usually did, yet I felt very afraid. I was afraid of being thrown into another panic spiral. I was afraid of how my mind could make me feel.
It took me awhile, but I soon recognized that I was in a place where I had two choices. I could stay where I was, afraid, fragile, and unhappy, or I could find a way to feel whole again.
As I’m sure you can already guess, I decided to put the pieces back together and find a way to work through what I was facing. I had been going to a therapist for years, which has helped me, but I also turned to another method in my moment of need: journaling.
While I had irregularly kept a journal as a teenager, using a journal to help my emotional and mental state was new to me. In fact, it took a few desperate "how can I put myself back together" Google searches to show me that journaling therapy offers plenty of people numerous benefits, like improving clarity, regulating emotions, working through conflicts, and improving your overall quality of life. Notably, studies have consistently shown that journal therapy, also known as expressive writing, may improve aspects of your physical and mental health. (There are, however, possible drawbacks to a regular journaling practice—one study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, for example, found that people who focused on emotions and reliving upsetting events during their journaling sessions, rather than processing the meaning of those events, reported worse outcomes than other groups in the study. So know that if you try journaling and you don’t feel like it’s helping you, it’s okay to stop. There are plenty of other ways to improve your mental health.)
When I started my journaling practice, I spent a lot of time convincing myself I was okay. My journal acted as a place where I could repeatedly remind myself that I was, in fact, safe, regardless of what my mind was suggesting. My practice naturally evolved over time and turned into a tool where I was better able to dive deeply into what was going on in my mind. Over time, I allowed my journal to be a tool for me to go into the darker parts of my mind.
As time has gone on and I've kept it up, journaling has allowed me to no longer feel afraid to be with myself. I can close my eyes without the fear of the thoughts waiting under the surface.
Whenever I talk about journaling, people ask me how they can incorporate it into their daily lives. While it requires some effort, this is a beautiful practice that doesn’t require a lot of work to stick with it. Here are a few methods I’ve found that have helped me keep a consistent and healthy journaling practice.
1. Make a regular habit out of it.
You can really feel the benefits of journaling when you create a regular habit. My personal practice involves journaling every morning and evening. After getting up, showering, and getting ready for the day (without looking at my phone), I turn to my journal. I find that by starting my day this way, I’m able to go forward from a connected place. I’m able to check in with my values and make decisions that reflect them throughout my day accordingly.
I always end my days with journaling too. It offers up an opportunity to check in and reflect on how I showed up throughout my day. Did I live in the way that I wanted to show up in the world? Did I contribute to the world in the way I wanted to contribute? By journaling each night, I’m able to add a dose of reflection and even gratitude.
Your journaling routine may look different than mine—you may want to journal just a few minutes every morning, or set aside one big journal session every few days, but the point is to make it a regular part of your life. Creating a routine with your journal will set you up for success and will serve as regular checkpoints for you each and every day.
2. Keep your journal close by.
While my regular practice involves journaling day and night, I also turn to my journal throughout the day. For this reason, I find it best to keep it close by. I’ll keep mine in the bag I take to work, and while I’m at home, I’ll leave it in the room I journal in. I have one separate notebook for journaling and one notebook for work-related things, which allows me to keep all my thoughts in one place, so this makes it easier to look back on my own progression.
I find that by having my journal near me and leaving it in the places I choose to journal in, I’m more likely to stick to my practice.
3. Turn to your journal in moments of need.
While expressing yourself in a journal day and night is wonderful, your journal can be used for so much more. I love being able to reach for my journal in times of need. I recently got in a huge fight over the phone. I was sitting on the couch with my dogs and partner beside me. I threw my phone down and angrily got off the couch. Knowing myself, I knew I needed to let the anger out in another room. Before leaving the family room, I grabbed my journal. I gave myself the time I needed to properly outwardly express my anger, then I dove into my journal. Writing in it allowed me to process the event and see both sides of the disagreement. It also allowed me to calm down.
Journaling is a great resource to help you work through arguments, decisions, creative pursuits, and those times when your motivation is wavering. It can also serve as a tool to track your emotions, menstrual cycle, and any symptoms related to whatever health experiences you may be facing.
The beautiful thing about your journal is that it’s always there for you, whenever you need, no matter what you’re facing.
4. Make your journal a judgment-free zone.
We experience judgment from our families, coworkers, partners, friends, and even people at the grocery store. It’s a lot. Our journals shouldn’t be another place where we feel judged.
It’s important to allow yourself to journal freely without the fear of judgment. When we censor ourselves, we significantly limit the impact that journaling can have in our lives. It’s essential to be honest with ourselves while writing in a journal, and judgment can often get in the way.
Make an effort to reassure yourself that your journal is a judgment-free zone.
So, setting yourself up for success with your journaling is half the battle. However, a successful journaling practice doesn’t mean much if you don’t exactly know what to journal about.
Here are helpful prompts that can fuel your journaling journey:
1. Check in with yourself and how you’re feeling: Our lives are busy. We can easily check in at whatever coffee shop we’re at on Facebook, but when was the last time we checked in with ourselves?
Using your journal as a tool for checking in is a beautiful way to connect with yourself each and every day. Use your journal to explore how you feel, how your day was, or what you have been facing.
2. Reflect on what happened during your day: Journaling can help you beautifully reflect on your day. You can write about your actions, your interactions, the way the events in your day unfolded, what you accomplished, how your day felt—whatever it is, journaling can help you close out the hours.
3. Work through something that you’re going through: Each one of us has faced experiences that have left an impact on us, good or bad. Journaling can serve as a tool to help you make sense of the experiences you have faced in the past or are currently facing now. Turn to your journal to connect with what’s been showing up in your life. Some questions that have helped me work through things:
Is there a fear that’s holding me back right now?
Is there an anxiety that keeps on showing up for me?
Is there a part of my body that I tend to fixate on?
Is there a part of my relationship with my partner, friends, or family that needs working on?
While I have turned to my journal for hundreds of experiences, working through my unexpressed emotions has been the biggest way it has helped me. My journal turned into a safe space for me to bring up, express, and process the emotions I spent years shoving back down inside.
4. Write unsent letters to someone in your life: Writing letters without the intention of sending them can be a really therapeutic practice. Imagine writing a letter to someone in your past who’s hurt you or even someone actively in your life today. What would you say? Journaling unsent letters can help you find closure with someone without ever having to talk to them.
Sophie Gray is the founder of DiveThru, an introspection app that combines guided breathing and journaling to help you connect on a wide variety of topics. She is also the host of the SophieThinksThoughts podcast and writes at sophiethinksthoughts.com. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health disorder, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website for valuable resources to find help and support, or call the toll-free helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).