Many of us grew up keeping diaries where we wrote of our teen dramas, current crush du jour and our most intimate secrets, though this practice was often dropped with the transition into adulthood. If you are looking to improve your mental health, you may want to get back into this habit with its shiny new adult name: journaling.
Journaling for mental health has become more popular in our culture as habits that support and encourage good mental health practices have become more mainstream. It takes no special equipment, just setting aside a few minutes every day to enable this practice to become a habit. Some folks journal throughout the day, others set a reminder alarm at a particular time, and some people find it easier to establish new habits by attaching them to a habit they already maintain, such as journaling after brushing one's teeth.
The easiest way to journal is to mind dump, and that is exactly what it sounds like: writing down all your thoughts and feelings about what happened during the day. This can often bring a sense of clarity, help process emotions and enable us to identify patterns of thought, whether helpful or destructive. Some people draw in addition to writing – however it works for you.
Another way to journal is to ask yourself a set of specific questions each day. What excited you? What drained you? What supported you? What did you learn? What are three things you are grateful for? These questions can help identify the things that support or diminish you in your daily life.
Campbell Walker, a YouTube content creator known as Struthless and author of Your Head is a Houseboat: A Chaotic Guide to Mental Clarity, said asking himself these questions for a month helped him identify alcohol and social media as consistent triggers that increased his depression and anxiety and made it harder for him to function. He could no longer shrug away his mental health issues and dysfunctional state while knowing exactly what caused it. After limiting his consumption of both, he was able to turn his life around and finally begin to achieve his personal goals.
For some of us, it is the people in our lives that may support or diminish us. If your friends, partner or family are consistently on your support or drain list, it can provide some helpful clarity about the state of your personal relationships and how they affect your mental health.
We can also use the clarity journaling provides to make decisions. Sometimes it is a matter of writing objectively about the problem and the options. We can even go beyond practical options to brainstorm our wildest dreams. In my own personal life, I felt stuck in a cycle of low-wage jobs. In brainstorming my wildest dreams, the idea of self-employment came up. My practical self immediately dismissed the idea, but the more I thought about it, and journaled about it, the more I realized it was possible. In 2014 I decided to give myself three months to make it or give up. I'm now nine years into marketing my skills and taking contract jobs on my terms, and I love it. That journaling brainstorm changed my life.
Journaling can also provide an outlook for the future. Sometimes we can feel mired in a routine that no longer provides joy or satisfaction. Without a direction to move into, these feelings can contribute to depression, worsening mental health or even addiction. We can look at ourselves five years into the future and ask what our future selves may desire.
Sometimes having a dream and formulating the practical steps needed to reach it can provide the impetus we need to yank ourselves out of a rut and into better routines and outlooks. Walker says that one question that helped him move into his current successful life was, "If I knew I couldn't fail, what would I do?" Reflections on this question can open up opportunities we never imagined.
Journaling can take time to develop as a habit, but the rewards become apparent rather quickly as we move from a state of constant reactionary emotions to thoughtful contemplation that can drastically reduce stress and anxiety, give clarity and hope and support a life worth the effort of living.
Carey Smith can measure her life's journaling efforts with a yardstick.