Writing long-hand about my own experience in therapy helps me continue to develop self-awareness and integrate my emotional/sensory experience with my thinking-brain. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how I could help others access the benefits of journaling about therapy if they aren’t the sort of person who enjoys long-format journaling.
This article features tips on how to maximize the benefit of post-therapy journaling, a list of journal prompts to use when reflecting on a therapy session, and the option to purchase a digital-download journal template for print or digital template use.
Why Journal Therapy?
One of the ways that therapy works to improve mental health is via the new connections it creates in our brain. Therapy can take awhile to work, because it isn’t easy to create new thought and emotion patterns when defaulting to old, well-practiced, neural pathways is so easy. Journaling after therapy helps therapy be more effective by increasing self-awareness and by re-tracing the new patterns being created in therapy and strengthening those connections in our brain. Therapy journaling is also really helpful for organizing thoughts: you may be able to use your appointments more effectively by bringing your journal in and referring to it as needed.
Tips to Make Your Journaling Count
- Journal in whatever format works. Research indicates that long-format journaling has the most benefits, but bullet-journal style lists are better than not journaling at all. Experiment with what practice suits you best.
- Handwrite if you can. Handwriting helps reinforce the new connections in our brain that are created by good therapy (source).
- Don’t play catch up. It’s easy for shame about missing a few entries to discourage future journaling. Get around this by giving yourself permission in advance to skip, and permission to not try and “catch up” when you start journaling again.
- Experiment with formats. The downloadable template is just one way to journal. Experiment with visual formats, very large pieces of paper, color, mixed media, etc.
TO SHARE WITH YOUR THERAPIST OR NOT?
You and your therapist can decide if sharing your reflective journal entries is helpful for your work together or not. By increasing our awareness of ourselves and our experience, journaling can help make our therapy more effective, even if we never share our completed journaling worksheets or entries with anyone.
General prompts for journaling after therapy:
- What was the hardest part about the most recent therapy appointment?
- What did you NOT say but wonder if you should have?
- What’s an adjective your therapist or counselor used to describe you in the last session?
- What thing hit you the hardest?
- Did you have any ambiguous thoughts or fleeting sensations coming up during or after your meeting? Write or draw what you can about them below.
- Make a change-map to explore all the ways a decision or life-shift would impact your life.
- Writing and editing can help our brains process new information. Try summarizing the important parts of your session in the length of a 140-280 character Twitter post.
Template for Therapy-Session Bullet Journals:
This downloadable template is great for use in a bullet journal. To make a physical template that can be traced into a bullet journal, print the 1/2 page worksheet on cardstock and carefully cut-out empty blocks, leaving the frame intact.
When I’ve made mental health bullet journal layouts in the past, I’ve been asked for therapy-homework bullet journal layouts. As a psychodynamic therapist (particularly as a specialist in working with folks struggling with over-control), and like many therapists, I don’t assign homework and I don’t recommend careful tracking of symptoms or behaviors for most individuals I see. Instead, I think dedicating a page of a journal to each session is more helpful.
After reflecting on what aspects of journaling a therapy session I think are the most important, I settled on a few key prompts and formatted them into a single page 8.5×11 printable page. This download can be used as a journal template, a print worksheet, or a digital backdrop for tablet journaling apps. It’s included below in a few formats, the most colorful of which is specifically designed for helping teens and tweens reflect on their experience in therapy, while more minimalist black and white versions are perfect for printing hard copies for adults. Like all my resources, the design emphasizes making the content easy to engage without being overly clinical.
This collection includes three versions of the same therapy journaling template. Version 1: is plain, black and white, and is suitable for printing as a printed worksheet for all ages. Version 2: a minimalist full-color version, suitable for printing or for use as a digital template for tablet-based journaling apps. Version 3: specifically designed to feel even less clinical. It’s colorful and fun, and can be used in print form or as a background for digital journals.
How to use this worksheet:
- Fill out the template within 24 hours after each therapy session (either in print form or used as a template background for digital journaling).
- Before your next appointment, check-in with yourself and review your last entry. Consider how you want to use the information in your next appointment.
- Reflect on whether you are comfortable sharing your journal entry, and if so have a conversation with your therapist about how you might use it in your sessions.
HOW TO FILL OUT THE WORKSHEET:
DATE: Enter the date so that when you review later you’ll be sure to be able to put journal entries in order.
SESSION TOPIC: This could be ambiguous. Leave it blank or just enter the topic that sticks out most to you.
THREE IMPORTANT THINGS: This is an intentionally open prompt, with lots of space to meander through thoughts. The three things could be concepts, feelings, therapy milestones like opening up about something new, etc.
FEELINGS / SENSATIONS: Most people experience a lot of emotion in therapy, and these emotions are important to notice. Some people may not be able to describe those feelings until they have had time to reflect on their counseling sessions. Equally important is noticing physical sensations: did a headache begin during counseling? Did you notice tightness in your body OR a sense of relaxation at any point?
THINGS TO MENTION NEXT TIME: It is not unusual to realize exactly what we want to bring up next time when we reflect on counseling sessions. Often, though, if we don’t make notes, we forget by the time our next session arrives! If something feels pressing to talk about- list it here so you won’t forget.
HOMEWORK: Not all counselors and therapists assign “homework.” If yours does, you can record that here. If you don’t manage to get the homework completed, be sure and make a note of why. Monitoring what’s going on for you when you don’t get homework done might offer valuable insight.
Example of A Therapy Journaling Reflective Worksheet: