Journal Therapy

Journal therapy, also referred to as journal writing therapy or simply writing therapy, involves the therapeutic use of journaling exercises and prompts to bring about awareness and improve mental health conditions as a result of inner and outer conflicts.

What Is the Difference between Journal Therapy and Keeping a Journal?

Today, journal therapy is considered a stand-alone modality—like art therapy or music therapy.

How Does Journal Therapy Work?

Journal therapy is primarily used with people in therapy to increase awareness and insight, promote change and growth, and further develop their sense of self. Through various writing prompts and activities, a journal therapist will guide a person in treatment toward his or her goals. The act of writing things down often relieves tension and can bring clarity to the issue at hand.

Journal therapy and therapeutic journal writing have been used in treatment for a number of conditions, including:

  • Posttraumatic stress- Trauma is a distressing event in which a person feels severely threatened emotionally, psychologically, or physically. Most people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives, such as a car accident, abuse or neglect, the sudden death of a loved one, a violent criminal act, exposure to the violence of war, or a natural disaster.
  • Anxiety –Anxiety is defined as nervousness, apprehension, and self-doubt that may or may not be associated with real-life stressors. Everyone experiences some level of anxiety periodically, but when feelings of dread and worry are unfocused, overwhelming, recurring, and not directly linked to stressful events, anxiety may leave a person severely impaired. When anxiety interferes with daily function, the support of a qualified mental health professional can often be helpful.
  • Depression-Depression—a sad or discontented mood—can leave a person feeling lethargic, unmotivated, or hopeless. In some cases, depression can lead to suicidal ideation. Depression may occur in a severe form, as in major depression, or in a more chronic, mild-to-moderate form, as is the case with persistent depressive disorder.
  • Obsessive-compulsive issues-Obsessions, or persistent, unwanted thoughts, can often lead to repeated, irrational behaviors, known as compulsions. For example, some people with diagnosable obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) feel they must wash their hands hundreds of time each day, or count to ten every time they enter or leave a room, check the locks on their doors a certain number of times every night, or engage in any number of behaviors that have no real purpose other than to manage the anxiety felt when the person does not give in to these impulses.Obsessive-compulsive behaviors are repetitive and ritualistic actions that are motivated by intrusive and compelling thoughts. Some of the behaviors that are characteristic of OCD can include:
    • Hand washing or sanitizing
    • Tapping
    • Checking and rechecking door locks
    • Feet wiping
    • Counting before performing actions, such as opening or knocking on a door
    • Collecting
    • Hoarding
    • Organizing and arranging things

    OCD is a way of coping with extreme anxiety, and people who struggle with OCD feel their behaviors help them maintain a sense of control. These behaviors can be so extreme that they interfere with daily life. The rituals of OCD can damage careers, impair daily functioning, and put immense stress on interpersonal relationships.

  • Grief and loss –Grief is a reaction to any form of loss. Both encompass a range of feelings from deep sadness to anger, and the process of adapting to a significant loss can vary dramatically from one person to another, depending on his or her background, beliefs, relationship to what was lost, and other factors.
  • Issues related to chronic illness-Chronic illness—a condition that lasts longer than three months and can typically be managed but not cured—is believed to affect nearly half of all adult Americans, as well as approximately 8% of children under age 17. There are many types of chronic illness, and some, such as asthma and diabetes, may be managed fairly easily. Other conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke, may be more difficult to manage and may cause an increased risk of death. Disability may sometimes result from illness. Degenerative conditions in particular may lead to diminished function.
  • Substance abuse-Addiction, or dependence on a particular substance or activity, is one of the most complex areas of mental health. Addiction can often be difficult to treat, and there is a good deal of controversy surrounding the causes of addiction and the best approaches to treatment. Individuals who find themselves experiencing an addiction to drugs or alcohol often find the services of a mental health professional to be helpful in overcoming the addiction.For others, abuse is indicated by recurring, negative consequences, such as:
    • Failure to meet social, work, and academic obligations.
    • Physical injury or illness.
    • Alcohol- or drug-related legal problems, such as arrest for driving while intoxicated.
    • Relationship problems with intimate partners, friends, and family.
    • Impulsivity, such as spending money excessively.
    • Diminished interest in other activities.
    • Short-term memory loss or blackouts.
  • Eating disorders –Eating and food issues comprise a range of behaviors, such as overeating or undereating, that may or may not meet diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. A diagnosable eating disorder occurs when one’s relationship to food spirals out of control, as is the case with anorexia nervosa, when a severe restriction of food results in dramatic weight loss, health complications, and even death, if left untreated. Eating issues generally occur because people develop complicated relationships with food or their bodies that might result in compulsive exercising and overeating or undereating, rather than allowing appetite and hunger to dictate eating cycles.
  • Interpersonal relationships issues-Relationships require work and are bound to face challenges large and small. Simple, everyday stressors can strain an intimate relationship, and major sources of stress may threaten the stability of the relationship. As long as each partner is willing to address the issue at hand and participate in developing a solution, most relationship problems are manageable, but when challenges are left unaddressed, tension mounts, poor habits develop, and the health and longevity of the relationship are in jeopardy.
  • Communication skills issues-Communication issues may potentially develop in any circumstance or social relationship. It can be easy for individuals to misunderstand or misinterpret others, and these misunderstandings may lead to arguments or tension in personal, platonic, or professional relationships. In some instances, conflicts may arise, and these conflicts can make communication even more challenging.
  • Low self-esteem –Self-esteem is the degree to which we feel confident, consider ourselves valuable, and respect ourselves, and this greatly affects our well-being. Self-esteem exists on a continuum, from high to low, and low self-esteem is associated with self-doubt, self-criticism, social isolation, suppressed anger, and shame. Low self-esteem is also a symptom of several mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression.

Low self-esteem is also closely associated with the following conditions and experiences:

  • Codependency
  • Social anxiety
  • General anxiety
  • Shame
  • Depression
  • Inadequacy
  • Powerlessness
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Perfectionism

Journal Therapy Exercises and Prompts

There are many creative and effective ways that journal writing may be used in treatment. Some of these techniques can be used on occasion, as in therapeutic journal writing, or for the entire course of treatment, as in journal therapy. Some examples of journal exercises and prompts one might see in therapy include:

  • Journaling with Photographs: People choose personal photographs and spend time in the session writing responses to a series of questions about the photographs. Questions can include things like “What do you feel when you look at these photos?” or “What do you want to say to the people, places, or things in these photos?”
  • Letter Writing: A person in therapy is prompted to write a letter to someone about various issues he or she is experiencing. People can choose to write to anyone, including people they know, parts of themselves, or someone they have lost. For example, an individual might write a letter to a deceased parent to tell them what he or she is going through.
  • Timed Journal Entries: This is a good technique to use with those who have difficulty focusing their thoughts. The therapist and person in therapy decide on a general topic and then the person in therapy has a brief allotment of time, usually 5–10 minutes, to write about it.
  • Sentence Stems: The therapist provides a series of open-ended sentence stems for the person in therapy to complete. For example, the therapist might suggest, ‘The thing I am most worried about is…’ or ‘I have trouble sleeping when…’ or ‘My happiest memory is…’
  • List of 100: The therapist asks the person in therapy to list 100 items that relate to a chosen theme or topic. This process will most likely result in the repetition of certain items or patterns that the therapist and individual will review and discuss. Examples of list prompts include 100 Things that Make Me Sad, 100 Reasons to Wake Up in the Morning, 100 Things I Love, or 100 Things I Want To Do With My Life.
  • Dialogue: In this technique, the therapist and person in therapy will first choose two positions, parts, or viewpoints within the person in therapy or from external sources. The person in therapy will then write a dialogue between these two entities. This process can increase awareness about a psychological struggle or supply alternative perspectives about it. For example, the therapist might suggest the person in therapy construct a conversation between his or her child self and his or her future self.

Tips for Therapeutic Journal Writing

Therapeutic journal writing has become a popular self-help tool. Additionally, many therapists assign journal writing prompts for homework. Listed below are some tips on how to include therapeutic journal writing into your self-care routine.

  • Ensure your privacy: Keep your journal materials in a safe place.
  • Return to what you have written: Save everything you write, when appropriate, and review it often. The process of going back to what you have written can not only spark inspiration for future writing, but can offer perspective on how far you have come.
  • Time yourself: Using timed writing exercises can help you avoid writer’s block and help you tap into relevant unconscious material.
  • Write freely: Hush your inner critic and ignore the urge to edit your work. Therapeutic journal writing is not meant to be pretty or grammatically correct; it is meant to be real.
  • Be honest with yourself: Honor your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with the authenticity they deserve. More work gets accomplished when you are your genuine self in your writing.


1. Define your personal style.

2. Describe a time when you were brave.

3. What does being a friend means to you?

4. I wish everyone had___…

5. Your idea of a perfect day.

6. In what ways do you consider yourself to be quirky?

7. How do you feel about loneliness?

8. Your favorite childhood memory.

9. Someone whose life is better because they knew you? Why?

10. Ten things you hold most dear.

11. Describe LOVE using all five senses.

12. Someone that you are keeping in your life for their sake, not yours.

13. Something you have been avoiding and why.

14. A goal you’ve been putting off. What’s stopping you?

15. Who is someone you admire? Why?

16. Someone who has profoundly affected you.

17. I secretly wish I ___…

18. Your biggest fear & how to conquer it.

19. Who do you need to forgive? Why?

20. Your bucket list.

21. Something about yourself that you’re most proud of.

22. What role do you play in your family?

23. Something seemingly out of your reach.

24. How do you feel you are perceived by others?

25. What’s your favorite color and why?


Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face. -Carol Mosely-Brown


26. The three things you are most grateful for today.

27. Write a letter to your parents, spouse, children.

28. Describe what feeling safe means to you.

29. Three words to describe your life.

30. Something you have always felt was missing in your life.

31. Do you feel lovable?

32. Some things that you’d like to hear right now.

33. If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be and why?

34. What lessons did you take from your regrets?

35. Describe your dream home.

36. Your most embarrassing moment.

37. Your proudest moment.

38. Describe a failure that turned out to be a blessing.

39. Your interpretation of a recent dream.

40. Something you want people to know about you.

41. Something you don’t want people to know about you.

42. What’s your favorite song and why?

43. Someone who is not in your life as often as you would wish and why.

44. What characteristics do you judge the most harshly in others?

45. What characteristics do you judge the most harshly in yourself?

46. Describe a time you felt courageous.

47. Your most satisfying victory.

48. Your most agonizing defeat.

49. Write a letter to someone who hurt you that you will never send. Just to get it out of your heart & mind.

50. How do you want to be remembered after you die?


We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be. -Jane Austen


51. How would your life be different if you felt comfortable being yourself at all times?

52. Describe ‘a beginning’ that impacted you.

53. Describe a situation in which it was ‘the end’ of something for you.

54. What do you believe is your life purpose?

55. Describe the kindest thing you have ever done for someone.

56. Something you did to someone that you have trouble forgiving yourself for.

57. Describe how you felt when you visited your grandparent’s house as a child.

58. A gift you gave someone that you were most proud of.

59. Write a letter you would like read at your funeral.

60. What does forgiveness mean to you?

61. What type of person makes you feel inferior?

62. Three characteristics you would like to possess.

63. What are some things you can do this week that you can be proud of?

64. Describe a time when you made someone’s day.

65. I wish people would___…

66. Some things you take for granted and why?

67. What would the title of your biography be and why?

68. Some things you noticed today that you had been missing all along?

69. What room in your home best reflects who you are and why?

70. When you give do you eventually expect something in return?

71. Is your destiny formed by choice or chance? Explain.

72. If you could go back and do it again, at what age would you like to begin from?

73. List five non-materialistic things you would like to have right now.

74. What area of your life needs the most growth and how are you working on that?

75. Something you could invent to make the world a better place.


Accept everything about yourself – I mean everything, You are you and that is the beginning and the end – no apologies, no regrets. -Henry Kissinger


76. What things about yourself do you feel that someone who just met you would like?

77. Something you have been meaning to do and have been putting off. Why?

78. What era do you feel you would have most comfortably belonged living in?

79. Who is your hero and why?

80. If money were no object what gifts would you give to three people in your life?

81. Describe your sense of humor.

82. Describe the process you go through when you are planning to buy something expensive for yourself.

83. Write a letter to God.

84. What’s your definition of family?

85. What do you feel most guilty about? Why haven’t you been able to forgive yourself?

86. Write a letter to your past.

87. What emotion dominates you life lately?

88. If you could change one thing about your life what would it be and why?

89. What positive, life-affirming aspects do you carry with you every day?

90. Take a crack at writing a poem!

91. Write a fairytale starring you.

92. A time you acted without thinking and its impact on you and others.

93. What if you were granted three wishes?

94. A goal you’re working towards and your progress so far.

95. What things in your life do you truly enjoy vs. tolerate?

96. What are your three largest priorities?

97. Something in your past that needs letting go of.

98. Some things you do daily that you don’t enjoy and why? Can they be re-evaluated, delegated or eliminated?

99. How do you feel about commitment in general?

100. Write a sincere letter to someone you need to forgive. Even if it’s yourself.