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Journal Writing Therapy

Journal Writing Therapy: More Than Just a Diary

It’s no secret that journaling is relaxing. But did you know that with the correct application and prompts, journal writing is an actual therapy?

When Talk Therapy Isn’t Enough:

Sometimes, clients walk into my office and cannot speak.

The words are locked in their throats, their stories buried inside.

They want to be in therapy, they know they need to be in therapy, but while they are in therapy, they find themselves blocked from using talk therapy to help confront whatever brought them into my office.

There are so many ways a therapist can help clients find their voice. But in cases where standard talk therapy won’t work, what do we do?

In my room, there is a sand tray with miniatures. I have a dollhouse with figurines and furniture, scrapbook materials and drawing utensils, modeling clay, and arts & crafts. Do any of these help clients talk? Most certainly. Although the talking is not verbal, it is done through these other mediums of expression.

Sometimes however, the best type of medium is the written word. Clients who find themselves unable to speak somehow find that in writing, the words flow. And as someone who loves to write, whose writing is my own form of therapy, I encourage my silent — and not so silent clients — to journal away.

Long ago, I had no idea that journal writing therapy was a real therapy modality, just like EMDR, somatic work, or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Journal writing therapy is not just writing in a journal, the same way CBT is not just thinking and behaving. It may sound the same, but one is writing in a journal, or journaling; and the other is a specific therapy modality.

What Exactly is Journal Writing Therapy?

Here’s a definition of journal writing therapy I found in my research.

Journal writing therapy is the therapeutic use of journaling exercises and prompts to bring about awareness and improved mental health… It is the purposeful and intentional use of reflective writing to further mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellness.

The research for journal writing therapy showed that it could be useful in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsiveness, grief and loss, issues related to chronic illness, eating disorders, interpersonal and relationship issues, communication skills issues, and low self-esteem. According to the research, the effects of journal writing therapy are wide reaching, including decreased distress and psychological arousal, improved mood, boosted immune system and memory, an increased ability to cope with stressors, greater awareness, and increased acceptance of self.

There is even a Therapeutic Writing Institute (TWI) that provides a 2-3 year training in journal writing therapy! Anybody can join this institute, but only licensed therapists can go on to an advanced study in therapeutic writing.  The training courses address different genres of therapeutic writing such as memoirs, poetry, and visual journaling.

A Brief History of Journal Writing Therapy:

The journal writing model of therapy started in 1966 by Ira Progoff, a psychotherapist who created the Intensive Journal Method while at a university. A series of books published in the 1970s, followed by journal workshops led by other pioneering psychotherapists in the field attracted attention for its design on self-discovery. Research in the 1990s proved that writing positively impacts mental and physical health, trauma, and general emotional problems. This garnered wider support for the integration of this method in other mainstream therapies. Therapeutic writing schools like TWI evolved, and, as in most adjunct models of therapy, professionals with advanced degrees in counseling began pursuing credentialed or independent-study programs. So yes, it’s a real therapy, this writing thing. The question remains though, what sets journal writing therapy apart from simply writing in a journal?

How Does Journal Writing Therapy Work?

For starters, there is a three-fold goal in using this modality.
One: to increase self-awareness and insight.
Two: to promote change and growth.
Three: to develop a sense of self.

The method used, which is again specific to this therapy, is to begin a session with a writing exercise. This writing exercise sets an intention for the session, and is used as a form of communication between the client and therapist. Writing instead of verbalizing thoughts and feelings gives the client a layer of protection which makes the process easier. Additionally, the therapist assigns writing homework to be processed at the following session.

Methods to Get You Started:

Creative assignments are used to facilitate and achieve the objectives of journal writing therapy. Writing exercises, such as journaling about a personal photograph and responding to a series of questions posed by the therapist is one such technique. Questions like, “What would like to say to each person in this picture?” or, “What do the objects in this picture say to you?” are typical prompts.

Another example is letter-writing. Writing a letter to a deceased loved one, someone who has wronged them, or even to a part of themselves.

Sentence stems is another technique that’s often used. A sentence stem gives the client an open-ended question that needs to be addressed, such as, “The thing that makes me the happiest/saddest/most worried/scared is…”

List of 100 is another popular technique. With this prompt the client is directed to create a 100 item list related to a theme/topic the therapist or client chooses. The inevitable emerging patterns or repetitions are processed in session.

Another technique is called the dialogue, in which a client writes a dialogue between different parts or aspects of him/herself. A dialogue can also be between a person’s present and future self, or a past and present self.

It’s writing freely, honestly, and returning to understand the writing that makes these exercises so effective.

Journal writing therapy isn’t for everyone, but it could be for you!

Of course journal writing therapy has its limitations as does all therapeutic modalities. People with cognitive limitations are unable to use writing as a tool for self awareness. Some people find writing exacerbates their symptoms. And still others find that several therapeutic modalities are needed to address their issues. In most cases however, it’s worth discovering if and how this tool can bolster your personal journey.

Write away!

Connect with the author:

For more on this topic:

Therapy or Coaching: Which is Right for you?

Your First Therapy Session

Distraction from anxiety

Dealing with secondary trauma

10 Ways to Deal with Summertime Blues

10 Easy Ways to Boost Mood

Note: This was previously published in Bina Magazine

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Wow, I love this! It’s so interesting. I do journal and write out my feelings, but I’m wondering which of the above methods can be used outside of session. I do journaling for myself, not for homework.

  2. This is me! I remember sitting in therapy week after week and couldn’t get those words out. I could not speak or express myself in any way.
    Writing was my tool for getting through those times. Communicating with my therapist happened mostly through email. I would write my thoughts and the therapist would bring it up at the next session.
    Thank you for bringing up this important topic.

  3. I write everything down to help me remember or just to get my feelings out I love the journaling method but I never though about trying this method for my anxiety which I am going to try and see if it helps me.

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