Whether it be writing about something you’re grateful for or an emotional dump, journaling can go a long way to improve your mental health.
Think of journaling as an adult diary. We’ve all kept one at some time point during our childhood. It was a space to spill secrets, complain about parents and confess your love for a special someone. The principles of keeping a diary in your adult life pretty much stays the same, but journaling’s impact can be a whole lot more.
I only started journaling last Summer in 2020. Yes, during the Circuit Breaker in Singapore. After being sent home from college overseas due to Covid-19, I felt lost at home with nothing to do but make whipped coffee and banana bread. Summer plans fell through, and I didn’t even know if I could return to school. So, I started journaling not as an intentional habit, but more like a much-needed emotional outlet.
Looking back, journaling got me through some tough times and dark days. Now, I try to journal almost everyday. And it’s no longer just writing about negative emotions. I write on the good days too. It’s the perfect temporary escape.
If you’re a novice journal-er, like I was, here’s what you need to know about the benefits of journaling and how to start – from journal ideas to creating habits.
What are the benefits of journaling?
Journaling is widely used as a tool for managing stress, anxiety and coping with depression. But you don’t need to be clinically diagnosed to reap the benefits of this wonderful practice.
1. Identifying problems
Journaling can help you figure out what’s really on your mind. Reading your thoughts on paper is a lot different than trying to make sense of the mumble jumble in your head. Furthermore, journaling evokes a sense of mindfulness, as you’re connected the with presence through writing. This way, you can face the problem head on by creating targeted practices to resolve the stress.
Plus, journaling can help you practice verbalisation. Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Even though you’re writing to yourself, journaling is still a form of communication. You’re subconsciously improving how to vocalise your issues, whether it be a trigger of stress or waves of sadness. Writing and vocalising will help you better understand what’s going on in your mind, and may influence you to reach out to someone for help.
2. Tracking symptoms
Journaling doesn’t have to be a negative brain dump. When you journal everyday, you’re bound to capture the good and the bad. On the bad days, note down what triggers are around you. On the good days, notice what uplifts your mood. Even if it’s something small, like making a good cup of coffee or getting a little sunshine and fresh air. Intentionally recognising the good and bad will help structure your future.
We all deserve a little boost of self-confidence. Why not hype ourselves up? The beauty of journaling is that you can write about anything. If you’re loving the way you look one day, write about it! Or if you’ve achieved something big or small, take note of that, too! Positive affirmations will help scare away the lurking insecurities and self-doubt. Plus, reading back on old journal entries of your good days can help your brain relive those positive memories. This releases your endorphins and dopamine levels which will start your day on the happy foot.
4. Achieving goals
Journaling won’t exactly make your dreams come true, but it’ll definitely push you in the right direction. Writing down goals is proven to signal the brain that the task is a priority. Think of it as a psychological blueprint. Keeping your goals in your head can get lost and messy. Having a tangible blueprint will help you realign yourself whenever you revisit the goal.
5. Physical benefits
Believe it or not, research shows journaling can help boost your immune system and even make wounds heal faster! Since journaling naturally helps with some trauma and stress, the emotional relief translates to physical as well. Identifying and vocalising our problems helps prevent the brain from overworking difficult thoughts. This leads to better sleep and better immune health. It’s a whole flow of events.
How do I start journaling?
There’s no one single method to journaling. It’s a personal journey. The only way to figure out how to best journal for you is to actually just start doing it.
1. Brain dump
Let go of any structures or prompts. Journaling doesn’t have to be fancy or guided. It can literally be an unfettered dump of emotions from the second you wake up. Don’t get too hung up on grammar, or sounding intelligent or funny – in fact, it’s better if it’s not. When I first started journaling, my entries made no sense. It was a loose description of all the pent up anxiousness I was experiencing. But just starting to write felt like a huge exhale for the mind.
2. Pre-designed journals
If you’re really unsure about how to start, and know you don’t stick well to new habits, buying a pre-designed or structured journal can help. There are several journal designs you can pick from – some focus on gratitude while others focus on achieving goals. For example, a gratitude journal will have entries like “Write down five things you are grateful for today” whilst a goal journal will say “Describe your five-year plan.” Get a journal best suited to your own personal journey.
Need some inspiration? Here are some great pre-designed journals to consider:
- Start Where You Are: A Journal For Self-Exploration by Meera Lee Patel
- The Five-Minute Gratitude Journal by Sophia Godkin
- Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice by Michelle Obama
- A Year of Zen: A 52-Week Guided Journal by Bonnie Myotai Treace
3. Create a routine
Perhaps the hardest part of journaling is actually sticking to it. After the Circuit Breaker, I found myself trying to make up for all the social activities I had lost. I dropped journaling for a time because I told myself I didn’t need it. Lo and behold, I ended up left with the same aching anxiousness.
Building journaling into your routine will help maintain the habit. Whether waking up just 20 minutes earlier to pick up the journal, or incorporate writing into lunch breaks – you’ll realise there’s always time for a quick entry. Knowing this, I decided to pick up the journal once again when I was back at school in the US. It kept the stress at bay and helped me come out of the Circuit Breaker headspace. I’m still practicing to make it a daily habit, but it’s the effort that counts! Consistency and commitment means more than the content and length itself.
That being said, don’t punish yourself for not writing. If inspiration doesn’t hit, that’s okay. Maybe do a catch-up entry whenever you find yourself gravitating towards writing again.
4. Make lists
If long-form writing feels foreign to you, don’t be discouraged. Since journaling is such a personal choice, prose isn’t the end all, be all. Making lists of things you are grateful for, things you are worried about or things you are looking forward to can be a lot less intimidating. Writing lists are still a form of simplified written communication, making you identify stressors much easier.
5. Get artsy
Another way to avoid producing daunting prose is to get creative. Your journal entries only need to make sense for you. Try brainstorming ideas from a tree or the classic spider web (i.e., a mind web or mind map). You can sketch out your thoughts, like creating a drawing form of your anxieties. Or you may even want to stick physical items into the journal, such as dried flowers from your favourite park or photographs from a beautiful day.
Alternatively, look up bullet journals for inspiration on design. Bullet journals are used as an organisation tool for schedules and goals. You can translate the designs into gratitude and reflection. The possibilities are endless!
Will journaling change my life?
Journaling isn’t the only solution to mental healing. Think of it as an addition to your toolbox which may include exercise, good sleep, a healthy diet, therapy and meditation. With that said, if you find yourself dreading to write everyday or journaling becomes a burden, the practice may not be for you. In order for journaling to work, you simply have to like it.
Determine what are your goals for journaling. Is it to make sense of past traumas? Is it as a daily check-up? Whatever the goal, your journaling has to reflect it in the long term. If you’re feeling stuck, reevaluate your goals and try journaling about journaling. Sounds funny, but writing will help you make sense of your doubts.
For me, through journaling, I was able to let go of frustrating anxiousness I never knew was there. My stress manifested itself physically, through headaches, muscle pain, rashes and gut issues. Journaling provided an avenue to identify the mental side of my stress which would’ve otherwise been buried. For those who struggle to identify and voice out hardships, like me, journaling is a good place to start trying.
While it won’t magically fix your life, think of journaling as a method to reconnect to your life. If you’re constantly writing about negative emotions, you’re bound to be motivated to do something about it. After all, the brain can be way too messy to think for itself.
By Isabel Wibowo, August 2021