Practicing self-care is essential for fostering a positive mindset. It can come in the form of meditation, listening to a podcast, or watching your favorite comfort movie. But one method that is particularly beneficial for protecting your mental health only requires paper and a pen. Journaling can help individuals connect with themselves and cope with anxiety and stress, providing a physical space to release and explore any thoughts, feelings, or worries. If you’re unsure where to start, there are a number of mental health journal prompts to follow.
“Thoughts left unchecked or untested in our brain can go almost unnoticed by us, leading us to just naturally assume their truth. If those thoughts are toxic, that can be a dangerous scenario,” explains Dr. Kathy HoganBruen, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of District Anxiety Center in Washington, DC. “Putting the thoughts on paper is like giving them air to breathe — like having an audience to test them out on. But the beauty of a journal is that there is actually no audience at all. It’s totally private, an opportunity to think and talk without worrying about being judged.”
Dr. HoganBruen points to the many ways in which one can approach target journaling. You could record “negative automatic thoughts,” which allows you to reframe thinking patterns. “For instance, if the negative thought you record is, ‘My friends went to the mall and didn’t invite me. I’m sure they don’t like me anymore,’ challenges might be, ‘It’s OK for friends to do stuff without me — I do that, too!’ or, ‘These same friends invited me to a sleepover last week and said what a great time they had,’” she says.
Dr. HoganBruen also recommends “behavioral activation,” which involves making a list of the activities you enjoy but no longer engage in as frequently, and breaking them down into smaller steps to work your way back to them. “If you journal about how you miss hosting movie nights with friends, but that seems too daunting when you’re feeling down, maybe start by just making a list of movies you want to see someday. Rather than inviting a whole crowd over, what about inviting one close friend? Or watching on Zoom?,” she suggests.
There are many different journal prompts and questions to explore and find perspective from, especially in the moments where you need to recenter yourself or find clarity. Below, we made a list of mental health journal prompts to follow for your next writing session. However, it’s important to note that journaling does not take the place of therapy. If you’re feeling overwhelming symptoms of anxiety, stress, depression, or of another mental health condition, and you’re struggling to process these feelings on your own, schedule an appointment with a therapist, your school’s counselor, or ask your doctor for help. You can also call the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at 1-(800)-950-NAMI (6264) or visit their website for additional resources.
Mental Health Journal Prompts
1. Write about your day. Before bed, take some time to reflect on the day’s events and how you feel. What was the best moment? What was the worst moment? Did any interactions stand out in particular? As you write, you might even identify some previously unrealized thoughts or feelings about something.
2. List what you’re grateful for. This form of journaling is recommended by Dr.HoganBruen. “It doesn’t need to be daily, and in fact, sometimes it’s better to do it just randomly,” she says. You might be thankful that the sun is shining today, you just heard that Harry Styles is releasing a new song, or that you’re grabbing coffee with friends after school.
3. Identify a goal for the week. What are you hoping to accomplish? Write down a goal and maybe even outline an action plan for achieving it — doing so can keep you motivated and on track.
4. Describe your favorite memory. Take pen to paper and start detailing your absolute favorite memory, whether it was from childhood, junior high, or just last week. This could help you shift to a positive mindset.
5. List your coping mechanisms. Write out all of the actions and strategies that help you reduce anxiety. These mechanisms could include practicing yoga, meditating, talking to your family, or dancing. Just be sure to list what works best for you.
6. Share a place where you feel most at peace. Relax your mind and body by thinking about and detailing a location that brings you absolute peace.
7. Write about your strengths. Are you a good listener? Do you have strong empathy skills? Take a moment to empower yourself and reflect on the areas or practices that you excel in.
8. Identify what makes you anxious. Think about what causes increased levels of anxiety, and write them all down. Acknowledging these triggers might help you address your anxiety in the moment, and engage in practices that help manage it. If you see a therapist or counselor, you could bring this list to your next session and work together to come up with effective coping mechanisms.
9. Write a forgiving message to yourself. Write this for those days when you’re not feeling OK, and need to remind yourself to be patient and kind to your mind and body.
10. Write a letter of forgiveness to someone else. This could be a productive step in processing your feelings if you’ve been hurt by someone. Although this person might not ever see this letter, it’s important that you give yourself the space to heal.
11. Reflect on your favorite part of every day. Maybe it’s listening to your favorite playlist on the bus to school, or greeting your pet the second you get home. Whatever it may be, detail the part of your day that you enjoy the most and always look forward to. It might even help you realize how special even the most mundane moments are.
12. Write a letter to your future self. Whether you pick 10, 15, or 50 years from now, choose an age and jot down some notes for your future self. You might summarize your current self, and what you're working towards in the moment, make predictions, and ask questions. This practice lets you reflect on your journey and set reasonable goals for how you’d like to see yourself evolve.
13. Describe who or what motivates you. Is there a certain person that inspires you? Do you have a particular routine or activity that puts you in a motivated mindset? Write all of these influences down and try to explain why you feel driven by them.
14. Recount the last random moment that made you smile. In this entry, describe the moment that made you smile and explain why you think it prompted that reaction from you. Similar to detailing your favorite memory, this can help you shift to a more positive mindset.
15. Write about your favorite books. Make a list of all the books you love — the ones that had a profound effect on you, or that you just really enjoyed. What about their themes, plots, or characters resonated with you so much?
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, you can call the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at 1-(800)-950-NAMI (6264) or visit their website.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit their website.
Leah Campano is an Associate Editor at Seventeen, where she covers pop culture, entertainment news, health, and politics. On the weekends, you can probably find her watching marathons of vintage Real Housewives episodes or searching for New York City’s best almond croissants.