A hand holds a doodle journal. You can see doodled pictures scribbled on the page. There is a pencil and pen nearby.

Doodling for Stress Relief- How to Start a Doodle Journal

If you're looking for a creative outlet, and traditional journaling isn't quite doing it for you, maybe it's time to try a doodling journal! Being human is messy. To be mentally and emotionally healthy, it’s crucial to have multiple outlets of support. Doodling allows you to care for yourself, even when talking to a friend or therapist isn’t an option.

We're all born with the urge for self-expression. It makes sense that you'd want to try use art to explore thoughts, feelings and experiences. Unfortunately, most of us also got a bunch of messages in childhood about how “art” is for artists. These messages cut us off from creative expression.

Doodling is a great way to reclaim your ability to express yourself when you're not sure where to start. Doodling gives you a visual language. Doodling doesn't require special art skills and can be a powerful means of self-expression and gaining clarity. Today, I'll show you how to get going.

Drawing with a line of straight arrows labeled 'Logic' going through a swirly line labeled 'Emotions'
Cartoon by Alissa Zorn

What is Doodling?

To get us on the same page (heh,) I want to be clear with what I'm talking about when it comes to doodling. My favorite definition, and the one I'm using, is from Doodle extraordinaire Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution. According to Brown, doodling is “making spontaneous marks (with your mind and body) to help yourself think.” While Brown's book is all about doodling to record and express information, in a doodle journal we're doodling for personal expression.

Benefits of Doodling

Doodling is perfect for those of us who want to be creative but don’t necessarily consider ourselves “artists.” All you need is a pen, paper, and a willingness to play.

Doodling is also a great addition to traditional journaling practices. You can experiment with adding visual aspects to written journal pages. If you feel awkward using art to express yourself (and many of us do at first), adding little stars, faces, or abstract doodles can help you give yourself permission to play in this way.

Better Focus and Emotional Well-Being Through Doodling

  • Blood Flow to the Prefrontal Cortex – A 2017 study found that “visual self-expression helps with attention and improves health and well-being.” Of the three types of visual expression studied (freehand drawing, coloring, and doodling), doodling resulted in the strongest activation of the prefrontal cortex.

    Increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex is important for stress relief and focus because the prefrontal cortex is the home of our executive function. Executive function gives us the ability to regulate cognitive and social behavior, personality and decision-making. When we improve executive function, we can better align our actions with our values. (Banks, 2023)
  • A Way to Check-In with Yourself – Life gets busy, and it's easy to lose track of what's going on inside of ourselves. Keeping a journal is a helpful way to check-in. A doodle journal gives you the opportunity to tune in to your creative self and helps you remember who you are.
Doodle of a woman drawing, pulling multiple threads from her head and making them into a drawing. Her thoughts say, 'Hmm, now this is starting to make sense'
Cartoon by Alissa Zorn

Stress Relief and Relaxation Through Doodling

  • Perspective – Doodling in your journal can help you get past the more literal part of your mind to see new perspectives and possibilities. Seeing your own story on the page in images rather than words sometimes helps you see different patterns and ways to interpret what's going on.
  • Self-Compassion – Another benefit to doodling about your experiences is that it gives a bit of distance between yourself and your thoughts or emotions. That distance lets you notice your own humanity. When you can see yourself as simply another human doing the best they can it makes way for self-compassion.
  • Sometimes, we just don't have words – Emotions can come in herds. They can be confusing, unreasonable, and surprising. Doodling allows you to be less literal and gives you a way to express what you're feeling without having to know exactly what or why you're feeling it.

    This is extremely valuable, especially if you're just getting to know your emotions better. The link between your feelings and the page doesn't require words, and it still lets your body process what you're feeling.
  • Fun! Last but definitely not least, doodling is fun. Playing around with squiggles, relaxing into the way it feels to repeat a line and fill in a doodled shape – doodling is a great way to open your mind to delight.

How to Start a Doodling Journal

A journal is a great place to embrace creative self expression. Not only does it give you freedom to play with a bunch of different ideas, you also have the freedom to close it up and tuck it away. This can help keep your inner critic at bay. Grab your favorite pen, pencil, brush, or markers and a journal of your choosing.

close up of a person doodle journaling their day
Photo via Shutterstock.com

I offer the following as one way to get started. Over time, you’ll find your own helpful practices. It is my hope that some of the exercises you try make their way beyond journal pages, evolving into your own tools you can use easily to check in with yourself. I’ve had many a doodled post-it note conversation with confusing parts of myself during a work day, for instance!

In my Quick Start Guide I recommend that journalers who are just getting started with this type of creative self-expression take the time to give themselves permission to play. I include the following “permission slip.” Feel free to use this or write your own if it feels helpful!

Permission slip for journal doodling:

I ____________________________ give myself permission to play around with drawing and doodling in my journal entries, however much or little I like. Creativity is my birthright and self expression is a core human need.

  • I’m allowed to make any kind of drawings: ugly or pretty ones, scribbly or specific ones. 
  • I can tear things out and throw them away if I want. 
  • I do not have to show my drawings to anyone if I don’t wish to. 
  • I can be gentle with myself through any awkwardness or shame that comes up.
  • I am allowed to go slow.

 I give myself access to this creative form of self expression.

Signed __________________________

And now, on to the doodling!

Doodles of a little girl scribbling in a notebook on a table with a collection of pens
Photo by Alissa Zorn

Gather Supplies

You don’t need much to get started with doodling – a pencil and paper really is fine. But if you want to build up a habit of journaling, you may want to find a journal to dedicate to it. Similarly, it’s fun to play with various pens and art supplies. Don’t let the supplies step stop you from getting started though!

Make Yourself Comfortable

Do you want music on? A cup of tea? Do you need to close the door or go in another room to have space to yourself? You might want to sit at a table or sprawl out on the floor. Find a position that lets you relax and focus on doodling.

Optional – Choose Something to Focus On

You can start doodling with a topic or journal prompt in mind. I’ve included three journal ideas in this guide for you to try. You may also just want to sit down and start doodling lines and squiggles and see what comes up. Letting yourself doodle freely this way can be really self-nurturing too.

Make Your First Marks

First, you might write your question or a statement on the page. You also might begin by drawing a frame around the edge, or doodling a couple shapes. The goal is to get your hand moving and help break up that blank page, giving yourself mental permission to do as you like with it.

From There – Let It Flow

Let your mind flow out of your hand onto the paper. Stick figures, blobs or scribbles are all welcome. If you get stuck, take a deep breath and try doodling a shape over and over or letting your hand move aimlessly for a moment. I often take a long time filling in bubbles around my frame until my mind un-spools enough to let me create, or I take a minute to write about the prompt until a shape or picture starts coming to mind.

There Are No Rules Except the Ones You Give Yourself

This isn’t about being “good” at drawing. Doodling in your journal is about letting yourself experiment and play. Doodling can be relaxing. It can also be a way to explore your thoughts and emotions in a safe space in a tolerable way. No judgement, no rush.

And the doodle journal rules you give yourself? Those might be things like:

  • I don’t have to show this to anyone if I don’t want to;
  • I can tear out journal pages and throw them away if I want;
  • I’m experimenting with only using these three colors today;
  • I will give myself 10 minutes to journal about this, and then I’m stopping for now.

A Few Doodling Journal Tips:

  • It can be helpful to date your pages- future you may be curious when you made a particular journal entry.
  • Some journal entries are too tender to look back on right away. No rush. I have things that took years before they became something I was ok with looking at.
  • Experiment with what paper you like. Some people like a grid or dots to give a feeling of structure, while some people vastly prefer blank paper.

Finally – starting out, it can feel really awkward to draw or doodle in your journal. You might want to aim to try it for a couple weeks, or over ten entries. Giving yourself a goal like this can help you get past that initial awkwardness so you can find your own insights about what works best for you.

3 Journal Prompts to Try Out Doodling for Self Expression

Doodle a Feeling Without Words

Good for when you don't have words to express how you feel, processing emotions that are big or many-layered, learning to feel your feelings in your body

Draw a shape on the page (I like to start with a large square)–this will act as a frame. Then fill this shape with marks and colors that go with your feelings.

Let yourself make whatever marks or squiggles that come to you when you tune into what you're feeling. Explore the lines you feel like making, the actions of your hand across the page, the colors you want to pick up next. This is a good exercise to practice feeling something without having to put words or an explanation to your feelings.

Doodle Your Joys

One way to deepen your connection with yourself and really affirm who you are is to get in touch with what brings you joy. Can you list ten things that bring you joy? This is also a fun drawing prompt. There is no need to draw perfectly. Just try doodling your answers.

Doodle Your Monster

Do you have a repeating voice or narrative in your head that makes you feel afraid of expressing yourself? This might be your inner critic, your sense of doom, or something someone told you that you just can't shake loose.

It can be helpful to draw these “monsters.” It may help you be more aware when they come up. And when you put them out on paper, you may discover things you'd like to say back to them.