Can Journaling Replace Therapy? (Here’s Everything You Need To Know)

Henry
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Last updated on September 21, 2020

Both journaling and therapy are known ways to improve wellbeing. They blow off steam, unearth otherwise bottled up feelings and help us to figure out the roots and patterns of our issues. Thereby opening paths to resolutions. But therapy is not without its drawbacks, and journaling can have them too.

To anyone who has not tried either, I would always recommend considering both. You might think you don’t need these outlets or that your problems are less than others’. The truth is, it’s all relative and we all have struggles. Sometimes the smaller they seem and comparatively ‘unimportant’, the more likely we are to keep them to ourselves. Despite the ongoing, niggling effect they might have on our happiness.

Ignoring or imagining you can automatically handle problems in life is not healthy. Having an outlet is. For some, journaling might seem preferable to therapy, and not without reason. But in a choice between the two, can you responsibly replace therapy with journaling?

Journaling, gratitude, mindfulness, and introspection. What do all these things have in common? It’s that they’re all significantly correlated to your happiness. That’s what the section Journaling For Happiness is all about in the biggest (freely available) guide on how to be happy.

Journaling vs therapy

As mentioned, journaling and therapy are invaluable tools of self-reflection.

They can lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves and resultant positive changes. But even in the immediate term, journaling and therapy can provide relief from bottled up emotions, by allowing them a voice through which to vent. This, even in the short term, significantly reduces stress.

Countless studies have shown the positive effects of both journaling and therapy, respectively.

How effective is journaling?

A study on medical patients who were exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, found that through months of ‘positive affect journaling’, patients showed reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms, and increased resilience.

How effective is therapy?

Therapy, as with journaling, can take many different forms and has even more studies on its efficacy in relation to wellbeing.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for example, has been shown in studies to be an effective treatment for depression, psychotic disorders and especially anxiety disorders.

Other talking therapies, such as psychotherapy and counseling, have been shown to improve wellbeing and evidence patient satisfaction. Some might dismiss counseling and even specialized psychotherapy as simply sitting and talking to another person, which one might believe they could do with anyone. The research suggests, however, that due to the nature of patient-therapist relationships, the result is quite different.

This is not hard to conceive. The benefits of both therapy and journaling are that one can disclose information regularly in an open and honest way. Something they might not be able to do in other aspects of their life.

The many benefits of journaling and therapy

The benefit of having these outlets is that of expression. Expressing things we might otherwise keep to ourselves and hope just sort of go away.

Unfortunately, they are unlikely to. Issues and emotional problems may fade over time, or we may get used to them, but opening up about them is far superior management. It’s faster, more effective and healthier.

Though it might be painful to unearth our problems, the alternative can be letting them bleed out into other aspects of our lives. Doing so can lead to unresolved and misunderstood emotions and displacement. It can also lead to unexplained bouts of agitation, low moods and mental health conditions.

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Through the continued study of ourselves and self-awareness, we can not only alleviate suppressed concerns and emotions, but also learn to understand and manage them. We can even prevent falling into the same negative processes and circumstances in the future.

All in all, the benefits of therapy or journaling over nothing at all are difficult to overstate. But what about the comparison? Can you choose one over another? Can you replace therapy with journaling and achieve the same effect?

Differences between journaling and therapy

The differences between the two are numerous, and some are obvious. For instance, therapy involves not just another person’s input but one who’s specially trained. This rather pronounced distinction unveils advantages and disadvantages on either side.

On one hand, journaling can provide a limitless and cheap outlet for expression and reflection. Almost anyone can afford a pad and paper. Furthermore, journalers might find they can discuss issues more candidly and openly on paper, alone. These are thoughts that nobody has to know, and so it’s easier to put difficult truths under the microscope. For some, even entering a therapist’s room can be incredibly daunting, let alone discussing personal issues with a stranger.

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On the other hand, writing your thoughts and feelings down without direction can in some circumstances be harmful. For example, monitoring only negative thoughts and feelings, and doing so excessively, can simply build a more negative mind frame. And without direction, it’s possible to work ourselves into a distorted view of our situation without a light of hope. This is something a therapist will always be helping us to work against.

The pros and cons of therapy

As someone who has tried many forms of therapy and journaling over the last ten years, I have experienced the benefits and negatives of both. To see if journaling could replace therapy would require a breakdown of the pros and cons of each, and then weighing up the different factors and how they affect you personally.

So can journaling replace therapy? I would encourage anyone considering the query to do their own assessment.

For me, the pros of therapy are:

  • Professional third-party perspective helps to avoid circulatory. introspection, and see things we can’t on our own.
  • Nudging in a constructive direction.
  • A real-world relationship and actively comforting company.
  • Structured, periodic support.

And the cons of therapy are:

  • Can be hard to express verbally with an audience of any kind.
  • Can be hard to find a therapist that suits you.
  • Is time-restricted.
  • Is usually a significant ongoing cost.

The pros and cons of journaling

On the other hand, the pros of journaling are:

And the cons of journaling are:

  • Can be unstructured and as a result, reinforce cyclic and negative thinking.
  • Purely insular; not benefitting from fresh, outside perspectives.
  • Lacks expertise and unbiased analyses.

Ultimately, when weighing up the positive and negative factors, it depends on what your purpose is. If someone was generally looking for a journey of self-awareness, in order to manage wellbeing, a journal could suffice. Particularly if they couldn’t afford therapy or even stomach walking into the consultation room.

However, if the person weighing up the two was looking to overcome mental health disorders, journaling on their own without expertise is unlikely to do the job. For this they would need to look, perhaps, into cognitive-behavioural therapy or other talking therapies and therapeutic treatments.

Even within the journaling and therapy worlds there are various forms to consider. So, it’s a matter of refining your goal, doing the research and finding the most appropriate outlet for you. Personally, I would always choose to do both journaling and therapy (if I can afford the therapy), as there is no reason not to do them in conjunction with each other, reaping the benefits of both. Overcoming the drawbacks of one that might not be found in the other. Covering all your bases, as it were.

Examples of therapeutic approaches to consider

It’s easy to learn about countless types of therapy and journaling. A quick couple of Google searches can help to find what may be relevant to your situation or tastes. Below I’ve listed just a few types of journaling and therapy, and what they entail.

1. CBT

Cognitive-behavioural therapy is widely regarded as an effective shorter-term treatment for various mental health issues. The idea is to change the way you think through practice. For example, with intrusive, unwanted or negative thoughts, it teaches to note and challenge such thoughts rationally. For anxiety disorders it may include gradual exposure therapy to the things that make patients anxious, in smaller manageable steps.

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2. Psychotherapy

Unlike CBT, psychotherapy is supposed to be a longer term but longer lasting form of therapy. Patients learn to explore themselves on deeper levels over time, their patterns and behaviours and the causes of them. This deeper understanding has lasting, long term effects with patients less likely to relapse, but can take years (and as a result be much more expensive).

3. Counselling

Counselling is generally less expensive than psychotherapy, and often the two can come hand in hand. After all, counselling is a personal talking therapy, not so practical and pragmatic as CBT, that can reap many of the same benefits as psychotherapy. The difference is the level of training and more specified approaches psychotherapists have. Psychotherapists go through many more years of training to be accredited and often focus on a particular approach.

4. Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy is quite different from the rest. It relies on putting the patient into a more susceptible state to work directly with the subconscious. The subconscious is, after all, where our emotions and inner truths are often bottled up.

Other forms of therapy have to work with our conscious, often guarded and deflecting mind, before they can start to access what’s under the surface.

Examples of journaling techniques to consider

1. Standard journaling

This is the simplest thing on the list to do. Simply writing your thoughts and feelings, whatever they might be, down on paper. You don’t need to think about what you’re writing or why, only express what you want on paper.

I often write about stresses and worries, ranting to my heart’s content until I feel that I’ve let off some steam. Other times, however, I might merely write my views on something I heard that day, or a list of things I want to do in the future.

The beauty of this type of journaling is its freedom, which I believe is the easiest way to continually express what you might otherwise be keeping inside.

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2. Gratitude practice

Gratitude is a powerful way of changing the way you think and feel for the better. Unlike standard journaling, its focus is on things you might be grateful for and appreciate.

Doing so as a practice, and especially when feeling less than happy, keeps us anchored to a more rounded and positive view. Our emotional subconscious believes whatever narrative our conscious mind feeds it. This is why incessant worrying can make us feel so bad emotionally. It’s also why changing that narrative with gratitude journaling can make us feel better.

3. Self-parenting and inner dialogue

Self-parenting and inner dialogue journaling is where we have actual conversations with ourselves. Like with hypnotherapy the idea is to gain direct access to our emotions and issues. It’s all too easy to believe everything we tell ourselves in our head, but rarely do we stop and check in with how we really feel. Rarely do we try and understand and unpick these feelings by directly discussing them with ourselves. It may sound far-fetched to some, but this is a powerful and therapeutic process for greater self-awareness, without therapy.

Of course, there are many other styles and approaches out there for both therapy and journaling, like future-self journaling.

The key is finding one (or multiple as long as they don’t clash) that resonates with you, your situation and what you want out of it.

Can we really substitute therapy with journaling?

It would be irresponsible to suggest that someone could replace professional help with journaling. Especially with regards to clinical disorders.

However, as a form of expression and self-awareness, a case can be made for journaling in some circumstances for some people, over therapy. It could never replace therapy exactly, but it can afford us much of the same therapeutic benefits without some of the hurdles.

In the end, the main thing is to explore the options of each against our purposes and means. But if we have the means of doing both, it’s preferable to do so.

Closing words

I hope by now you have a good sense about whether or not journaling can replace therapy. There is a lot to consider here. This article should give you a good idea to get started.

What did I miss? Was there anything you disagreed with in this article? Or do you want to share you own experiences with journaling vs. therapy? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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Henry Collard

Mental health writer

Mental health blogger with a passion for learning ways to improve wellbeing. I also love to write fantasy, learn about history and play video games. Which I suppose makes me an all-round nerd.

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