3 Ways to Use a Therapy Journal

Does journaling bring to mind “Dear Diary” and blank pages staring at you?  Some folks like free writing and get excited about lots of empty space to fill.  For others, it can feel like school. Whether you started with “Dear Diary” at age 12 or are just starting out, a therapy journal can be a way of extending and enhancing your therapy process.

Try many formats

There is no one way to journal and there is definitely no right way.  Long paragraphs, bullet points, drawings? All of the above?  Find what works for you.  Journaling doesn’t have to be hard, a daily practice, neat, colorful, or organized. It just needs to be useful to you.   

Journaling can be traditional pen and paper or electronic.  Writing can feel like a nice departure from the click-clack of your normal computer work.  Jotting your thoughts down with a pen also forces you to slow down making it easier to notice thinking patterns and identify your feelings. Your handwriting itself is a reflection of you and how you write and even what you choose to write with may give you information about how you’re feeling (pink pen or black sharpie?) The act of writing can even help us to be more positive and creative.

Electronic journaling has advantages too, like added security, the ability to write on your phone and your computer, and cloud storage.  There are a number of journaling apps that make it convenient to write on the go.

Here are three ways that you can use your journal to support your therapy process. 

Free Writing

Often just getting the words or feelings out helps us to feel better.  It is no longer in your head. In your therapy journal, you can repeat yourself or swear. Your words don’t have to be understood by another, have a clear message, or make any sense to anyone but you.  You can tell that !*$ what you really think in an indirect and safe way or vent about your tough day. You can be honest about the truth of your thoughts and feelings.  Your journal is just for you.

Clarity can come from the self-reflection of writing.  It’s time to ask yourself “How am I doing?” and then listen and feel for the answer.  Sometimes we take the scenic route to get to the destination. That’s okay! You can meander in your journal. And then as you write, the truth about what you want or need may become evident.  You may get clear about what needs to be said or done.

Writing may feel overwhelming, especially if you’re writing about past trauma or current difficult moment. If this happens you can talk about it in session.  If you’re still interested in continuing to write outside of therapy, you can create a plan to help you take care of yourself. 

Create a YOU Reference Manual

Your therapy journal can be a place to keep information during your therapy journey and beyond. You can organize thoughts with a page or two devoted to a particular topic and transform a notebook into a tool to support you outside of your therapy sessions. 

Not sure what to write about?  Here are just a few ideas:

1. Your Feelings –  Research shows that a daily ritual of writing down your feelings is an excellent stress-management tool.  There are lots of ways to write your feelings in addition to “Today I…”.   You can bullet them, draw them or create art.  

2.  Progress Check – We often write a list of goals.  It is great to know where we are going.  It can be discouraging though to think we are either in the present moment or nowhere until our goal is attained. Here or there.  There are lots of steps in between! Maybe literally. If your goal is a 5K and you don’t exercise at all, a 5-minute walk around the block is amazing. Write it down!  Mark the successes and changes through your therapy journey (situations that now feel different or times you’ve reacted or felt differently.). Celebrate the process toward the finished product and the progress along the way. 

3.  Through Record – Get those thoughts down.  If we get them out of our heads and onto paper we can more easily spot thinking patterns. that create anxiety or depression. Write them out, bullet them or draw a diagram.  Getting them out of your head is the easiest way to spot thoughts that are causing distress or not serving you.

4.  Self Soothing Tools – Keep a list of the things you can do for yourself for times when the going gets rough. It’s way easier to pull out your list than to think of things when you might be upset after a difficult day.

What kinds of things make you feel peaceful, comforted? Happy? Safe? You can create the list with your senses. Look around your environment. Here are just a few examples.

                        See- pictures, flowers,

                        Hear – chimes, music (make a playlist!)

                        Smell – cinnamon, a candle

                        Taste – tea

                        Feel – your favorite sweatshirt, your blanket

5.  Quotes – Keep a page of quotes that really speak to you.  Note where you saw it or who may have said it.  Was there a reason you wanted to remember it? 

7.  Self-Care – If you’re working on self-care, your journal can be a great place to list three things every day you did for yourself and your well-being.  Remember that these things don’t have to be massages, long walks on the beach, and pedicures.  Drinking an extra glass of water, less screen time, or saying no may be a great goal for nurturing you.

8.  Dreams – Write them down first thing. You might see some themes or get some ideas you weren’t aware of in your waking life.

Notes for your therapy work

Thinking about therapy prior to and after a session can help prepare you for your session and integrate your therapy work into your life.  Before beginning therapy or starting with a new therapist, your journal can be a helpful place to list topics you want to address.  You can also list your questions about therapy, your therapist, your symptoms, or a diagnosis if you’ve received one previously or how treatment works.  What are the things you really want your therapist to know about you?

After the session, your journal can be a place to debrief.  What was most helpful today?

Is there any skill you’d like to keep in mind to practice? Was there an “aha moment” that was meaningful? 

There are lots of ways a blank notebook, the note section of your phone or a therapy app can be useful.  As long as the process of writing or the product of having the information handy works for you, journal away!