What is journaling and how does it help us?

By planetm | May 13, 2021

Wondering ‘what is journaling’? Sam Topley explains how it helped him overcome addiction and trauma – and that you don’t have to have good handwriting after all! 

Getting started with journaling

Outside, the air is still cold and blue from the night and the odd street cleaner and lone car glide under fading streetlights.

Inside, I am writing – describing what my life would be like as a tree. This isn’t my usual morning: yesterday, for example, I was writing a letter to my ten year-old self.

Journaling has been a part of my life now for four years. Before I started, I had heard people talk about this ominous ‘journaling’, but it sounded exclusive and cryptic, and I assumed I wasn’t qualified or educated enough to ask more about it.

In my mid-20s, I experienced a mental health crisis. The crisis came about after I decided to keep a weekly planner – another attempt to bring more order into my then chaotic and drink-fuelled life.

I started writing ‘LD’ for ‘Lazy Day’ every time I found myself too hungover to function normally.

Deep down, I had known for years that my drinking was a problem, but seeing the letters ‘LD’ written on every day for three months of that year highlighted an unavoidable truth. One that those closest to me had been hoping I would accept for years. I decided to get help and started going to therapy.

Journalling for gratitude

My therapist suggested to me that I write a gratitude list every day.

I remember thinking that would be impossible, but I went along with it. I wrote the list on my phone in the Notes app every morning before work – initially, it was a challenge and came slowly.

By the end of the first seven days, I noticed that the list was filling up much quicker and I was becoming more aware of the vibrancy in the small things I had to appreciate. It was like coming up for air.

By writing these lists in my phone, I was already journaling. Journaling sounded, to me, like complex work which would take years to master and I could only join if I were an accomplished calligrapher.

But I was already on my way by simply writing into my phone, and I was healing – it was that simple.

I eventually bought a notebook and started handwriting my gratitude lists, and later writing freely – whatever came into my mind would go onto the page.

A lot of it didn’t make sense, but it felt good and was a welcome change from the structured writing I had been used to in my professional life.

I hadn’t spent much time alone in such a long time. Journaling was like reacquainting myself with an old friend.

The benefits of journaling

Journaling is a broad term and is not just the domain of diary writers or published authors. James W. Pennebaker is a pioneer of writing therapy. His research into expressive writing proved that it could improve sleep, emotional and physical health, reduce stress and anxiety, amongst many other benefits.

He suggests “Try doing it different ways… some people like writing with their non-dominant hand. Others find talking to a tape recorder works, too. Experiment.”

Another form of journaling is Morning Pages, made popular by Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way – A Guide to Creative Recovery.

She says that Morning Pages “provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritise and synchronise the day at hand.”

This involves filling three A4 pages with writing by hand as soon as you wake up. Morning Pages have helped me uncover many well-hidden aspects of my life. As Julia says, “It turns out you can’t really write about nothing for three whole pages”.

Journaling for wellbeing

Journaling prompts and guides more structure to writing. It creates a safe space to have a healthy dialogue with yourself and it can in many forms.

Through describing myself as a tree or writing a letter to my younger self, I can make sense of where I am now and my story so far in a creative way.

In 2020, working from home during numerous lockdowns meant a lot of people had more time. This meant time to re-evaluate the tools we use to look after ourselves.

The torch has well and truly been shone on journaling and it is working its way out of the shadows, moving further into the mainstream.

There is no wrong way to write, you don’t even need a journal. Write however works for you. The only rule is, if it’s not working for you, stop, take a break and revisit it later.

5 journaling tips

1. Plan ahead for a quiet time to write, when you can do so uninterrupted.

2. Keep at least 15-20 minutes free.

3. Start with some prompts to give structure to your writing.

4. Keep your writing private – you will write more honestly. Only share if you are comfortable.

5. Try a guided journal or a writing group (check out lapidus.org.uk).

This article first appeared in issue 15 of Planet Mindful magazine.

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