How to Keep a Journal for Better Mental Health

A guide from 20 years (and counting) of journaling and therapeutic writing…

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The first journal I owned dates from when I could first write down a whole sentence. In that journal are little ramblings about my pet guinea pig, my parents, and doodles of things that make no sense at all. My journals have changed a lot as I have grown up, moved cities a half dozen times, and chronicled all my ups and downs in love. I’ve written through family dramas, mundane morning routines, bizarre dreams and moments of pure elation. My journal, while not a thing I have used every single day, has been a fixture over the last 20 years. It is where I go to explore my thoughts and feelings, to release and hone my creativity. It has been my most reliable therapist, audience and guide. From humble origins, my obsession with the written word has seen me through.

The benefits of journaling

Keeping a journal can:

  • Help create focus in your life
  • Build self-awareness (and therefore empathy for others — these concepts are linked!)
  • Release blocked or repressed emotions
  • Create a stronger link between your inner world and the outer world
  • Promote mindfulness and letting go of the past
  • Cement learned lessons and boost memory
  • Improve your communication skills
  • Be a lot of fun — and a nice thing to look back on!

The tools of journaling

I want to note here that I have always kept an ‘old-school’ paper and pen style journal — I’ve never found that keeping a Word doc or an app for this purpose to be quite the same. If you’re as geek about stationery as I am and like this sort of thing, here are my tools of choice right now:

Past journals included bright pink hard-covered notebooks with thick ruled lines (Shh, I was thirteen!), as well as a journal that locked, which I covered with purple fabric…. The tools have evolved with time. I went through a phase of exclusively black Moleskines, switched to Leuchtturm1917, and have now settled on this combo (for the moment).

Achieve more from your journal

And now, here are a few of the ‘how to’s I’ve developed over the years that have helped:

Write when you feel like it

This is contrary to lots of people who are ‘serious’ proponents of the journal — they will tell you that you need to write every day, that this is a discipline to acquire in order to really benefit from the habit. I disagree. I have found that my journal has served me best as a quiet bystander, something to which I turn and acknowledge only when really needed.

There have been stretches where I have journaled daily. There have been months where I’ve hardly written a word. But applying guilt to whether or not I have written isn’t the purpose of my journal — it’s not there to serve as another stick to beat myself with. It’s there to be the passive ‘listener’, the place where thoughts go to be hashed out or simply released. This is why I’ve managed to journal for 20-odd years — it’s never been a burden, it’s never been a chore. It’s just a way of gently working through things that can’t remain tucked up in my head.

So write when the mood strikes — it might be something you want to set a time for, you might prefer to make it an everyday habit, but it can also be like that therapist you see once a week, or once a fortnight. The point is that it isn’t about forcing words to hit the page. It’s a way to offload and works precisely because it’s guilt-free.

Outline an intention, not a plan

Often the first few pages of a new journal of mine will contain something of a manifesto — an outline, a set of ideas, about what I hope to achieve by journaling, or in the next months/year of using that particular book. But I try not to plan too harshly what will and what will not make it into the journal. It’s a space where I can throw down any random ideas, uninhibited.

A small proportion of my own journals, from over the years…

The idea of ‘Morning Pages’ from the classic Artist’s Way asks you to write three pages of anything at all, every day. Three pages is a lot when it’s just word vomit, but the idea remains a classic for a good reason. When I write in my journal, the first priority is to just say whatever it is that’s turning over in my mind at that moment. This means that my journals are not necessarily about keeping track of what I’ve done in a day; they regularly leave things out. It’s much more about what I’ve been thinking about, and if it does cover things that happened, it’s more about how those things made me feel.

The intention is to capture things I want to work towards too, but in a way that feels more like releasing the information onto the page and trying to make sense of it, rather than creating schedules or rules. I don’t plan because I’m more interested in whatever the mind will deliver in a given moment. This approach has helped ensure my journals are helpful for working through blocked emotions, and releasing the past.

Take pleasure and pride in the object itself

It’s not an accident that my journals tend to be quite aesthetic. I carefully choose the book itself, a result of having tried and tested all shapes, paper weights, sizes, line weights… Okay, I get really into stationery. But if I make sure the journal is to my liking, if I add touches that make it ‘mine’, I’m far more likely to use it. I do my best to fill each page with the kinds of things I will look back on fondly, whether they are ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ or neither. It is an aesthetic collection of polaroids, notes and paraphernalia from wherever I’ve been.

This means I don’t scribble. I set up nice pages of words, I draw pictures, I stick things in. You might find you need to attack the surface with your pen for the sake of emotional release, and all power to you. As long as it serves your need, the journal is doing its job. I do like to look back on moments where the handwriting got a little more out of control and think, “What was I feeling in that moment?” I collect up the bits of ephemera of my life and stick them in because I like to look back and feel what has changed — sometimes that requires a few physical touches. I work to create a varied, interesting-to-look-at object which holds my respect as the place I return to to work through all the stuff of life.

Practice non-judgment

I have been horrified by some of the things I’ve written in journals. I have looked back and thought, “I really should burn this.” But I’m always glad I didn’t — I’m doing my best to allow the words to come without filtering. And that also means that once they’re out, they stay out. I don’t try to take them back. Sure, they get ugly sometimes, but that doesn’t make me an awful person. It means that at the time, I couldn’t think of anything better to say. And that’s fine. They went into my journal, not out at another person. I look back and try to empathise with my mindset in that moment, and practice a kind of forgiveness that is really tough — the one we must practice on ourselves.

Practising self-compassion and working through self-criticism is already challenging throughout everyday life, particularly if you’ve got a loud internal narrative filled with negative talk. But journaling has offered me a safe space to detach from those thoughts, from that narrative — it’s on the page, so it’s further away from being an inherent part of my mind. I do my best to write whatever it is that comes as it comes, though this has taken practice. Being a ‘writer’, I am always assessing and reassessing the way I use language. My journal, however, is a designated peace zone. I vow each time I write to forgive myself for whatever comes out. It doesn’t reflect everything about me as a person — I am a lot more dynamic than my journal.

Ultimately, a journal is a tool. The way you use this tool can help with so many aspects of life, and for me it has added cohesion and ease to the way I work through problems — this is huge. It’s a loose kind of habit, but one I am very unlikely to give up. Every day is an opportunity to observe, record, reflect and release the things that catch my attention in a natural way. As a result, I observe more, I record more deeply, I reflect more widely and release negativity more often. You don’t need a fancy notebook, or a particular pen — but if it helps, it helps. The benefits go way beyond the words themselves.

Time to get writing…

Written by

Trying to live better. Writing on Mental Health, Relationships, and Living Ethically. Editor/Podcaster.

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