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The benefits of journalling for mental health

Written by Jade Serna

Everyone goes through difficult moments in life; this remains an objective truth. Whether it’s an upsetting family situation, a heartbreak, a sudden death… at one time or another life will throw you a challenge that may seem, at the time, impossible to overcome. I have had my fair share of difficult life experiences that have tested my mental stability and have found that amongst other strategies, like talking to close friends or family members, journalling is up there with one of the most effective methods in overcoming painful situations.

After rediscovering an old journal of mine from when I was around 12 years old, I realised how writing has been a method of catharsis for me long before I was even aware of its benefits. The pages were filled with the messy, mismatched handwriting of an angry adolescent girl, where one page I had scribbled dramatically how ‘I HATE LIFE’ multiple times. Though this provided comedic value to me now, reading it back as an adult and imagining my past self frantically inscribing this bold statement into her secret diary, at the time I clearly found some release in writing down the emotions I was feeling.

It seems that the 12 year old version of myself was onto something, with evidence from various psychological studies showing the mental health benefits of journalling. At first, it may seem like too simple a concept that it can’t possibly render such incredible results. And yet, the practice has repeatedly been identified as a way to reduce stress, depression, anxiety and to generally overcome negative self-talk and de clutter your mind. Although avoiding negative feelings or life experience may seem easy in the short run, in the long term the internalising of these emotions will only cause them to erupt later, and with much more potency than if you had just tried to deal with them head on. Journalling about traumatic events has been proven to help people process them better, as through exploring and releasing the emotions involved, both hemispheres of the brain are engaged, which helps the experience become integrated and eventually neutralised.

The practice of journalling can help to view negative thoughts more like passing bad weather rather than the truth of your existence, and writing down the things you are experiencing has been proven to help people accept instead of judge their mental state, resulting in less negative emotions in response to stressors. One method I love is similar to a cognitive behavioural therapy session, but in private and completely for free. All you need is paper and a pen.

First, you identify the event that has triggered you in some way. This could be an argument with someone, a cruel comment, literally anything that is causing you some distress. Then record your reaction to the trigger, i.e., crying, anger, shutting down.

Next, you can try to figure out why you feel this way. Be brutally honest with yourself and go deep- these pages are only for you to see. Write your reality.

The next step is trying to rationalise with these negative thoughts. Are your reasons for feeling this way true, or does it contain any distortions? Often our minds are prone to any manner of distortions from reality. This can include:

• Catastrophising (‘this happened, so everything is going to go wrong’)

• Jumping to conclusions/ mind reading (‘they didn’t say hi to me, so they hate me’)

• Magnification of the negative (‘I have ruined everything’)

• Minimisation of the positive (‘They didn’t really mean that’/ ‘no one really thinks I’m that special, even if they have said it’)

• Fortune telling (‘I know I’m going to fail’)

• Self-blaming (‘I ruin everything’)

Being critical and analysing your own thoughts on paper can help you see how irrational they can be. Working through it in this easy and systematic way can help to show you how one event can be magnified and made to seem like the end of the world. Or how one bad day or negative thought can be completely blown out of proportion. You can then work through these thoughts and reframe them, switching negative thought patterns with positive affirmations. Instead of imaging the worst, try thinking of what would happen if everything does work out for you...

There may be things you feel embarrassed about, to the point you’re too afraid to tell them to other people, so instead write them down. There have been things I have been scared to speak to others about, and so writing became my solace and comfort, and I found that after confessing what was going on inside of me onto the non-judgmental pages of a notepad, the feelings lost a lot of their power and I felt lighter because of it. This often provides a gateway to being able to talk to people about it but working through your problems in private first can be an essential step in being able to express these issues verbally later.

However, it doesn’t have to be some intense emotional incident that serves as impetus for you to begin journalling. Just simple observations about the world can be a great place to start, as well as being an amazing practise in mindfulness, expressing gratitude for the small, special moments in life. Like observing how light sparkles as it filters through the trees, or that quiet mid-afternoon walks can make you feel nostalgic. It doesn’t have to be perfect or grammatically correct. It doesn’t even need to make sense to anyone but you. That’s the beauty of it. There’s no right or wrong answers and no grade book. Just a pure, honest outpouring of your inner world.

This has become known as mindfulness/ gratitude journalling, which has also been proven to strengthen your emotional resilience and reduce stress. Through recording the many blissful moments in life, a more positive outlook can be cultivated that will overall improve both your health and happiness. This can include lists/descriptions of:

• What makes you happy.

• Dreams you have in life.

• Things you’re grateful for.

• Your favourite memories.

• Simple things that mean a lot.

Personally, I feel there is something so intensely satisfying in laying yourself bare on a blank page, with the ability to be completely, terrifyingly naked with your words. We are blessed with the gift of our minds, where our creative capacities and potentialities are boundless. Yet these same minds can be scary places to navigate, sometimes mutating into labyrinths of suffering of our own doing. Purging these negative feelings and releasing them from your body should be a practice that everybody integrates into their routine, helping to shift through painful emotions and anxieties that may keep you up at night. Even when life presents no particular challenge, there is still something so magical about watching your thoughts materialise onto paper, with the unique pattern of your own handwriting irrevocably imprinting itself there. Observing the mysteries of this realm and knowing that the words we write aren’t necessarily the truth but more the proof of our lives, as often when I find myself rereading old chapters, I notice how my perception of the world has changed. We are all constantly evolving, and journalling can aid in the shedding of old thought patterns, these antiquated layers that can be discarded, so a new, more insightful version of ourselves can surface.

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