Ask LH: What’s a Therapy Journal and How Do You Start One?

Ask LH: What’s a Therapy Journal and How Do You Start One?

If you’ve spent any time on TikTok recently, you’ve probably come across the trend of people talking about their therapy journals. As it turns out, therapy writing can actually have a positive impact on your mental health, but what exactly is it?

For this week’s Ask Lifehacker, we are diving into the world of therapy writing and seeing if having a journal can help you unpack some of your emotions.

What is writing therapy?

Image: iStock

Writing therapy is basically what it sounds like; writing about your emotions, feelings and events you are/have gone through in a journal.

According to Charlie Stansfield (Psychotherapist and Psychoanalyst) and Australia Counselling, writing therapy is writing about difficult events or trauma that you wish to unpack on your own terms.

You might think that a therapy journal is the same as writing in a diary, but the two are a little bit different.

The main difference is that therapy journals are more directed and event-specific as opposed to the free-form nature of diaries. Instead, writing therapy involves prompts, exercises and questions that help lead you to what you need to unpack.

Writing therapy also tends to focus more on the analysis of an event, rather than just retelling a story of how it happened. When you’re writing therapeutically, you detail your thoughts, feelings and physicality during said events.

Basically, writing therapy asks you to dig deeper inside yourself than the on-the-surface discussion in diaries.

Many people choose to keep their diaries or journals private, but journal therapy is normally led or prescribed by a mental health professional. This way, you can get more guided prompts that are specific to your circumstances.

It also means that you aren’t left alone with your words and emotions; you can show your psychologist, who will then be able to help guide you through it.

Do therapy journals work?

One of the benefits of having a therapy journal is that it allows you to write things down you may not be able to voice on your own.

It can be scary to open yourself fully to a psychologist or mental health professional, but if you’re able to write it down, it can be easier.

There are also studies that show the benefits of writing therapy and how the process helps people unpack their trauma.

You’ve probably heard the common phrase ‘once you start, you can’t stop,’ and that’s exactly what happens with writing therapy.

Once you’ve been prompted and started writing your thoughts down, everything else seems to just flow out naturally without a filter. This is what Stansfield says is one of the benefits of therapeutic writing.

There have also been studies that show having a therapy journal can help improve both mental and physical health.

In one study, 107 asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients wrote for around 20 minutes for three consecutive days. In this exercise, 71 of the patients wrote about the most stressful event of their lives, while the rest wrote about an emotionally neutral subject of their daily plans.

Following four months of the trial, 70 patients who wrote about the stressful event showed improvement in objective, clinical evaluations compared to 37 of those in the neutral group.

There was also another study with HIV/AIDS patients who asked a group to write about negative life experiences or their daily schedules. Those who wrote about their life experiences measured higher on CD4 lymphocyte counts (immune functioning gauge) than those who wrote about their daily life. However, this boost disappeared three months later.

therapy journal writing therapy
Image: iStock

How to start a therapy journal

There isn’t really one correct way you can start your therapy journal.

Many people like to find a format that suits them best. Whether that’s an actual journal, a notebook, the notes app on your phone, songwriting or even a blog.

It’s best if you set a structure around writing therapy so you can stick to a routine and can pull yourself out of it. Create a goal to write for a set amount of time every day and decide on a place.

You could also format your therapy journal in different ways. It might be writing a letter to yourself or to others, writing a poem or mind maps. Or you can try classic free-form writing.

You can find a whole bunch of prompts and questions online or chat with your mental health professional about where they think you should start your writing therapy.

If you need, here are some prompts and ideas to help get you started from Pinterest.

Although they aren’t the same thing, here’s a list of the best gratitude journals, which might help you balance out your therapy writing.

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