Bullet journal blogs and hashtags are filled with mental health and self-care focused templates for journaling, but are these layouts really effective for maximizing the mental health benefits of a bullet journal?
In this article, I explore existing research on how journaling and expressive writing can benefit mental health. From that research, I outline three ways to maximize the mental health benefits of your bullet journaling practice. Along the way, I’ll show you a few of my therapist-developed bullet journal layouts available for download.
How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Bullet Journaling
I believe many mental health-oriented bullet journal layouts are less effective than they could be. Often, they simplify mental health down to checklists of self-care or one-dimensional mood charts. For some, bullet journaling in the format most often seen on social media may even be a practice that intensifies symptoms of maladaptive perfectionism.
As we consider how to use bullet journaling to help our mental health instead of compromising it, it’s helpful to turn to existing research on journaling and mental health.
What has research found? Well, it’s interesting. Most of the existing research refers to “expressive writing,” or what could be called longhand journaling. What nearly all of the studies about the effect of longhand journaling on mental health have in common is not the number of words that the journalers write but time, attention, and emotion.
It’s these three components that I believe we can adapt from the existing research on expressive writing and apply to bullet journaling to maximize the mental health benefits. Here’s how:
Time: Making Space for Emotions
Bullet journaling is a model developed to save time and reduce complicated tasks to list. When it comes to bullet journaling for mental health, this time-saving aspect is a part of traditional bullet journaling that we need to put aside if we want to make it more supportive of our psychological well-being.
Instead of rushing through the mental health layouts in your bullet journal, slow down.
Instead of rushing through a checklist or quickly coloring in a box, give yourself time to do a deep check-in, think about, and reflect before you complete these layouts.
Whenever possible, take the time to write full, expressive sentences.
IDEA: Instead of having a mood tracker made of simple, color-coded boxes, assign two lines in your bullet journal for each day. Fill in those two lines with expressive words, and then go back and highlight in a color-coded method to visually represent the predominant emotion. This allows a bullet journal user to have both:
- An easy-to-understand, visual representation of the ebbs and flows of mood and emotion through the month while
- Also giving us the experience of writing expressively – the practice researchers have linked to improved health and mental health. (Pennebaker, 2017 Click for PubMed Article)
Attention: Being Mindfully Present to Our Bullet Journal
Research is abundantly clear that one key to improved mental well-being is the practice of mindfulness (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3). When you think of mindfulness, you might think of a yoga class, meditation, or other spaces set aside for specific mindfulness practices. However, mindfulness can be applied to absolutely any part of our day. Whether we are brushing our teeth, walking the dog, or preparing a meal, we can do so with an active awareness of the sensory experience of going about the activity.
This attention turned to our bodies helps soothe and regulate frazzled minds and, actually, is a big part of DBT therapy.
What attention looks like in bullet journaling: Mindful attention while bullet journaling means letting ourselves focus on our bullet journal and only on our bullet journal. While we may think that we study better with music in the background or a TV show playing softly, mindfulness asks that we turn our attention to just one thing at a time to focus and experience that thing fully.
Download My Bullet Journal-Friendly Printable Templates:
If you cannot afford a personal use license, you may hand-copy these layouts into your bullet journal. As with all my art, I encourage the creation of unique new art inspired by my work. However, publication or resale of the exact templates on this page, or versions similar enough to constitute copyright infringement, may be subject to DMCA claims, as well as fees and penalties assessed by my post-licensing partner and legal advisors.
Although bullet journaling is about saving time and space, when it comes to a mood tracker, research suggests that slowing down may have benefits. In this article, learn how I used my training as a mental health therapist and my personal experience as a bullet journaler to reimagine a new mood tracker layout for 2021 and beyond- based on peer-reviewed research exploring the intersection of journaling and mental health.
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Emotion Expression: Being Intentional About Expressive Language
The third – and potentially the most important aspect of bullet journaling for mental health – is emotional expression. What the many studies on the benefits of journaling for mental health seem to have in common is that research participants were asked to write expressively about difficult experiences.
It’s here that inserting longhand writing into our bullet journal becomes critical: writing out a description of a difficult experience (like a fight with the parent, partner, or friend) and then writing out what it feels like gives our brain the opportunity to slow down.
Instead of racing through thoughts about the troubling experience or being overwhelmed by emotion, the action of our hand adding letters slowly across the page lets our brains slow down, express one thought at a time, and re-integrate that written information in a more organized way. This ultimately helps us to regulate our emotions and reflect on the experience in a more thoughtful manner.
Of course, the key to this is taking the time to actually write. While many of us would prefer to make a quick list or to type (and indeed, there is reason to believe that those are better than nothing), dedicating a place for mental health-boosting long handwriting about emotional experiences may be the most powerful way to harness the proven benefits of expressive writing for our bullet journal.
History & Research
The first study of the mental health benefits of journaling was done in 1983 by James Pennebaker & Sandy Beall, and published in 1986. Pennebaker and Beall found that when college students were assigned to write about their trauma for four days, 15 minutes a day, those students were half as likely to visit the student Health Center over the following six months. (These results were later replicated by Jan Kiecolt-Glaser and Ron Glaser in 1988.)
Since then, over 100 studies have explored the link between emotional writing and health (or mental health). Most studies show the positive effects of writing. According to researchers and educators, journaling while we’re on vacation or traveling to another city can be a particularly powerful way to reflect on the self-observation uniquely available to us when we’re out of our standard daily routine.
While bullet journaling for mental health is a relatively new practice, researchers have known since the mid-1980s that journaling (what the folks who study this practice referred to as “reflective expressive writing”) can have a powerful effect on mental health. For many, however, lived experience (that is, noticing real-life mental health benefits of journaling) validated the benefits of journaling long before researchers were able to document it through studies.
Today, many of us feel busier than ever, and perhaps that is why long-format journaling is less popular today than an abbreviated form of journaling you may know as bullet journaling. Although abbreviations, shorthand, and lists have been a part of journaling for hundreds of years, what we today recognize as ‘bullet journaling’ was developed by a graphic designer named Ryder Carroll around 2013.
Bullet journaling is a method of journaling intended to increase productivity through list-making, shorthand symbolism, and visual organization. Perhaps ironically, bullet journaling has also become known for complex layouts, intricate lettering, and time-consuming art. Both simple and complex bullet journals have their benefits, and there continues to be a strong argument for longhand journaling in how you can more fully represent emotional experience.
- Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
- Josefsson, T., Larsman, P., Broberg, A., & Lars-Gunnar, L. (2011). Self-reported mindfulness meditates the relation between meditation experience and psychological well-being. Mindfulness, 2(1), 49-58. DOI: 10.1007/s12671-011-0042-9
- Pennebaker, J.W. (2018). Expressive writing in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 226-229. DOI: 10.1177/1745691617707315.
- Pennebaker, J.W. & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-81. DOI: 10.1037//0021-843x.95.3.274.
- Pennebaker, J.W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 239-45. DOI: 10.1037//0022-006x.56.2.239.
- Nancy, T. (1991). The travel journal: An assessment tool for overseas studies. Occasional papers on international educational exchange 27. Council on International Educational Exchange: New York, NY.
- Singleton, O., Hölzel, B. K., Vangel, M., Brach, N., Carmody, J., & Lazar, S. W. (2014). Change in brainstem gray matter concentration following a mindfulness-based intervention is correlated with improvement in psychological well-being. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(33). DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00033