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Life can be overwhelming. We all worry, stress or feel out of control at some point. Whether you’re dealing with mental health issues or just need an outlet for your thoughts, guided journaling can help.

Of course, journaling is not a substitute for professional help. Still, it can be a useful tool for gathering your thoughts, setting goals, or simply reflecting on your day.

Some people may start journaling without guidance, while others may need some direction and encouragement to sit back and reflect. Looking inward can be scary, but it can also help you get to know your beautiful self better.

psychotherapist haley niedich, who also keeps a diary, incorporates diary into all of her clients’ treatment plans, although the practice differs from person to person.

Some people may write a journal before a therapy session to organize their thoughts. Others prefer to journal in the morning as a way to clear their minds for the next day. “I have witnessed how keeping a journal serves as a powerful reinforcement for therapy, and is a very creative way of getting to know oneself,” says Neidich.

Neidich also notes that research supports the powerful therapeutic benefits of journaling.

A 2013 study found that people with major depressive disorder who wrote down their thoughts and feelings for at least 20 minutes a day for 3 consecutive days had lower depression scores than people who wrote about mundane events in their day.

Neidich adds that while there are certainly benefits to journaling, they are not a substitute for therapy or other treatments.

“What I have experienced anecdotally is that journaling helps people get to know themselves and wake up to the reality of their inner world,” says Neidich. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But some people react negatively to looking inward, so it’s important to have a therapist who can guide you and help you process those feelings.

Journaling is also not universally helpful. It can even worsen mental health symptoms for some people, Neidich explains. “One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is rereading what they wrote in the past.” Revisiting expressions of powerful emotions can have a negative effect.

Neidich adds that people with personality disorders can be stimulated when they write in a journal. Naturally, opening your heart can leave you reeling from surprising self-discoveries. It can be helpful to talk to a therapist before embarking on this type of deep reflective practice, especially if you need a stronger support system.

Neidich recommends incorporating the practice of journaling into your daily routine. She assures that long and prolonged sessions are not necessary. Two to five minutes is absolutely enough time to express yourself and reap the benefits of this habit.

She offers some tips for making journaling a habit:

  • Work on an existing routine.
  • Find a comfortable place to write a journal.
  • Set a timer.
  • Write your thoughts without editing yourself.

“You don’t need to read what you wrote or feel like it’s a complete or cohesive journal entry,” says Neidich.

She recommends free journal writing for beginners, but understands that some people need more structure. Keeping a gratitude journal is another way of journaling that some people find helpful. Neidich suggests combining journaling practices (for example, free and gratitude) for maximum benefit.

goal setting

Journaling can be a useful adjunctive treatment approach for people with mental health problems. But when I put out a call to learn about people’s experiences with guided journaling, most of the people who responded found the practice helpful in setting personal and professional goals.

Colin Palfrey, CMO of majesty coffee, says that after receiving a guided journal as a gift several years ago, he has kept up the practice. “It’s a simple [exercise] to write one thing about your day every day. It’s amazing to see how life has changed in the last 3 years…[it’s] a good reminder of how far I have come.”

For Ian Sells, CEO and founder of refund key, the habit started when she bought a planner with space to write a diary. “[A] a lot of my personal goals are tied to my business goals… I like to put my thoughts in writing because it forces me to think clearly,” says Sells.

self care

Natasha Davis, mother and small business owner of a cheeky scribesays that keeping a gratitude journal is a form of self-care. It allows you to focus on your successes. “My gratitude journal makes me take stock every day of all the positives, no matter how small,” says Davis.

She also encouraged her to create a visual representation, what she calls a wall of positivity, of what she has been writing in her journal. Her 6-year-old son even asked to have his own wall of positivity.

“[N]My diary experience has not only helped me, it’s helping my son,” she says, adding that she eventually plans to introduce her son to the diary.

Introducing young people to journaling is something Neidich encourages. She says, “If you have a tween or teen in your life, a beautiful new journal is one of the most special gifts you can give them. Journaling is an important lifelong mental health practice, and encouraging it early on can really help build resilience.”

For Davis, journaling is a nightly habit. A phone reminder pushes her every night at 10 pm to do it. When she misses a few nights of journaling, she says it definitely shows.

Do you want to try keeping a diary for yourself? Here are some guided magazines to consider.

price guide

  • $ = less than $15
  • $$ = more than $15

A Year of Zen: A 52-Week Guided Journal

Price: $

This guided journal features 52 weeks of guidance inspired by Zen Buddhism. However, you don’t have to be spiritual to get something out of it. Reviewers say the prompts are accessible and easy to respond to.

None of the prompts are dated, so skipping a day doesn’t mean you’ll end up with a backlog of prompts to complete. However, writing space is limited, so keep that in mind if you’re someone who wants plenty of room to express yourself.

Poketo Quarterly Goal Planner

Price: $$

The Poketo planner is not a traditional guided journal, but it has space to work on your thoughts and emotions. There’s also space to keep track of your weekly hits. Whether you want to dedicate that space to personal or professional goals (or both) is entirely up to you.

The 5-Minute Gratitude Journal: Give Thanks, Practice Positivity, Find Joy

Price: $

This diary is a personal recommendation from Neidich. It is designed to help people create a journaling practice. Each message takes only a few minutes to reply.

Reviewers say that journaling helps improve your mood and positive emotions.

let that shit go

Price: $

Do you hear that? It’s a long sigh of relief, the sound of you letting go of what’s on your mind. Reviewers love this vulgar little diary and say that it has helped them with their mental struggles.

One reviewer notes that the tone may be too simplistic for people dealing with serious mental health issues. But many people say that the prompts are helpful and that the inspirational quotes and passages are fun and entertaining.

burn after writing

Price: $

This aptly titled magazine has over 25,000 positive reviews on Amazon. Some reviewers were disappointed to discover that the book does not, in fact, come with matches to light it. But many find the prompts fun and edgy.

Reviewers also note that it’s probably better suited to younger journalists.

F*cking Brilliant One Line A Day Diary

Price: $$

There is enough space in this diary to write one line a day for 5 full years. It’s a great way to preserve memories, but you can also use it to quickly express your thoughts and feelings.

Reviewers say that it is surprisingly compact and easy to take anywhere. People also appreciate that it requires a minimal time commitment.

Remember that guided journaling (or journaling of any kind) is not a substitute for professional help. If you are struggling with your mental health, talk to a mental health professional.

And don’t take a guided journal too seriously. It can be a fun and cathartic way to get your thoughts down on paper, but it doesn’t have to rule your life. You won’t lose points if you accidentally skip a day or two. Do it while it makes you feel good.

Steph Coelho is a chronic migraine freelance writer who has a particular interest in health and wellness. When she’s not typing away on her keyboard, she’s probably up to her nose in a good book.