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How Journaling Can Help You Sleep

Writing your thoughts in a journal can be effective for processing feelings.

Key points

  • Writing one's thoughts down in a journal before bed can help people recognize negative thoughts and behaviors, and find ways to deal with them.
  • Some suggestions for what to write about include venting worries and frustrations, tracking things one is grateful for, and making a to-do list.
  • Some types of journaling can be done right before bed, but writing about one's feelings should be done two or three hours before sleep.
deposit photos
Source: deposit photos

As a kid, did you ever keep a journal or a diary? Well, sleep journaling is something a little different.

During childhood, we may have used journaling to write about our everyday lives and experiences, including our dreams, goals, and worries. Perhaps it gave you some peace of mind to internalize what you were thinking and helped you make sense of things as you grew older.

Even beyond our childhoods we often grapple with anxiety, worry, and racing thoughts. These thoughts can be overwhelming and may inhibit our day-to-day lives as well as negatively impact our sleep. But they don’t have to.

Writing your thoughts in a journal can be a very effective way of processing your feelings. Not only that, but journaling can help you recognize unproductive or negative thoughts and behaviors, and help you respond to these behaviors in a more constructive way. And when you can handle life’s stresses in a positive way, it’s much easier to sleep well at night.

What Is Sleep Journaling?

Sleep journaling is simply the act of recording your thoughts and feelings a few hours before you fall asleep each night. It may sound similar to keeping a sleep diary, sleep log, or dream journal, but there are key differences between them.

Sleep diaries and sleep logs are intended to keep track of your sleep habits rather than your thoughts. A dream journal is exactly what it sounds like: a written account of your dreams or nightmares. All these activities serve their own purposes and can be very helpful for better sleep depending on your needs.

There is no right or wrong way to approach bedtime writing — as long as you’re able to practice mindfulness and write what you feel, you’re off to a great start. But if you’re not sure where to begin, there are easy ways to help yourself get into the habit of writing.

What Do You Write in a Sleep Journal?

Each person’s circumstances are unique, so it’s important to center your writing around your specific experiences and be as open and thorough as possible. Even with this in mind, you may still be wondering how to organize your thoughts on paper. Following a writing prompt can be a very helpful way to do this — writing prompts encourage you to think critically and really ponder your thoughts, rather than just idly jotting them onto a page.

If you’re not sure what to write, try some of these suggestions.

1. Vent Your Day’s Worries and Frustrations. Anger, worry, and frustration are natural and healthy responses to life’s stresses, but it’s important to release them in a healthy way. Journaling is an excellent way to blow off steam and let go of some of the anger you may be feeling. Writing down your angry or unpleasant thoughts can help you make sense of them as well as provide a sense of catharsis you can’t get from bottling up your emotions.

It’s also worth documenting troubling experiences here so that you can examine why they’re affecting you, and how you can respond to or move past them.

2. Keep a Gratitude Journal. On the opposite side of the coin, you can keep track of things that make you happy. Reflecting on what brings you joy can help put you in a more positive mood, which can also benefit your physical health, your mental health and lead to better sleep.

Consider a positive experience or event that has happened recently, and be sure to note why it brings you happiness. Some extra positivity in your life can really go a long way in helping you get a better night’s sleep.

3. Make a To-Do List. Writing out a to-do list may seem overwhelming if you’ve got a lot on your plate, but it really is helpful for quieting anxious thoughts and helping you clear your head each night.

Begin by compiling the unfinished tasks you need to address tomorrow, big or small. Not only does this provide you a clear list of intentions for the following day, but it also helps you keep track of your progress and removes the anxiety of pondering all these tasks as you’re trying to wind down for bed.

You can follow these prompts as much or as little as you want — the important thing is that you are writing.

Note: If you are making a list of things to remember or a gratitude list, you can do that in bed or right before bed. But if you practice journaling as described above, try to do it right after dinner or two to three hours before going to bed so you have plenty of time to process.

It may not always be an easy habit to get into, but journaling before bed can really make a difference if you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep. If you’re preoccupied with nighttime worries, give it a try. Good sleep and renewed peace of mind could be just a few minutes away.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM

The Sleep Doctor