There are many benefits of journaling, though it is prone a few problems (that are easily managed). The goal of this guide is to help you build a sustainable and flexible practice of journaling. Getting the most benefits, and experiencing the fewest problems possible.
Possible Benefits of Therapeutic Journaling
I am assuming that you already know about some of these benefits, or you would not be interested in this guide. For those unconvinced, here is a brief list of the possible benefits of journaling (Credit to Thai Nguyen for the list).
- Increased Intelligence
- Increased Self-Awareness (“mindfulness” is the current buzzword)
- Increased Productivity and Achieving Goals
- Increased Emotional Intelligence
- Increased Memory and Comprehension
- Increased Self-Discipline
- Increased Communication Skills
- Emotional (and Possibly Physical) Healing
- Increased Creativity
- Increased Confidence
Some Problems with Therapeutic Journaling
- Not knowing where to start – sometimes you stare at a blank page for a long time. This is where a good list of journaling ideas or “prompts” come in.
- Too little variety – If you use the same prompts over and over, journaling gets really boring really fast.
- Too much variety – If you only use each prompt once and never again, then you lose the benefit of “tracking” anything and seeing your progress over time.
- Becoming detached – it is possible to spend too much time journaling and too little time on real tasks with real people. Make sure you set a time limit. The time you need will depend on the weight of the thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and goals that you are trying to process. When things are going well in your life, you will need less time. When things are hard, you will need more time.
Tools For Therapeutic Journaling
There are any number of popular journal templates that you can buy that will help you learn to do a specific style of journaling. Some great ones include:
However, if you want the greatest amount of flexibility and sustainability in your journaling, all you need is a notebook and a pen.
Personally, I like the Moleskine Cahier Journals because they are durable and have a few pages in the back that you can tear out and keep for reference. These tear-out pages are great for your lists of affirmations and reflection questions (read more about those below). I also like the Pilot Frixion Pens because they write with a thick line, without any skips, and you can erase them instead of scribbling something out in your journal.
The Therapeutic Journaling Process
Here are some ideas to get you started for each type of journaling. These ideas will help you to maximize the benefits and minimize the problems of journaling.
A Guide to This Guide
This resource will develop over time. I will add to it and clarify it when I get questions or comments on it. Speaking of that, please email me with questions or comments.
In the space up above, I said that one of the problems with journaling is a tendency to over complicate it. I have included a lot of prompts and ideas here. If you try them all at once, you will over complicate your journaling practice.
Start with just the daily journaling. Do that for at least a week, but preferably a month. Then come back and read another section to help you keep your practice fresh. You will probably never apply all of these sections at once. There will be times in your life when you are more goal focused, thought focused, emotion focused, or behavior focused. There will be times when you need to have them all on your radar, but you won’t necessarily journal about all of them.
Daily Therapeutic Journaling
This is the most basic part of this guide. A daily log, and daily reflection. If the only journaling that you ever do is that much, you will have done more than most.
The Daily Log
- What did you do today?
- When did you do each of those things?
- Who were you with during each of those activities?
- What emotions did you notice in
- or others?
- What physical sensations did you notice?
- What thoughts did you notice?
In your journal, this might end up looking a bit like a table, or spreadsheet. Or it might be in sentence form. Whatever you’re more comfortable with.
A Table Example
A Paragraph Example
First thing this morning I went for a run alone, I felt tired, but excited for the day. I also noticed sensations of being fatigued and winded. I thought, “man, I’m tired” …
Daily Reflection Questions
Each time you journal, try to answer at least three of these. These are framed as if you are journaling in the evening, but you can swap “yesterday” in for “today” if you are journaling in the morning.
- What are three things you are thankful for today?
- Who did you help today?
- How did you fail today? What did you learn from it?
- How did you succeed today?
- What made you feel sad today? What will you do tomorrow to feel joy?
- What made you feel joy today?
- What made you feel worried today? What will you do tomorrow to feel safe?
- What made you feel safe today?
- What did you do today to work toward your goals?
Weekly Therapeutic Journaling
- What emotional themes do you see in this last week?
- What thought patterns do you see in this last week?
- What behavior patterns (things you did or said) do you see in this last week?
- How would you like those themes and patterns to change this coming week?
Monthly, Quarterly, and Annual Therapeutic Journaling
At the risk of over-simplifying things, use the same questions as you use every week, just replace “week” with “month,” “quarter,” or “year,” as appropriate.
Journaling to Process Emotional Themes
Emotions are a combination of physical sensations and intangible feelings.
Physical sensations may include things like feeling hot, warm, or cold, feeling your heart racing or pounding, tension or pain, holding your breath or hyperventilating. This picture can help you understand more about physical sensations:
Intangible feelings are feelings such as sad, mad, scared, joyful, powerful, peaceful. Primary feelings are simpler than secondary or complex feelings. Primary feelings are also more specific, and less abstract. When communicating with others about your emotions, do your best to describe primary feelings. If you limit your communication to complex emotions, there is a greater chance of miscommunication. In the picture below, primary feelings are closer to the center, and complex feelings are closer to the outside.
As a companion to your journal, you may also be interested in the MetaFi app, which helps you to keep a day-to-day, or even moment-to-moment log of your physical sensations and intangible feelings.
For emotional themes, use these questions to process what is going on.
- What is the best one-word description of this theme?
- What is the best one sentence description of this theme?
- What is (are) the primary emotion(s) under this theme (sad, mad, scared, joyful, powerful, peaceful)?
- What is the underlying good emotion?
- What is the underlying bad emotion?
- How is this theme helpful?
- How is this theme harmful?
- Who else in your life is impacted by this theme?
- What thought patterns are related to this emotional theme?
- What behavior patterns are related to this emotional theme?
- What goals are impacted by this emotional theme? How?
After processing, use this template to add a set of questions to your list of potential daily reflection questions.
- What made you feel ___ today? (fill in the blank with a negative emotion)?
- What made you feel ___ today? (fill in the blank with the opposite, positive emotion)?
- What will you do tomorrow to feel ___? (fill in the blank with the positive emotion from #2)
Journaling to Change Thought Patterns
Thoughts are internal messages about ourselves, others, and circumstances. They may be true or false. They may be painful or encouraging. False or painful thoughts need to be reframed into true and helpful thoughts. True and helpful thoughts can often be improved on. These improved reframes are called “affirmations.”
For thought patterns, use these questions (all of them, in order) to create an affirmation.
- What is the partial lie behind this thought pattern?
- What pain comes from that lie?
- What gain comes from that lie?
- What is the partial truth behind this thought pattern?
- What pain comes from that truth?
- What gain comes from that truth?
- How can you reframe this thought pattern to be honest and gain focused?
- How can you reframe this thought pattern to help with emotional processing?
- How can you reframe this thought pattern to help with behavior change?
- How can you reframe this thought pattern to help with achieving goals?
Also, make sure you consider how your thought patterns are related to other journaling areas.
- What emotional themes are related to this thought pattern? How much processing have you done for these themes?
- What behavior patterns are related to this thought pattern? How much do those behaviors need to change?
- What goals are impacted by this thought pattern? how?
Affirmations can be used in several ways. They can “stand alone” as things you say without any addition. For example, “I think I can,” is a gain focused affirmation. We use it often when we want to argue ourselves into feeling confident about something. The problem with a stand-alone affirmation is that it is not 100% true 100% of the time.
A better way is to use an affirmation as a prompt for evidence. For example, “I think I can because…” And then fill in the blank with whatever proof there is that you can do that thing.
Affirmations can be used in a stressful moment. For example, “I think I can nail this interview because I have prepared well.” Or, they can be used as a part of journaling, to help you move from a painful or false thought patterns into true and helpful thought patterns. When journaling, it is best to use your affirmation as a prompt for further evidence, by adding “because” to the end of it, and filling in the blank.
Journaling to Change Behavior Patterns
The most drastic example of a behavior pattern is a chemical addiction. But you can have positive or negative behavior patterns in your life even if you are not addicted to a chemical. You may have an unhealthy way of responding to conflict with your spouse or children. You may have a certain celebration ritual each time you accomplish a goal.
Negative behavior patterns need to be managed to reduce the harm they cause to you and those close to you. Positive behavior patterns need to be fully understood so that they do not become negative behavior patterns, and so that you can maximize the benefits that come from them.
Use these questions to help you change behavior patterns and come up with ideas for goals.
- Who is harmed by this behavior? How?
- How can the harm of this behavior be managed?
- Who is helped by this behavior? How?
- How can the help of this behavior be maximized?
- What is the balance of harm (when managed) to help (when maximized)? What does that balance say about the moral merits of this behavior?
- What thought patterns is this behavior related to? How?
- What emotional themes is this behavior related to? How?
- What goals are impacted by this behavior? How?
- What triggers this behavior?
- How can the triggers be managed (negative behavior)?
- How can the triggers be maximized (positive behavior)?
Journaling for Goals
Setting goals is a critical practice for anyone who wants to be successful. Here is a set of prompts to help you to set SMART, CLEAR goals, and then to track them.
Some of these questions are repetitive, that is on purpose. The goal of these questions is to help you set a concise, one-sentence goal, as well as to start coming up with the action plan for the goal.
- S – Specific: What are you going to do (verbs)? How are you going to do it (adverbs)? What are you going to do it to or with (nouns, tools, resources)?
- M – Measurable: Put numbers on it. How is this goal measured (inches, pounds, hours, dollars, etc)? How much change do you want?
- A – Attainable: Given your resources (time, money, energy, etc), how realistic is this goal?
- R – Relevant: What is the connection between this goal and your problems or desired changes?
- T – Time Bound: Put a deadline on it. This, plus making the goal measurable, will allow you to break your goal up into milestones. Milestones will help you know if you are on pace.
- C – Collaborative: Who are you going to let help you achieve your goal? Who do you need to be to earn their input and have them share their resources?
- L – Limited: What sacrifices are you not willing to make to achieve this goal?
- E – Emotional: How do you feel now? How will you feel after achieving your goal?
- A – Appreciable: A better word might be “scalability,” but that would break the nice fancy acronym. How does this goal fit into your big picture? What larger goals or dreams is it a part of?
- R – Refinable: How will you know if you need to adjust? How will you adjust if you make faster progress than expected? How will you adjust if progress is slow? What if you make no progress?
- What is your goal?
- What progress have you made this past ___ (day, week, month, quarter, year)?
- What is your action plan for the coming ___ (day, week, month, quarter, year)?
- How do you need to adjust in order to achieve your goal by the deadline?
Journaling for Spiritual Growth (as a Christian)
I can only write this section from a Christian perspective. Other faiths will have other ideas, but many of these ideas will still apply.
- What have you learned from your Scripture reading about who God is? How can you be like that to the people around you? How will you need God’s help to do that?
- What have you learned from your Scripture reading about who Jesus Christ is? How can you be like that to the people around you? How will you need God’s help to do that?
- What have you learned from your Scripture reading about who the Holy Spirit is? How can you be like that to the people around you? How will you need God’s help to do that?
- Who has been Christ-like to you recently? What can you learn from them and apply in your own life and relationships?
- What can you praise God for today?
- What about God sparks wonder in you today?
- What emotional themes do you need God’s help with?
- What thought patterns do you need God’s help with?
- What behavior patterns do you need God’s help with?
Just like I said near the beginning, don’t over complicate this. If you over complicate it, it will not be sustainable. On any given day, or in any given week, month, quarter, or year, only use the sections that are relevant to you. Remember to set a time limit for how long you spend journaling. That will also help. Please email me if you have any comments, questions, or concerns about this guide.