When we feel stuck or anxious, journaling is the best tool we have to calm our minds and find a path forward.
Journaling is often mistaken for simply writing in a diary. With the right journal prompts, it becomes a much more powerful exercise. Journaling can help us discover hidden patterns of thinking and create a path forward to grow personally and become a better version of ourselves.
Regardless of the situation, these 5 journal prompts relieve anxiety and build confidence for the future.
Having great journal prompts is like having a great workout plan. They’re great in theory, but we don’t see any of the positive benefits until we do the work.
We can read the prompts or think about things for a few minutes, and maybe we’ll get an insight that feels like progress. Unfortunately, thoughts are fleeting, and the insights never last.
Journaling provides an opportunity for a deeper understanding of our thoughts and a lasting impact on our lives because we’re able to discover and capture patterns of thinking or assumptions that we didn’t realize existed.
To uncover what’s going on in your head and gain an understanding of how to improve your life moving forward, follow along with the guided prompts below.
The scariest part of journaling is starting. Staring at the blank page and feeling the pressure to write something meaningful and impactful makes it difficult to know where to start.
That’s why prompts are so powerful. Journaling prompts provide the perfect on-ramp to get started. They give us a framework to begin and tap into the natural tendency of our brains to answer questions.
Once the pen starts moving on the page, our subconscious can start to take over. It’s surprising how effortlessly thoughts flow into words once we get started.
Once we do get the pen moving, there can be pressure to write what we think we want to hear. It’s easy to fall into cliches or censor ourselves because we’re uncomfortable writing something down that feels too weak, too aggressive, or too scary.
Our true thoughts can be hard to process and surprise us, especially when we’re not used to them.
When we’re journaling, we need to be completely honest with ourselves. There’s no room for euphemisms or half-truths. To process and understand our thoughts in a meaningful way, we need to write down things we might be embarrassed by and hope no one else will ever see. In fact, that’s a good indicator that we’re on the right track.
At a certain point in the journaling process, we’re going to want to stop. We’re going to feel weird, or it won’t feel like it’s worth our time. Journaling is a fantastic way to discover new ideas, but it’s not a linear practice.
As we’re writing, we might just be stating the obvious, and the exercise can feel futile. But it only takes one idea to spark a new discovery. From there, we can begin expanding on that idea and extrapolating to new and different discoveries. Soon enough, we have a pile of writing in front of us, exploring an entirely new approach to a problem that’s been bothering us for months.
Because journaling is non-linear, we can’t commit to writing 100 or 200 words and checking off the box. When we sit down to answer these prompts, we need to commit to the process and maintain an open mind. As we move through the prompts, we need to be attentive to the ideas that are coming out and explore each thought as a new path toward our destination.
This journal prompt is more powerful than it looks.
It’s simple for a reason. When we’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed, everything swirls around in our heads and becomes fuzzy. Ideas blend together, and issues grow so large they seem futile.
If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear.
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
This prompt is a gateway to understanding ourselves and our anxiety. The better we can define how we're feeling, the easier it will be to take action to improve our circumstances. Answering this prompt forces us to think deeper about what’s happening in our life.
We might think we’re feeling anxiety because we don’t make as much money as we’d like to, but upon closer inspection, the root of the issue is we don’t want to be a burden to our partner and make them pay for everything.
How much money we make might be a factor in that issue, but the real anxiety comes from feeling burdensome.
We can create a profound sense of clarity by digging into how we feel in the moment. The truth often lies below the surface.
It may not come to us right away, so it's important to push through the beginning. It can be overwhelming to think about how to start, but we need to get the pen moving.
We can start with something as simple as “I’m feeling stressed” or “I’m feeling overwhelmed” or even “I don’t know how I’m feeling”. Once we have those first words down on the page, we can start to elaborate and peel back the layers of the onion.
We begin to write about the events leading up to how we’re feeling right now and the factors that contributed. Slowly, as we write more and capture our thoughts, a better understanding of what’s going on begins to develop. We can identify all the different pieces and pinpoint the emotions that are weighing us down.
This process of self-discovery is almost like writing an investigative report. The journal prompt helps us write to question ourselves and describe how we're really feeling.
Whether the situation we’re in is our fault or not, we need to take radical responsibility for our circumstances. Blaming others or writing off the situation as an exception doesn’t serve to help us relieve any anxiety or make progress.
This prompt requires us to dig into our subconscious and be transparent with ourselves. On an average day, we don’t have much time to stop and examine all the reasons we make decisions. Most of them are made without us even realizing it.
This journal prompt gives us an opportunity to peel back the layers and identify patterns of thinking that we might not have noticed previously. Maybe we’ve been shying away from an important conversation for too long, and it finally came back to bite us. Or maybe the anxiety we feel at work isn’t from an overbearing manager but instead from insecurity about being accepted and praised by peers.
Looking back on the situation and using journaling as a tool to dive deeper helps us identify the root cause of our anxiety. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and stressed, we can write to replay events and ask ourselves why we’re feeling a certain way or why we took certain actions instead of others.
Investigating our anxiety in a controlled environment lets us capture and process what’s really going on in our heads. The more we dig into this journal prompt, the more we can discover, and we can start to paint a picture of how we began to feel so anxious.
Sometimes sitting down to write like this is enough to relieve our anxiety completely, but to change our behavior and avoid similar situations in the future, we need to dive deeper.
There’s a theme emerging to these questions: they’re simple. But simple ain’t easy.
It’s tempting to read through the prompts and answer them in our heads, but just like reading a book or an article, we think we’ll remember it, but we never do. Journaling is like taking notes on our life. It reinforces the learning, allows us to make new realizations, and serves as a resource we can revisit later.
This journal prompt is simple like the others, but it’s powerful because it forces us to come up with solutions and new ways of thinking. When we’re stuck in our heads, we often make excuses when we’re faced with a question like this. We convince ourselves we’re uniquely stuck in bad circumstances or we “just are” a certain way and can’t change.
While this type of logic holds up in our heads and makes us feel even more anxious and stuck, it doesn’t pass the test when we write it down. Our brain flags thoughts like this as excuses and flimsy logic when we write them out on the page and take a closer look.
Instead, we’re forced to come up with more productive solutions. Even if we are stuck in certain situations, or we’re born a certain way and things are completely out of our control, when we write things down, our brain turns into a solution machine. We can have a thought that pops into our heads that’s not fully fleshed out yet, but we start writing anyway.
We can build on that idea as we continue to write and think it through. When we’re stuck, we can read back our thoughts and continue forward. This type of thought capture is only possible when we write things down, and it helps us think through problems and expand on ideas to uncover new approaches to our struggles.
Journaling makes it easier to discover and consider lifestyle changes, new techniques, or different mindsets that will help us alleviate our anxiety. We can move past surface-level changes and dig into deeper ideas that can spark lasting change.
Now that we’ve identified the root cause of our anxiety and come up with actions we can take to alleviate it; we need to think about how we’re going to execute. Ideas are one thing, but actions are what count.
The solutions, new ideas, or frameworks that we come up with in our journaling are usually the easy part. Once we start writing and investigating our thoughts, ideas come pretty quickly, but implementing new frameworks or approaches into our daily life is much more difficult.
We don’t like to change, and even more challenging, we often don’t notice much of what we do anyway. The brain is wired to conserve energy, and it will do as much of our daily activity on autopilot as it possibly can. When we move to a new house, we always end up driving back to our old place at least a few times without realizing it, and the same thing happens with our patterns of thinking as well.
When we run into the cause of our anxiety (even after writing about it and coming up with solutions to counteract it), our tendency will always be to do the same thing we did previously. Identifying the actions we’d like to take is only the first step in changing our behavior.
The same way an athlete visualizes how they react in high-pressure situations, it’s helpful for us to walk through how we will change our behavior the next time we’re faced with a stressful situation or how we can integrate a new approach to daily life. Thinking through the details ahead of time ensures the first time we face the situation with a new approach in mind, it isn’t in the heat of the moment.
Journaling is a great place to do this because we can be honest with ourselves and plan for multiple outcomes. We know ourselves better than anyone, so we can identify if our plans are realistic or not. If we’re feeling anxious because we always have too much to do in the evening, a good solution might be to wake up earlier and do the important things before work.
This sounds like an easy plan, but if we know we’ve been hitting the snooze button for 10 years, we need to devote more thought to how we’re going to integrate this into our life. Journaling lets us drill down and lay out the specifics. It lets us build a plan that's concrete. It’s on the page instead of a fleeting thought in our heads.
Instituting change will always be difficult, but thinking through all of the factors and journaling to stress test our plans and build a comprehensive approach to behavior changes provides the scaffolding needed to guide the process.
Finally, we need to come to terms with another reality of behavior change: we’re going to fall back into old habits.
This can be very discouraging and throw us back into a state of anxiety because it feels like failure. We feel like we’ll never be able to make the change. However, if we recognize this is a normal part of the process and plan for it ahead of time, we’ll be able to push right past it.
The same way we’re preparing ourselves for the heat of the moment in the prompt above, we’re preparing ourselves for the inevitable setbacks, so the first time we’re faced with failure or regression isn’t in the real world. Instead, we can journal about what we’ll do when we get off track, so when the moment comes, we know exactly what to do next.
We can avoid spiraling back to where we started, and we can recognize what threw us off track, take a step back, and continue on with our plan. We can even revisit our journaling and further examine what went wrong to build upon our understanding of what’s going on and expand on our approach to improve our lives moving forward.
Journaling is commonly misconstrued as keeping a diary or writing down how we feel and venting. A square is a rectangle, but not all rectangles are squares. Similarly, this is a type of journaling, but it’s not all journaling has to offer.
It’s a much more powerful tool the deeper we dive into it. Identifying how we feel and getting things off our chest is an awesome practice, but it becomes even more powerful when we begin to dig into actionable steps based on our thoughts and feelings.
The more effort and thought we invest in journaling, the larger our returns will be.
We all want to become a bit better each day, but trying to manage that growth in the abstract doesn’t work. Ideas float around in the ether, and we’re never quite sure how we’re feeling or why. Journaling serves as the scaffolding for our feelings and personal development, the same way our calendar serves as the structure for our schedule.
Here are some final thoughts and resources to help you with the exercise above and building a journaling practice that you can rely on in everyday life.
If you've gone through this exercise and it's been helpful, or if this exercise didn't quite suit you, I'm including the links to additional journaling prompts for self-discovery in different areas of life below.
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If there's one thing humans universally struggle with. its motivation. We know what to do, but it's always hard to do it. Here are some thoughts and prompts to give you the kick you need to get shit done.
They say everything happens for a reason, but is that just an excuse? This article has new ideas and journal prompts to help dig deeper into the issue.
There are so many different ways to journal. None of them are right or wrong, and everyone will find something different that works for them, but I do think there are best practices that are always applicable.
For starters, I think of journaling as "capturing thoughts or ideas on a page". That can mean handwritten, digital, or even voice recording. At the end of the day, what matters is transforming ambiguous thoughts into concrete language that can be captured at a specific moment in time. Whatever makes it easiest to do that is the best journaling method for you.
If you want a copy of the template I use for my daily journaling, shoot me an email (email@example.com), and I'll send it your way.
Another best practice for journaling is creating a basic dating/filing system. With digital tools, it's a little bit easier because the files or notes are dated automatically, but I still recommend creating folders or filters to organize your journal entries by year, month, and even by week if you're going to journal every day.
If you're using a physical notebook or journal, make sure you write the beginning and end date of each entry on the inside cover and every journal you finish and keep them in a stack sorted by date so you can easily go back to certain periods of time and see how you were thinking.
One of the best parts of journaling is traveling back in time to see exactly what was going on in your head on a specific day. It's fascinating to see what we were struggling with, what we were excited about, the goals we had for the future, and all of the small details that we easily forget about.
Another piece of advice that I need reminding of myself, is to write like a crazy person. Sometimes things get weird, and writing starts to flow in a strange direction or with a wild perspective.
Instead of trying to reel this in and keep journaling more structured and professional, we should lean into these flashes.
Sometimes they might just be weird moments or funny personas we adopt for no reason, but other times they can unlock a new perspective and help us discover something new about ourselves.
At the end of the day, your journal is for you. Don't be afraid to get crazy, and don't be afraid to make yourself a little uncomfortable.
Journaling is a way to capture our thoughts and use them to improve our life. There are many ways to do it, but the most important part is just picking up the pen and starting.
Thanks for reading!
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