At one point or another, many of us have considered journaling regularly as a tool for processing our emotions or channeling creative ideas, but how do you get started? It can be an intimidating process, but what matters most is that you’re open to reflecting on your emotions and experiences. 

We’ll talk about how to pick a guided journal that’s right for you, journal suggestions, and tips for developing a regular journaling practice. 

What is a guided journal?

You may have grown up writing in a diary, but a guided journal can take it to the next level by creating space for you to reflect on your emotions, what you’re grateful for, and more. “Emotions are messengers, and they need to be processed and validated to be released. Journaling can be that platform for validating those emotions,” says Jennifer Paulino, a life and executive coach. 

The benefit of using a guided journal is that they often come with prompts, illustrations, images, quotes, and more to help you get inspired in the journaling process. Even if you’re a seasoned writer, a blank page can be overwhelming,” says Israa Nasir, therapist and founder of digital mental health brand Well.Guide. “A guided journal can also be a helpful way to get you outside of your comfort zone by asking questions you’re not asking yourself.”

Guided journals may be for a specific period of time, whether it’s 6 months, a year, or more. Some of them don’t have dates at all, so you’re welcome to pick it up whenever it suits you. With a guided journal, you know you won’t be alone in the process. “We have consistent check-ins with our bosses, family members, and friends, but we need to carve out space to check in with ourselves too,” says Paulino.

Benefits of guided journals for mental health

Guided journals are a tool for naming and processing your emotions so you’re better equipped to handle tough life situations or unexpected events. 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.

The more that you get into the habit of journaling and writing out your feelings, the easier it will become to name your feelings in the moment. One study found that journal therapy, also known as expressive writing, can support physical and mental health, emotional regulation, and outlook on life. A 2018 study came to the same conclusion, finding that participants who wrote about stressful or emotional events had significantly better physical and psychological outcomes.

Journals can also be a tool to process thoughts and feelings in between therapy sessions. However, guided journals don’t just have to be focused on your feelings, hardships, or trauma. It can also be a fun activity where you journal about your wins and accomplishments, creative ideas for your next project, or just clear your headspace. 

Potential drawbacks of guided journals for mental health

Nasir says that guided journaling isn’t meant to be a treatment for mental health conditions, but it can help you manage symptoms. “It’s a coping strategy that helps you improve your emotional resilience so you understand yourself better, but it’s not a treatment,” says Nasir. You’re also welcome to bring your journal to therapy sessions and discuss it with your provider if it would be helpful, especially as you start to recognize patterns in your emotions or behaviors.

Even if you’re a hobbyist when it comes to journaling, you can always bring in other tools to support your journaling, like the Feelings Wheel, an open-source tool created by The Gottman Institute that can help you name your feelings in greater detail. There are also a number of self-help books and podcasts that you can use to educate yourself about emotional wellness.

Finding a journaling practice that works for you

It may take some time to find a guided journal that’s right for you. If you have a specific goal with journaling, look for a journal that aligns with that theme, whether it’s mindfulness, gratitude, or something else. “Be intentional about your goals and what you’re facing,” says Paulino. “What do you want to learn about yourself? Do you want to change your thinking patterns, or just have a space for release?”

If you’re pretty open to what’s out there, find a physical copy of the journal and flip through it to see if the prompts resonate with you. If you have a trauma history, Nasir says you may want to check the potential prompts to see if any of the content is potentially triggering, or to find a journal that has blank pages to process whatever you’re experiencing.

As you start to use guided journals, Nasir says to start small. This could mean writing in your journal once a week or every few weeks. “Try to do it on the same day if you can, and make it part of your routine the same way you brush your teeth,” says Nasir. It also helps to stack journaling onto an existing habit, whether that’s as part of your morning routine or right before bed.

Nasir says that you can start by setting a timer for 2 minutes and journaling any of the thoughts that come to mind —it doesn’t have to make sense in the moment, and you don’t have to share what you’ve written with anyone. You also don’t have to write out full paragraphs if that doesn’t feel right to you. You can respond to prompts or quotes in a guided journal with bullet points, doodles, concept maps, and more. If it helps you connect your thoughts and feelings, that’s what matters. Then, you can go back and read through it to see what sticks out to you.

It also helps to make it an experience that you look forward to. You can light a candle, go to a specific spot in your home or your favorite coffee shop, and listen to your favorite music. Once you develop the habit, you can increase the frequency. If you already have another habit, try doing it after something that’s in your existing routine, like watching TV after dinner or after meditation. 

Are guided journals worth it?

The benefit of a guided journal is you can flip through them and visually see your growth over time. Nasir also notes that guided journals are intentionally selected to take you on a journey and may build on each other, which can be helpful as you develop your journaling practice over time.

You don’t necessarily need a guided journal to get into a regular journaling process. If you’re someone who’s journaling casually, you can always look up your own prompts and collate something for yourself. There are tons of blogs, Pinterest posts, and articles full of reflective writing prompts, and you can choose whichever ones resonate with you or get you closer to your goal with journaling.

Guided journals also may not be effective for everyone. You may be someone who processes emotions by drawing, taking a walk, or talking it out rather than writing. It’s OK to try journaling and then reevaluate if it’s helping you achieve your personal goals.

Ultimately, guided journaling can be overwhelming in the beginning, and you can go in and out of it. Nasir notes that this is totally normal, so don’t be afraid to journal when it makes sense for you.

Best guided journals

There are a lot of guided journals on the market, and here are some to get you started.

The 5-Minute Gratitude Journal: This 5-minute journal is a great start if you’re starting your reflective writing practice. Each day has the same prompts centered around gratitude in the form of reflecting on meaningful memories, things that make life better, and reasons to smile. It has 3,500 5-star reviews with many people appreciating the guidance, though it may not be ideal for someone who’s more interested in varied prompts every single day.

Switch Research Self-Love Journal: Grounded in the work of 20+ therapists, researchers, and social workers, this journal includes daily questions and quotes with 91 unique layouts to keep you engaged. These prompts are designed to help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety and develop more self-compassion.

The Five Minute Journal: If consistency is key, then this five minute journal might be right for you. You can date each page, read a quote, and use this journal to reflect once in the morning and once at night on what you’re grateful for and what you need as well as what you learned.

Better Every Day Journal: If variety is the spice of life, you’ll love this journal. It’s designed to be used during a full calendar year, and each day has a new prompt and plenty of space for you to write about it. It may take some time to get into these prompts if you’re new to journaling, but something along the way will likely resonate with you.