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Beyond 'Dear Diary': Journaling is a Proven Way to Improve Mental Health Conditions

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

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Pressure and stress are becoming commonplace across all socioeconomic classifications and cultural groups. With increasing numbers of people experiencing their own struggles with depression and anxiety, sharing feelings and thoughts with others isn’t always possible or even advisable. Financial limitations and other barriers often prevent visits with counselors or therapists. Beyond spa days, meditation, and music playlists accompanied by a good merlot or chablis, it can be difficult to experience authentic methods of care that demonstrably effect change for those whose mental and emotional challenges go deeper than an occasional depressed mood or periodic anxiety.

Journaling is an effective form of self-care and treatment that offers many benefits and can be practiced by anyone.

Keeping a diary has typically been viewed as a private place in which one reveals details of life, including thoughts and feelings about other people and confessions intended for an audience of one. Today’s journaling has evolved beyond that characterization to become an evidence-based way for people with depression and other debilitating mental health conditions to improve symptoms and increase wellbeing. 

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In numerous studies journaling participants have reported measurable benefits of journaling, including:

  • significantly decreased feelings and symptoms of distress
  • feeling less depressed/better overall mood
  • changes in behavior towards others
  • increase in emotional wellbeing
  • strengthened immune system

The University of Michigan Depression Center suggests two primary and generalized ways to practice journaling: 1) to capture and remember specific life moments, and 2) to reflect on and learn from those moments. Writing down an altercation with a coworker that describes one’s reactions, words, and intentions is a way to memorialize the incident by preserving key details of the encounter. Once the event is recalled, additional journaling can be a way to step back and analyze what happened for insight into emotional triggers, speech and behavior patterns when under stress, and ways in which similar situations can be avoided or minimized in the future.

These are merely guidelines. The ways in which to use a journal can be as varied as the person doing the writing. Other popular types of journaling are:

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Gratitude journaling – listing what one is thankful for as a way to keep a more positive, balanced perspective on life circumstances

Dream/vision journaling – identifying goals and desired accomplishments to help foster a focus on the future and avoid feeling trapped and hopeless

Communication journaling – a shared journal in which multiple people write their own messages and respond to another’s messages in a conversational back-and-forth way. Couples can use these to open up communication about difficult or hurtful events in their relationship and are often able to express emotions they would hesitate to reveal face to face.

There are different ways of writing in a journal, too. Dr. Kathleen Adams, a licensed professional counselor and clinical journal therapist, distinguishes between regular (free) writing and therapeutic writing. She explains that with free writing, there are no parameters or constraints. The journaler simply writes what comes to mind in any order or no particular order at all. This type of journaling is most useful for emotional venting to get a quick release of built up pressure. In contrast, therapeutic writing is structured, usually follows prompts using short sentence stems, and is done in shorter, often timed periods of directed focus. The goal is to bring healing to emotions and to renew and redirect thoughts to process experiences and events. Common prompts for therapeutic writing include:

  • Today, I felt most disappointed when….
  • The time when I felt the most carefree today was…
  • I notice that I felt … a lot today
  • The last time I felt this angry was…

Journaling is being used by individuals who are not under the care of a therapist and as part of cognitive behavioral and talk therapy. Here is a mini-resource guide to explore the benefits and ins and outs of journaling practice.

The Center for Journal Therapy
Founded by Dr. Kathleen Adams, the Center is a nonprofit organization created to foster the practice of journaling and provide instruction and professional certification in the discipline. Instruction for individuals is through her hallmark workshop, Journal to the Self®; certification is attained through study in the Therapeutic Writing Institute. There are links to articles and publications by Dr. Adams, and a 30-Day Digital Journaling Challenge is offered to newsletter subscribers.

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Vernetta Freeney - The Truth Confidant
Ms. Freeney is a trainer, life coach, and consultant who specializes in journaling for focus and productivity through mental detox. The Truth Confidant™ Journal is her signature product, and the means by which she teaches her ‘mental detox strategy’.

Book: Opening Up by Writing it Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain, James W. Pennebaker, PhD and Joshua M. Smyth, PhD
Dr. Pennebaker is credited with creating and developing the expressive writing technique. The book is written in easy-to-use understand, common language that provides a user-friendly guide to using expressive writing in journaling. His information on the damaging effects of secrets and how releasing them promotes healing and wellness can be invaluable for people who struggle with shame and depression from past events. Vital information for the Black community. 

Journaling Apps

These seem to be the most consistently well-ranked apps for journaling:

These listings are not recommendations. Research all resources and decide what’s best for you.


Day One


Day Journal

Chandra C.