How to journal and easy journal prompts to spark inspiration

7 mins
15 Dec 2022
How to journal and easy journal prompts to spark inspiration

Want to perfect your 'that girl' (or 'that guy') morning routine? You're going to want to learn how to journal

words Ella Glover

It's safe to say that journaling has become a tool in many a self-care arsenal. But getting started, and even knowing how to journal, can be tricky, especially if you’re someone who finds it cringe. Whether you’re journaling for mindfulness, therapy or simply to record your memories in a concrete way, journaling is a brilliant reflective tool that is known to help people process their emotions.

How to journal - EYKTK

This is likely why journaling has become so popular in recent years: around one in six people were actively journaling in 2020. But journaling isn’t new at all: many of us kept diaries as children; flimsy padlocks and dainty keys the only things keeping our innermost thoughts out of the hands of our siblings or parents.

The positive impacts of therapeutic journaling really became known in the 1960s, when Dr Ira Progoff, a psychologist in New York, started offering workshops after using a "psychological notebook" method with clients. Later, in the 1980s, Dr James Pennebaker pioneered research into the positive effects of journaling, finding that it can help people deal with stress and trauma. Now, 40 years later, journaling is a go-to solution for anxiety, unhappiness, creativity and grief.

What are the benefits of journaling?

Journaling is known to have a number of positives on mental health. According to Mary Potter Kenyon, a grief educator and author of Expressive Writing for Healing: Journal Your Way from Grief to Hope, research has shown that short-term, focused writing can have a beneficial effect for anyone dealing with stress or trauma, improve mental health and decrease anxiety and depression. “Journaling has been proven to be a healing tool and an inexpensive method of working our way through a tough time,” she adds.

Done right, certain types of journaling have been proven to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety or help us to reframe negative experiences. Some studies have even found that gratitude journaling in particular can help with physical health and increase life satisfaction. Another study found that journaling can help with goal-attainment for people with mild to moderate depression.

Is it better to journal digitally or on paper?

Our lives are very much tied up with technology, and many of us only use a pen and paper sparingly, so it makes sense to wonder whether you should save the wrist pain and jot your thoughts down in a Google Doc instead.

For Kenyon, the old-fashioned way is her preferred method. “There is something about putting pen to paper that is therapeutic, even with letter-writing,” she says. “It is a meditative practice; slowing your brain down as you transcribe on paper.”

However, she adds, “if using paper and pen means the person won't try it, a computer screen is better than not writing at all.”

How to journal for anxiety

Journaling can be a good way to work through anxiety, pinpointing the cause and looking at your thoughts in a more objective light, helping you distinguish your worries from reality.

To journal for anxiety, Kenyon recommends asking yourself what your fears and worries are and writing them down. That way, you can face your fears head on. She also suggests writing down uplifting and inspiring quotes so that, when you’re having a tough day, you can flip through your journal and find hope.

How to journal for grief

Grief is an extremely complex emotion, with many ups and downs and, of course, stages. “Your journal writing might be pretty messy while you are grieving,” says Kenyon. “That's okay – grief is messy, and it is important to look for meaning in the face of loss.”

Journaling through grief might look like simply writing down your thoughts whenever they come up, but there are some prompts you can use to help you think more clearly, such as:

  • What have I gained from having had this person in my life?
  • What did they mean to me?
  • How can I move forward without this person?

Kenyon adds that writing down your dreams – both literal and figurative – can also be useful. She says: “Do you have dreams for yourself? Who are you outside of this person you lost? Write out your goals and dreams. This might be difficult to do early on in grieving, but by the first year anniversary, you might be seeing how you can move forward without that person, or ways you can honour them through your choices in life.”

Literally speaking, she continues: “Are you dreaming vivid dreams? Write those down, too. Your brain might be working through something while you are asleep.”

Another prompt that works well for grief journaling is to write a letter to someone you have lost – this could be a loved one who has passed away or even an ex partner or friend. Ask yourself what you wished you had said to them. “I wrote a letter to my first husband after his death, expressing regrets I had and buried it at his gravesite,” says Kenyon. “Just writing down those regrets helped me forgive myself.”

How to journal for gratitude

Gratitude journaling has been en vogue for some time now, with many ready-made journals filled to the brim with prompts available just about everywhere. Here, people write about daily blessings and things they’re grateful for – but you don’t need to designate one journal specifically to gratitude.

“I like to incorporate gratitude in all of my journals, ending a journal entry on a positive note,” says Kenyon. For her, we can use this to train ourselves to consciously choose joy and gratitude.

“This practice works because it forces us to intentionally focus our attention on grateful thinking, eliminating unwanted, ungrateful thoughts and guarding against taking things or people for granted,” she says, adding that the goal of gratitude journaling is to cultivate a habit of gratefulness.

How to journal for therapy

Journaling can be a great therapeutic tool, whether in place of therapy (hello, 18-month wait lists) or to complement your current sessions. “Studies show that it isn't just venting or whining on paper that helps the person journaling, though there might be some value in that,” says Kenyon. “It is more about writing to make sense of or work through the trauma, to find meaning in our experiences.”

This means not only writing down your thoughts and feelings, but also attempting to unpack them: Why do I feel like this? Have I felt like this before? What’s the common thread? Are there any positives to take from this?

Journaling doesn’t have to be methodical, but being introspective can be useful in actually working through something rather than just acknowledging it.

Journaling prompts

Buying a journal and opening it up is the easy part – but knowing what to write can be difficult. If you’re not quite sure how to journal from the offset, don’t worry. Not everyone is comfortable putting pen to paper, after all. Instead of trying to pour your heart out, you can try following some prompts. There are different prompts for different goals, from creativity to self discovery and unpacking anxiety.

For creativity, and to get yourself acquainted with journaling, Kenyon recommends making a list of your favourite childhood activities and interests. “From there, ask what activities you would imbibe in if money or time were not an object,” she adds. You can then use this list in your life, committing to sinking your teeth into a new hobby.

For grief, she suggests writing a letter to someone you’ve lost and also writing down your hopes and dreams for the future. For gratitude, ask yourself three things you feel grateful for that day – it could be anything, from having a roof over your head to getting your favourite coffee from Starbucks.

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