Journaling to better mental health

Journaling can be a powerful tool to assist people with enhancing their mental health. Whether you are a constant journal writer or never given it a go, journaling to better mental health could change your life.

I am not a writer

Often perfectionism is the enemy of writing a journal. What if it is not good enough’? Importantly, it is often the process of journaling (as opposed to some outcome) that is of the greatest value. Rather than think you have to write a piece of elegant prose that will stand the test of time, simply expressing about your life enhances your capacity to start processing these elements and to begin getting unstuck and moving forward in your life.

A journal can also be a very personal tool, and as such writing it thinking that it is going to be read by someone else often limits the value of the experience. It is like your thoughts and feelings – you only have to share what you choose to. With a journal, allowing yourself to explore deeply personal topics can be the source of the greatest value in the process.

I don’t know where to start

Starting can be as simple as allocating a few minutes a day (or every other day) to actively engage with journaling. There is no ‘right way’ to do it – for example it doesn’t have to start off with “Dear Diary”.  You can brainstorm your thoughts and processes on a simple notepad, or you can purchase a fancy notebook and write away.

There are many  Gratitude journals with prompts available in bookstores and stationery stores if this would work for you. How you work through it is entirely up to you. There are many different ways to journal, and there is no right or wrong way, just find a way that works for you. 

There is also no ‘law’ that says how often you need to journal. For some people, journaling every day is highly valuable. For others, journaling as a response to being stuck or ‘big life moments’ can be enough. It is your journal, create whatever habit is right for you.

What do I write about?

Anything that you feel or think is worthwhile putting down. From those thoughts that keep you awake at 3 am in the morning, to minute experiences that you enjoyed throughout the day. Anything is valuable if it has value or meaning to you.

Here are some type of writing that can help with your mental health:

  • The brain dump entry
  • The emotional excavation entry
  • The gratitude entry
  • The lessons learned entry
  • The credit taken entry
  • The mixed lollies approach (my favourite!)

The brain dump entry

This is just a simple ‘get it out of your head’ approach. Often things that worry us seem so huge when they are in our heads. However writing them down often allows us to put into words what we are experiencing, which is a powerful neurological tool to moving forward. As we create the language for what is troubling us, often it allows us to see it differently, or even just more specifically, and create new solutions. Often writing it down allows you to break it down – big problems can be reduced to smaller ones that you may be more comfortable in tackling.

The emotional excavation entry

This is a valuable tool if used correctly. The idea is to note the emotional spaces you were in at particular times, and what triggered them. “When X did Y, I felt Z’. This is not an invitation to imagine where it came from – this is highly unhelpful, as it often locks in beliefs about your ability to respond differently if the emotions you create now are allowed to be tied to specific events (“I react like this because of what happened when I was 7”).

Instead, it is a chance to become more aware of the emotions that you experience and what actions of yourself and others triggered them.

The gratitude entry

This is probably the most commonly used journal to help people’s mental health. It is based on simply taking time to reflect on the positive events, experiences and moments from the day. By writing them down, we switch on different parts of our brain, release different neurotransmitters and can induce more positive physical and mental states as a result.

For example, people who wrote in a Gratitude Journal weekly for 10 weeks or daily for two weeks experienced more gratitude, positive moods, and optimism about the future, as well as better sleep, compared to those who journaled about hassles or their daily life. 

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.

Taking a few minutes at the end of the day to remember the positive things that have happened during the day can significantly shift mood and remind us of the ‘good’ amongst all the challenges and problems that we dealt with.

Check here link for some further inspiration.

The lessons learned entry

Sometimes it is valuable to reflect on the day and to ask yourself ‘what did I learn’? Often this helps us shift from shame and guilt about events to set ourselves up to reflect on events that perhaps kept us stuck as opportunities to learn.

The benefit of this type of journal entry is that it puts you in ‘observer mode’ on what happened, and allows you to experiment mentally with other approaches.

The next step is to identify from what you have learned ‘what I could do differently’. A great prompt is to write “when I next face (the trigger), I will actively choose to respond with (action) as an experiment. “

The credit taking entry

This is such an important addition to any journal. Understanding that you are not only a ‘victim’ of circumstance, the process of identifying 3 things every day you can take credit for can increase a person’s sense of empowerment to act, give them a feeling of increased control on their experience and allow them to build the capability to recognise good things that they do in the world. For some clients this may start with ‘I got out of bed today’ or ‘I said hello to three new people’. Over time, as you recognise the way that you are taking steps to improve your life, you are more encouraged to take actions and understand your impact on your own experience.

The mixed lollies journal approach

This is my favourite approach to journaling, as it is as flexible as your experience. Consider this as an approach:

  • Start with any brain dump and emotional excavation that is required from your day.
  • Next write 3 things you are grateful for
  • Now at least one thing you learned today
  • Then three things you take credit for.

Doing this as a process allows you to get the best out of each element of the process, and also shows you where additional time or effort may be needed to help you get unstuck. For example, if you are struggling to find gratitude, or perhaps can’t think of something to take credit for, it can invite you to think more about those things in coming days.

Below are a few links that are worth browsing. Hopefully you may find something that resonates and helps you start (or continue) journaling and help with your mental wellbeing.

 Headspace: How to start a journal

Beyond Blue   and their Facebook page often have interesting prompts for checking in on your mental health. Scroll through their Facebook page to see some posts about writing down thoughts of goals for the new year and other mental health habits to adopt.

There’s an app for that.

Don’t want to write it down?

There are a lot of gratitude apps that you can keep on a device. Here is an article on a few popular gratitude apps.

Over to you!

How do you journal?

Let me know if this inspires you to start journaling, and how it helps you move forward to better mental health.