Journaling has exploded in popularity, and little wonder – it’s a great way to gain insight to your problems, connect with yourself, and it can be a lot of fun, too. Rachel Garnet discovers how to get started with journaling for your mental health…
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Since I started journaling a few months ago, it’s become one of the most helpful and insightful things I do for my mental health and wellbeing. Yet, for a long time, when friends talked about their ‘journals’, I dismissed the practice as the same as diary-keeping – to be restricted to teenagers wanting to detail their days away from prying parental eyes, or for reminders, such as ‘give cat worm pill’.
Away in far-flung places, I never wrote a word – why recount experiences when I was living them? How wrong I was. Diaries may fundamentally be logbooks, but journals are your words about who you are.
My mind was changed by a work event. There, I met a woman who had impressed me with her self-belief and confidence. She amazed me by saying that when her insecurities arise, she journals, and that by leaving them on the page she frees herself from them.
Getting started with journaling
I was sceptical, but heeding her encouragement and wanting her tenacity, I bought a cheap book full of blank pages, with a pretty gold and pink cover; there are no printed dates in a journal, so none of the guilt of chronicle – free days.
At first, I was unsure how to start journaling. I wrote how I worried that my presentation and perceptions at a meeting would not be well received. The words poured out. It felt weird, even furtive. I hid my journal among other books on my bedside table.
But days later, as I felt worries bubbling up again, I journalled that I felt like a balloon about to pop, still stuck years on with a lack of self-worth. Letting rip on the page became a self a regular thing. Already, I credit it with feeling less self-critical which, for me, is like a 10-tonne weight lifting.
Why is journaling good for your mental health?
Jackee Holder, leadership coach and author of 49 Ways To Write Yourself Well (Step Beach Press, £12.99), says: ‘A traditional diary is factual, it doesn’t externalise your inner dialogue, but a journal does. Journaling is the opportunity to express your inner thoughts and emotions, your creativity and your vibrancy.’
No wonder then, that journaling is powerful for our mental, physical and future health; recording experiences now can be a vital tool for memory as we age.
Research, carried out by universities from Lancaster to Arizona, shows that journaling can help maintain heart health, increase immunity and reduce stress. It is a detox for the brain and soul; writing down thoughts imposes structure on them and literally gets them out of our heads.
How to start journaling for mental health
When you’re first learning how to start a journal, decide where and how you want to write. I journal in my bedroom in the evening, but Holder points out: ‘You may feel safer when you write in a public place…Noisy spaces are a good way to distract your inner critic, who will do all it can to convince you not to journal. If it’s not practical to designate a fixed place, make your journal as portable as possible.’
A friend who is dealing with intense issues, but also has four kids and a full-time job, journals on her phone on the bus home from work. Holder puts the case for a regular journalling pattern, be it every three days or whatever works for you.
Find a time when you are not distracted, and try to allocate at least 10 to 15 minutes for each session. ‘It will give you enough time and space to express yourself and dip beneath the surface,’ says Holder.
How to start a journal: 4 writing prompts
A word or an essay? It can be hard to know what to write when learning how to start journaling. ‘One of the most common reasons people give for not keeping a journal is that they don’t know what to write,’ says Holder.
She advocates writing prompts as ‘a way to access topics if you are worried about having a blank mind when you first learn how to start a journal’. Writing prompts could include:
- What you are thinking now
- A concern you have
- The view from your window
- The best job you ever had
One of my journal entries is a single swearword; it summed up how I felt at the time. As my journal filled, I began to feel release. Holder understands this: ‘I had a relationship break-up two years ago and my journal never left my side,’ she says. ‘It kept me afloat and helped me regain my buoyancy.’
One of the key things to remember when learning how to start journaling is that you should go back and reflect. I realised this by accident, when my self-critical voice was loud, and it triggered a memory I had written about.
Aged 23, I’d been in hospital. The outcome of tests could have been life-changing. I was frightened, so told an older relative who was highly significant in my life. Her reply was: ‘Well, how do you think I feel?’ She was someone who would generally prioritise her own feelings.
At the time, I berated myself for telling her and also for being hurt by her reaction. Now, I felt how deep her own issues must have been for her to say that.
Learning from your journal
What my journal pointed out to me then, as often happens now, was that my self-criticism is unwarranted. Instead, self-compassion is needed. Holder told me that as a younger woman, she would write most when feeling bad, and I was definitely doing this for a while.
‘The challenge with this,’ explains Holder, ‘is that although what comes through from your journal can be very insightful, unless you go back and highlight this, you just continue going around in the same cycle, as the lesson hasn’t been internalised.’
Now, since learning how to start journaling, I use a highlighter pen to show when I have those informative moments. It wasn’t until weeks after writing down a lovely compliment a mum from my youngest child’s school had paid me, that I allowed myself to take it on board.
Often, I’ll smother kind words with my inner critic. My journal is shrewd, inexpensive therapy, but Holder has opened my eyes to how it can become much more than that: a place of inspiration, a friend and companion for life.
How to start ‘free flow’ journaling
Holder has liberated me to what she calls ‘free flow’ journaling. This is where you journal exactly what comes into your mind at the time of writing. I had been concentrating and constraining my journaling into what I wanted to explore about myself. Free flow enables your journal to become the exciting place it will end up being.
By writing more when I feel good, it’s also becoming vibrant. Now, I write about anything I want to, from my son saying I was the best ‘squidgy piglet’ to the old lady at the supermarket checkout, who was so thrilled when I told her I loved her dress, that she made my day.
Here is a slightly edited (never let others read your journal; it’s for your eyes only) example of two entries, one written three days after the other in my journal, which show the diversity of journal reflection. ‘Anna and I both wore the same leopard-print skirt. We are becoming Coleen Nolan.’ ‘I feel detached, it’s that nagging voice again, that I am not good enough.’
I keep my journal at home in the same place; always knowing where it is adds to its therapeutic feel. However, I have shopping receipts and envelopes inserted into it, with my open and honest thoughts that needed to be jotted down when I’ve been out and about.
Recently, I’ve begun to add some photos and pictures which have resonated with me, too. New aspects of journaling continue to open up. Holder discovered how her journal could help her see future ideas or thoughts when she began writing about her feelings towards being in midlife, triggered by a fellow passenger on a London train journey.
Since learning how to start journaling, I’ve become braver. It’s incredible what happens when you give rise to your inner dialogue. Reviewing mine, I see countless little entries about South America, such as wistfully thinking what I’d eat as a vegetarian in Brazil.
I have always wanted to spend time in South America, but my journal has highlighted how strong this desire is. So, I am starting an evening course to learn Spanish. When my children are adults, my husband and I aim to be the oldest backpackers in South America. One thing’s for sure, my journal will be coming with me.
Jackee Holder’s book 49 Ways to Write Yourself Well (Step Beach Press, £12.99) is out now.