5 ways journaling can help you cope with big life changes

It’s no secret that many of us are stressed. It’s now more important than ever to build practices to decompress and destress, journaling among them.

Writing down your thoughts, feelings, and experiences may not fix every concern, but it can be an effective tool for managing the anxiety that comes from major life changes. In fact, adults with anxiety and other medical conditions who kept a journal saw greater improvements in well-being than their non-journaling counterparts, according to a study published October–December 2018 in JMIR Mental Health.

Whether you’ve never journaled before, or you’re a lifelong reflective writer, putting your thoughts on paper in strategic ways may help you cope with some of life’s challenging changes and milestones. Here, experts offer journaling exercises for specific scenarios.

It can help strengthen marriage ties, whether you're struggling or not 

Journaling can help new couples navigate building a partnership or long time couples resolve conflict.

You may choose to keep a solo marriage journal. Like other types of journals, a solo marriage journal is a private space for your eyes only. “Use it as a way to self-explore what you feel about your spouse or marriage without judgment,” says Lauren Cook-McKay, Manchester, Connecticut–based director of marketing and content for Divorce Answers, an online resource for couples contemplating a divorce.

The other option is a couple’s marriage journal, where you and your spouse share your thoughts, feelings, and concerns with one another. This type of journal can be a helpful tool for couples who want to improve communication, but it can be used for other goals, too.

Do you want to get to know each other better? Find a more productive way to communicate? Understand each other's personalities? Define your goals before starting the journal and be sure you and your spouse are on the same page, Cook-McKay says.

Marriage journal prompt

Begin by writing a love letter, a list of goals you want to achieve with your spouse in your marriage, or what you like about your spouse. If it’s a couple’s journal, have your spouse do the same exercise, but don’t feel the need to follow identical formats. “Journaling is known to help organize your thoughts and expressions better so there is no need to stick to one format. You both can be as creative with your journal as you want,” Cook-McKay says.

It can help you process grief from the loss of a loved one

Losing a loved one is life’s most stressful eventaccording to Mental Health America. You may experience a wide range of emotions, including denial, confusion, sadness, anger, guilt, humiliation, and shock.

Regardless of how grief shows up for you, journaling is a helpful way to release the emotions, so you can begin processing them. “As I always like to say, you have to feel it to heal it,” says Gianna DeMedio, a grief expert in Philadelphia and host of the podcast So Sorry for Your Loss.

Instead of trying to journal on a regular schedule, DeMedio recommends striking while the iron is hot. Use a notepad app on your smartphone or a small notebook to jot down how you’re feeling when an emotion becomes overwhelming. Or you might simply journal when you have free time (i.e., while waiting for an appointment).

“This spur-of-the-moment writing allows you to write more freely and not worry about being creative or even making sense,” DeMedio says. “Some of my most profound thoughts have come from this method of writing it out as the emotions hit.”

Grief journal prompt 

If you need help getting started with grief journaling, try writing directly to your loved one. Is there anything you’d like to apologize for? Any news you’d like to share? Or imagine your loved one responding to you. What do you think their response would be to your new career move? What advice would they give you at this point in your life?

It can help you through the pain of a divorce or breakup

Divorces and breakups bring many complicated, sometimes conflicting emotions bubbling to the surface, from grief and rage to relief and confusion.

“Journaling is a healthy way to untangle these feelings and figure out where they’re coming from,” says Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor practicing at Shaded Bough Counseling in Austin, Texas. This way, you don’t act impulsively or say something you later regret.

The most important thing is to be honest when you’re journaling. Acknowledge even the ugly feelings you’d never tell anyone else, Nassour says. Your journal is a private space where you can be angry, selfish, scared, pitiful, or even happy or vindictive.

“Remember that just writing the words down won’t hurt anyone,” Nassour says.

It may also help to read what you write once you’re in a calm state of mind. “It can give you a more objective perspective and ideas for how to act on these feelings constructively,” Nassour says. Here are two of her favorite prompts to support your healing process.

Divorce or breakup prompt #1 

If you wanted the breakup, what are the reasons you stayed in the relationship as long as you did? What are the reasons you wanted to leave? If you were to begin another relationship, how would you want it to be different?

Divorce or breakup prompt #2 

If you didn’t want the breakup, have you ever experienced a loss like this before? Who and what helped you get through it? What did you do to cope? Can any of the people, resources, or strategies from that time help you now?

It can prepare you for having a baby

Becoming a parent is a time filled with so many new experiences and worries that some can forget to slow down and reflect on their own feelings and needs.

“Many parents I know want to be able to be present with their kids, and that’s really hard to achieve if we struggle with being present with our own emotions,” says Jordan Olsen, LCSW, a perinatal mental health therapist with Roots Work Therapy in Milwaukee.

Journaling gives new and expecting parents an outlet to express the many emotions they’re feeling. Simply setting aside 10 minutes per day — or even a few days a week, if you can’t manage a daily practice — to focus on your thoughts and articulate them on paper may help.

“I often give my clients prompts for a self check-in that promote reflection on their emotional state and where those emotions are showing up in the body,” Olsen says. She recommends setting a timer on your phone for 10 minutes and responding to these prompts below.

Pregnancy journal prompt #1

What lessons did you learn about what it means to be a “good parent” from watching your parents? Are there any lessons you want to keep for your parenting journey? Are there any lessons you want to let go of?

Postpartum journal prompt #2

Pick a time when you felt scared, worried, overwhelmed, angry, or sad in the past week. Think about that moment and reflect on the question: “Does this point to an unmet need of mine?”

It can help you work through a health crisis or diagnosis

Managing a health condition or coping with a new diagnosis can be stressful. You may feel frustrated, scared, overwhelmed, angry, sad, or numb.

Journaling allows structured time and an opportunity to process these feelings, says Julia Kogan, PsyD, a health psychologist and stress expert in Miami.

Some people may not have friends or family who can help them make sense of their feelings. Or they may not feel comfortable sharing what’s going on with their health. “Journaling allows for a neutral way to express yourself any time you’d like,” Dr. Kogan says.

Plus, research suggests that the mental processing from journaling may help reduce felt symptoms of chronic illness and improve overall health. A past study found that writing about stressful experiences boosted lung function in people with mild to moderately severe asthma after four months. The same study found that patients with rheumatoid arthritis saw a reduction in disease severity over the same period.

“Therefore, journaling can be a helpful strategy to manage overall health and chronic health conditions,” Kogan says. Use her exercise below to get started.

Health crisis or diagnosis prompt 

Find a quiet and calm environment. Set a timer for 15 to 30 minutes and write about what’s upsetting you. This may include your current health status, any information you received from your doctor, how you’re feeling about the information, and any worries or fears. If you need a mood boost, use your journaling time to identify 5 to 10 things you’re grateful for, describe a goal for managing your health, or write a list of your coping mechanisms and tools.