How to Journal, According to a Therapist

Journaling is often suggested as a way to deal with emotions, keep track of various things, and get thoughts down on paper. But what does it mean to journal? IS there a right way? There are many many entries and how to’s on as many platforms as you can think of. I know I’ve recommended journaling to plenty of clients in my career as a therapist--and I’m confident that each has had a ‘unique’ twist on the idea. So this post is some of those suggestions and ways you can make it your own.

What counts as a journal?

First things first. A journal is a record, so what can you use to maintain that record?

Almost anything.

  • A sketch book

  • Computer paper in a binder

  • A composition book

  • A spiral with most of its pages left from that one class you took years ago (or last semester)

  • A coloring book

  • Sticky notes in a closed container

  • A cork board

  • A nice journal with a cover that is pretty, or has an inspirational saying, or has another aesthetic component that you connect with.

  • The basic notes app on your phone

  • The vocal recording app on your phone

  • Apps*

**There are a number of apps that are listed for journaling, I am not going to mention those in this post. Maybe another time.**

Say wha?

Yep. All of those can be journals! Really, use your imagination--there are so many options. It depends on what you want to use your journal for. Like I said, a journal is a record. So how you journal is dependent on what you’re looking to record. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, keep reading! Try out the methods I suggest until you find what works for you. I’ve written more about some of the examples below. After that, I give examples of where to start with the writing.

Sketchbook/ Blank paper journaling

A blank page can be inspiring, intimidating, or intermittently either. A nice thing is that you aren’t bound by lines or clear margins. You can let yourself be free to write blurbs, doodle freely while you think, or cover the page from top to bottom and side to side with words, or any combination of those! You can even do your own version of art with the words you’re writing down.

A composition book, spiral, or “pretty” journal

The Classic.

Personally, this is what I use. Nothing wrong with it, also not a requirement! This can also be an easier place to start your journaling journey. I find the lines reassuring and a set structure. You can fill those lines in many ways, which I’ll mention a bit further down.

A cork board

You may have heard of vision boards--this is different. While not a small book that is easier to keep private, using a cork board may help you connect ideas/thoughts/ feelings that come up at different times and create a “mind map”. Index cards, sticky notes, or any scrap you write plus push pins or tape are your friends in this kind of journaling.

Sticky notes in a container

This is great for random tidbits you may want to pull out on a whim and consider at different times. If you’ve seen the question/ answer posts on Facebook, you get the idea. You can write affirmations, or reminders of accomplishments on the notes and read them when you need a lift. You can also use larger notes with prompts that you want to be able to come back to and see if your answer has changed! If you’re seeing this in our newsletter, I’ve included some prompts to consider!

A coloring book

Sometimes, not knowing what to write can be a hindrance and push someone away from their journal. If you’re using a coloring book, you can engage in a mindful activity (also known in this case as coloring) while you let the thoughts bubble to the surface. You can also give yourself permission to write things you’re struggling to acknowledge in a space that you then color over. A symbolic “burying” while also allowing the thought out of your head. It’s a worthwhile place to start in this work!

“Okay, so I have my paper of choice-- now what??”

Glad you asked! Here are those ideas I mentioned before:

Free writing

Start with the thought on your mind in the moment, go from there. Whatever comes next is what you write next. You’re done when you feel done.

Daily tracking

You can keep it really simple and just write down what you did that day. As you go, maybe you write a blurb about what that was like, or how you felt during it, or if something was different from how it “usually” would be.

Prompted journaling

I love journal prompts. Mostly, because they are thought provoking and a way of marking where you are with a concept now and you can come back to it later, and see how you’ve changed. It’s also a fantastic option if you need more inspiration to start writing. ]Unlike an essay test, it doesn’t matter if you get “off topic” and vere into another line of thinking that was tugged on by following the prompt. As far as finding prompts: To The Google! There are so many sources out there! Some are better than others. If clicking on random links isn’t your jam, Pinterest has a lot of them with previews to get you started. You’ll get a feeling for how you respond to them as you read.

Emotional venting

Big, intense emotions happen. It’s like a rule or something (haha). Your journal can be the place you let all those thoughts out that maybe you don’t want to say elsewhere. This is also an opportunity to get the high emotion “stuff” out of your head so you can decide what you need and mean to say in response. Maybe in the process of recording your thoughts, you’re able to find what was so triggering about the situation that sparked the emotion!

Mind mapping

This is focused on following strings of thought from a core idea or event or belief. While the lines of a notebook are by no means rules that must be followed, this method may be better on blank paper or on a cork board with yarn/string/etc so the lines don’t get confused with each other. Start with the central point, and branch out the first level of associated thoughts. Then from those, any tertiary points and so on. You can visualize a tough decision process this way too! What are all the possibilities and what may come with each option?

Whatever you do, remember that your writing teacher is not going to grade this. Perfectionism in journaling is NOT a viable thing. Try out what works, keep what you will and forget the rest!

Creatively yours,

Elizabeth Bolton, LPC


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