How to Journal for Mental Health

Posted by Tony Wilson. Tony is a workplace performance expert and creator of the Focus Planner on 3rd Aug 2021

How to Journal for Mental Health

How to journal for mental health


Have you heard that journaling is good for mental health? You’re right. Do you want to get started but aren’t sure how to journal for mental health? You’re not alone. Journaling to stay on top of our mental health is a great practice and is recommended by therapists around the world. But getting started is a sticking point for many people. In an ideal world, we would just open a blank journal and our deepest thoughts would start pouring out onto the page, making us feel instantly better. News flash: it doesn’t happen that way. Journaling takes practice. In this article we talk about what to write when journaling, journaling for managing emotions, journaling for anxiety in particular, and we give you some helpful journaling prompts and ideas to get started.

But first, what is mental health?

When most people talk about mental health, they are likely to talk about it in the context of the absence of mental illness, instead of the presence of mental health. That is, that mental health is the absence of anxiety, depression, chronic stress and other conditions. And, of course, this isn’t wrong.

However, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Thinking about this definition, for many of us juggling work, deadlines, family commitments, parent guilt, financial pressure and societal expectations – mental health is a challenge. We may not feel like we are realising our own potential and coping with the normal stresses of life can be downright exhausting. As a result, we might find it hard to stay productive at work and contribute as magnificently as we would like to our relationships with family and friends. We may not have anxiety or depression, per se, but we probably feel anxious or depressed regularly.

Sound like you? Well, read on if you want to do something about it by learning how to journal for mental health.

"We may not feel like we are realising our own potential and coping with the normal stresses of life can be downright exhausting"


So, why should you journal? Journaling is so versatile that to answer this question in depth would require more time than you want to devote. Journaling ideas range from planning and organising our day to planning and organising our thoughts. We can use a journal for productivity by organising our task lists, or we can journal for motivation by writing down our goals and creating a habit tracker.

To journal effectively for mental health, we can also use journaling to deal with different emotions. Being able to deal with emotions allows us to control stress, reframe difficult situations and choose productive behaviours when we don’t feel like it. In a lot of ways, writing is therapy.

Dealing with Emotions

Our ability to deal with emotions is one of the greatest skills that we can master. Dealing with emotions is a proven way to build resilience, manage stress and improve optimism and happiness – when done the right way. We might need to deal with emotions like anxiety, nervousness, frustration or even just being constantly overwhelmed with deadlines and commitments.

Emotions are the key driver of behaviours. When that emotion is good, then things go well for us, but if the emotion is not ideal, then this can become a problem. Reacting purely to our emotions can lead to anxiety, stress, depression and saying or doing things we regret later. But if we learn how to deal with emotions productively, then we set ourselves up to choose better options. Your journal is a great place for this to happen.

If we aren’t able to deal with emotions effectively, our mental health suffers. Stress, anxiety, frustration and other feelings overwhelm us, dragging us into a feeling of helplessness.

Getting it Off Your Chest

We know that to deal with these emotions, the best thing we can do is to talk to others about it. But this isn’t always feasible or comfortable for everyone. You may not have someone you trust, you may be embarrassed, or you might just be a complete introvert. Journaling is a way to talk it through without actually talking it through. This is why we say ‘writing is therapy’ – your journal can be your confidant and your pressure release valve. Instead of talking with someone, writing it down to work through it has been found to be just as effective.

Labelling: The Single Most Effective Way to Deal with Emotions

One of the simplest things that we can do to neutralise emotions is an exercise called labelling. Labelling involves just giving the feeling a succinct description - and the research on this is compelling.

Studies show that people with performance anxiety before an exam can suffer up to a 10% drop in their test score. But if those same people speak about how they are feeling before their exam, that 10% drop is completely neutralised. But there is a way for these people to perform even better. Instead of just talking about the feeling, if they write down a succinct description, then not only do they neutralise the performance drop, but they also increase their test scores by a further 5%. That’s a 15% swing just from the power of writing.

Taking control of the emotion (in this case anxiety) and dealing with it in a particular way helps people to remain calm and use their full resources to be at their best.

"Studies show that people with performance anxiety before an exam can suffer up to a 10% drop in their test score. But if those same people speak about how they are feelingthat 10% drop is completely neutralised"

Journaling for anxiety


So, practically, how do we do this in our journal? Well, there are many ways to go about this exercise, but like most things when journaling, sometimes the simplest is the best.

It is a good idea to have prompts to get you writing, or else you run the risk of being overwhelmed and not knowing where to start, so here are the best prompts that we have used.

The first and most simple one just starts like this:

“Right now I am feeling……”

… and then you just go ahead and write down what you are truly feeling. It might be one word or five words but try to make it succinct.


We get a lot of questions about how to use a journal for anxiety, so we want to touch on this specifically.

Anxiety, or just feeling anxious?

There is quite a big difference between feeling anxious and anxiety. We might feel anxious when a particular situation arises such as upcoming stress, overwhelming workloads, deadlines, or financial struggles. Basically, when we feel anxious it is because we are worried about something that may (or may not) happen in the future. However, this becomes anxiety when the situation/stressor passes but we continue to have the lingering anxious feelings even though we might not even be sure why.

According to Beyond Blue, anxiety is the most common mental health issue in Australia. And they describe it as such:

“Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. While stress and anxious feelings are a common response to a situation where we feel under pressure, they usually pass once the stressful situation has passed, or ‘stressor’ is removed. Everyone feels anxious from time to time. When anxious feelings don't go away, happen without any particular reason or make it hard to cope with daily life it may be the sign of an anxiety condition.”

For our purposes, we are not going to be too prescriptive about clinical anxiety versus feeling anxious: when it comes to journaling, we can use a lot of the same methods for dealing with both.

How Does Journaling Help Anxiety?

When we journal for anxiety, it helps us in two major ways.

Firstly, anxiety can be exacerbated by our self-talk. This is the conversation we have in our heads about what is going on, or what is going to happen. Unfortunately, when we are under stress in general, our thoughts start to get the better of us. We start to catastrophise and make assumptions about our situation that may not necessarily be true. People who are more prone to being anxious have a natural tendency to think the worst. But journaling can help that self-talk. It can be a tool to be clear about what you are saying to yourself and to challenge that self-talk. When we do this, it puts our self-talk in perspective and gives us an objective view of what we are saying.

Secondly, a big part of controlling anxiety – or any stress for that matter – is to get a feeling of control. Control comes from having strategies or solutions to deal with an overwhelming situation. The problem is, when we are operating with our ‘emotional brain’ we find it hard to think logically and map out an exit strategy. Writing in our journal helps us process these feelings and gives us a way to plan and get a feeling of control. It helps us to think about what our strategies might be. Writing is a great catch-all for this.

"anxiety can be exacerbated by our self-talk. This is the conversation we have in our heads about what is going on, or what is going to happen"

Watch: How to Journal for Anxiety, Stress and Managing Emotions


Let’s follow on from our previous journal prompts regarding how we journal for stress and emotions. Remember: labelling is a key exercise in helping us deal with any emotion, so let’s start again with that:

Journal Prompt 1: “Right now I am feeling……”

… and again, just go ahead and write down what you are truly feeling. It might be one word or five words but try to make it succinct.

A great follow up to this is to write:

Journal Prompt 2: “I am feeling this because….”

After which you might write down why you think you are in this situation, or sometimes you will find that yourself writing about how the feeling is not indicative of reality.

For example (a):

“Right now I am feeling……” Anxious about this upcoming presentation

“I am feeling this because….” This is really important for my career and the future of this project that I love working on.

So, this brings us to prompts number (3) and (4), which are the prompts that help us deal with the emotion and create positive action.

Journal Prompt 3: “But the reality is….”

This gives us a chance to look at the evidence and reframe our situation.

And finally, positive forward action is what really helps us to change our emotions, so the final prompt is:

Journal Prompt 4: “What I can do about it is….”

Now, write the next positive action that you can take. It should be something that you can do immediately, because taking action gives us a little hit of dopamine.

So let’s put this all together:

Journaling for Productivity, Stress, Mindset 

Take Our Course: Journaling for Productivity, Stress and Mindset



“Right now I am feeling……” Anxious about this upcoming presentation

“I am feeling this because….” This is really important for my career and the future of this project that I love working on.

“But the reality is…” I have put a lot of preparation into this and I always fool myself into thinking that I am not as good as I know I am.

“What I can do about it is…” I can prepare more if I want. But I know deep down that I have done enough, so maybe I just need to acknowledge that I am ready and capable.

Or another example, related to journaling for stress (another painful emotion for a lot of people):

“Right now I am feeling……” Stressed

“I am feeling this because….” there is so much going on and there is a lot riding on the next few weeks of work. So maybe I should feel stressed and just accept it.

“But the reality is…” I am also feeling like this because I am focusing on what can go wrong instead of looking at the potential upside.

“What I can do about it is…” I can make a better plan to control the controllable. I can list the potential rewards for me and my team when I complete this work and make something special happen. And I can be more positive and stick to my exercise plan to relieve some stress.

"We shouldn’t think and then write. Instead, we should write to think"


There are many different starting points and journal prompts for dealing with emotions such as anxiety and stress. But this simple structure is unbelievably effective in helping us as a starting point:

  • Right now I am feeling…
  • I am feeling this because…
  • But the reality is…
  • What I can do about it is…

The biggest thing to remember when journaling is this:

We get stuck on what to write because we think it needs to be perfect. Most people think about what to write and get so caught up in the ‘what’ that they find it hard to get started. Instead, think of your writing as a train of thought – it doesn’t matter what you write as long as you are writing. Just keep the pen moving across the page. As someone once told us:

We shouldn’t think and then write. Instead, we should write to think.