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Journaling as an Aid to Recovery

Journaling, or keeping a regular record of experiences and feelings, especially as they relate to your recovery, can be a helpful tool to advance your healing process. For example, a journal can be used to record your recovery-related struggles and accomplishments or to identify – and work through – difficult emotions. It also helps to hold you accountable for your decisions and actions and helps you invest in your own self-discovery.

Journaling is a type of expressive writing, where your main goal is not to produce a “product” (story, article, essay, etc.) but instead to simply use the process of putting thoughts and feelings down on paper to help you understand and cope with these thoughts and emotions.

Types of Journaling

There are many different types of journaling and several of these lend themselves well to working through emotions involved in the recovery process. Journaling in recovery might take the form of:

  • A Diary – where you write down the events of the day and how you felt about them
  • An Evening Reflection Journal – where you reflect on the day’s events and ponder ways that you may have thought or behaved differently that would have involved better choices
  • A Gratitude Journal – where you write about things that you are grateful for and appreciative of
  • A Goal-Focused Journal – where you keep track of your goals and objectives and your progress toward these


Below are ways that a person might journal about the same situation in different ways, using the four different types of journaling mentioned above.


Today was a bad day. I got upset right off the bat first thing in the morning when I could not find my keys. I yelled at my wife and accused her of moving them. Then I found them in my coat pocket. But I did not tell my wife or apologize. I just left the house. I felt lousy for the rest of the day–guilty that I had accused her and yelled at her, and disappointed and angry at myself for not apologizing till much later in the day.

Evening Reflection Journal

Event: Yelled at wife this morning & accused her of moving my keys (but they were in my pocket); left house without apologizing.

Reflection on Event: I could have asked wife instead of accusing; I could have stopped to recollect when I had last used keys and what I might have done with them…Would likely have found keys sooner and avoided a negative experience for us both. Will try to stop and think before immediately making accusations next time.

Gratitude Journal

I am grateful for a loving wife who puts up with my quick temper and impulsive behavior.
I am grateful that I found my keys in time to get to work without being late.
I am grateful that my wife is willing to accept my apology, even when it comes too late.
I am grateful that I have this opportunity to reflect on my actions and consider better options before I drive my loving wife away from me.

Goal-Focused Journal

I will improve my ability to hold my temper and not deflect my frustrations toward others, especially my wife. I will do this by using the following steps:

1) I will take 3 deep breaths when I feel myself becoming frustrated or angry.
2) I will use the time to think about what I am about to say and how to say it.
3) I will consciously choose to ask questions and explore options before jumping to a conclusion or saying what immediately pops into my mind when I am upset.

Benefits of Keeping a Recovery Journal

Studies have shown that journaling encourages the writer to disclose emotions with less fear of criticism. Journaling has been associated with reduced depression and grief reactions, as well as improved health outcomes including reduced stress, improved immune function and reduced digestive issue symptoms. It is theorized that actively repressing difficult thoughts and feelings requires effort and acknowledging and writing about these feelings reduces overall stress in the body. Translating an event into words helps one understand it and make meaning of it, which contributes to additional positive outcomes. A study published in 2001 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that expressive diary writing enhanced cognitive integration (the re-visiting and “updating” of ideas) and increased the capacity for working memory.

Other benefits of journaling include:

  • Helping you prioritize problems, goals and responsibilities
  • Tracking your symptoms, setbacks and successes on a regular basis
  • Helping you better recognize, understand and deal with triggers
  • Helping you identify negative or self-defeating thoughts and self-talk so that you can challenge and reintegrate these internal messages using a more positive viewpoint

How to Keep a Recovery Journal

There is no wrong or right way to journal. Write in whatever way that feels right for you to express yourself and learn from the review of your reflections. Your journaling can be “structured” (for instance writing in a Reflective or Gratitude Journal every evening) or more loose and flexible, such as jotting down notes in a diary-type journal to capture important thoughts as they come to mind or to write about your awareness of intense feelings.

Here are some suggestions for writing in your journal:

  • Pick a private place to write that is free from distractions.
  • Set aside 20-30 minutes to write about feelings and experiences that you feel had an important impact.
  • Try to write every day if possible, as the consistency will help you organize your thoughts. If you can’t write daily then at least try to write on a regular schedule.
  • Throughout the day, keep pen and paper handy to jot down snippets of thoughts and feelings that you can later elaborate on in your journal.
  • Set aside time periodically (every few days or once a week) to review your journal entries and reflect on them.

Journaling is a self-reflective activity, and it can be aided by the use of other activities that also foster an inner, reflective state. Meditating, walking in nature, listening to music and taking a nap or resting are other ways that you can increase the ability of your deeper thoughts and feelings to emerge.

The use of journaling can be an important tool in your recovery toolbox. It can help you recognize when and under what conditions you might be most at risk for a slip-up; and it can help you identify situations and attitudes that empower you and assist you in remaining strong in your commitment to sobriety.

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