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November 14, 2014
by David Porter, MA

Journal Writing as a Therapeutic Tool

November 14, 2014 02:55 by David Porter, MA

Writing in a journal, or journaling, can serve as a valuable adjunct to psychotherapy. Keeping a journal is useful to gain and maintain perspective, to process stressors, generate ideas, and recognize functional and dysfunctional patterns in one's life. A journal can be a place for you to vent your emotions, and to take some private time every day to reflect on your life (Bodeeb, 2014). Journals can be used to record changes and milestones in life, and can also be passed on to the next generation as a part of family history. I recommend journal writing to all of my patients, and I have kept journals myself for over twenty years. Feedback I have gotten when patients start keeping a journal has been along the lines of- I wrote until my hand cramped- I didn't realize I had so much in me I needed to get out.  

The Medium for your Journal

Your journal can be either a hard copy book or in electronic format. You can make it sophisticated, using an elegant, leather bound journal and a high quality pen, or keep it very basic and simple with a notepad or steno-book, and pens from the dollar store. Some people prefer a gritty, rough look, binding a notebook with a paper bag or duct tape, especially for a travel journal. A map can also make an interesting cover if you are keeping a travel journal. Black is the color of course, for a Dream Journal. An electronic copy has many advantages- numerous formats can be used, from simple word processing documents, to HTML or PDF. A blog is another option, sharing your private thoughts with others. Electronic format also allows for redundancy and backup, reducing the chance that your most valued memories are lost.

How to Journal

You can write an entry every day, or when there is a major change in your life, or when you feel stress and tension building. When you write in your journal, for the best results, write quickly. This minimizes unconscious editing and censoring. You want your journal to reflect your most private and intimate thoughts, which will be your most honest thoughts. Date the entries (Center For Journal Therapy, 2013), and note the time and place where you are writing. It will be very interesting to go back and read these entries months or years later.

Types of Journals or Entries:

  • Daily Journal. Despite the name, you do not have to feel obligated to write an entry every day, but rather on the days you feel are especially important.

  • Photo journal. Several times a year, take images of your life for one week- everywhere you normally go, the things you do, and the people you typically interact with.

  • Travel journal. Record where you have been and what you have seen outside of your hometown. Being in an unfamiliar or new environment can stimulate insight by freshening your perspective.

  • Dream journal. Record your dreams to promote insight. Keep your dream journal by your bed, so you can record your dreams as soon as you awaken, which will typically afford the best recall. Date the entries, and write in the present tense which can also assist with recall. Record as many details of your dream as specifically as possible, and look for correlations between your dream content and events in your waking life (Dream Moods, 2013). You can record recurring dreams and look for patterns- what is your unconscious trying so hard to tell you that it keeps sending the same message?

  • Milestone List. This is a list of important personal events in your life- graduation, a new job, relocating, beginning and ending of relationships, and reaching personal goals.

  • Accomplishments list. What have you done in your life in terms of completed projects, skills acquired, goals reached?

  • Gratitude list. What do you have in your life that you are grateful for and appreciate? This type of list is frequently associated with Twelve Step programs, such as AA ( Alcoholics Anonymous) to prevent self-pity, (Poor me, the next step is Pour me a drink), and promote happiness and satisfaction through recognition of all the good things one has (Alcohol, 2014).The gratitude list is definitely applicable to people without addictions as well.

  • Amends list. Who have you wronged, and how are you going to make amends to them? Again this is a frequent part of the AA program. It is referred to as Step Eight of the Twelve Steps of AA. It involves making a list of all the people you have wronged through drinking or drugging, then making direct amends them, unless to do so would cause them further injury. Again, this is something anyone who is interested in repairing relationships, and reducing guilt and shame can benefit from.

The Empirical Evidence for the Benefits of Journal Writing

WED (Written Emotional Disclosure) is a specific type of journal writing done in psychotherapy. It involves writing down the details of a traumatic event as a way to process the emotional trauma and loss of perspective that are a part of PTSD. In a controlled study, it was found that people who participated in WED reported a reduction in PTSD symptoms and depression, This may serve as a form of exposure therapy (Sloan, Marx, and Greenberg, 2011), in which the feared event is gradually introduced to the accompaniment of support and relaxation. In this manner, the anxiety and discomfort diminishes. A maxim for journal writing and PTSD is that someone has to be truly ready to discuss the trauma- even to themselves in a journal. Writing it out is a way of re-living the trauma, and while this processing can be very useful, it has the potential to make things worse as well. The support of a therapist is essential, and a safety/crisis plan should be in place. “... ready to discuss the trauma” also means clean and sober, with a good support system. 

Your Journal and Psychotherapy

Your therapist may recommend keeping a journal, and you may discuss the content in sessions. Journaling can serve as a focal point in a therapy session. Your therapist may also ask you to explore certain areas of your life between sessions, and record your thoughts in your journal.

What if Someone Else Reads It?

This is a fear I have heard many people express, which prevents them from keeping a journal: What if someone finds it and reads it, and my deepest secrets are exposed? Safeguarding your journal is important; your most private thoughts are contained therein. Journals with locks can be purchased, it can be kept hidden away in a private place, or if in electronic format, password protected, and encrypted. Security can never be 100%, so there will be a certain amount of risk that someone else may read your thoughts.

Journal writing can produce many benefits regarding our mental health. It is an activity that most literate persons have engaged in throughout history. In our modern world, full of big screen plasma TV's, laptops, cell phones, and so many other media and means of communication, it can be easy to overlook the importance of listening to ourselves.


Alcohol (2014). Benefits of a Gratitude List in Recovery. Alcohol Retrieved August 16, 2014, from:

Bodeeb, J.(2014). Journal writing as therapy. Retrieved August 16, 2014,


Center For Journal Therapy. (2013). Journal Writing; a short course. Center For Journal Therapy. Retrieved August 16, 2014, from: 

Dream Moods. (2013). Your Dream Journal. Dream Moods. Retrieved August 16, 2014, from: 

Sloan,D.M, Marx, B.P, Greenberg, E.M. (2011). A test of written emotional disclosure as an intervention for post-traumatic stress

disorder Behavioral Residential Therapy. 49(4): 299–304.

doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2011.02.001 PMCID: PMC3898617 NIHMSID: NIHMS546608

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