Journaling for Mental Health

Getting started with journaling can be really intimidating. Fortunately, it’s actually easy. Your job is just to poke around in your brain a little with the goal of working on your mental health.
  • When you sit down to write, don’t panic. Journaling is nothing like the SATs. No one is grading them or even LOOKING at them. You are not writing for anyone else, not even your future self. You’re only writing for you in the present. The process is what matters. If you happen to read over your writing (which I don’t recommend when you’re first starting out) it’s not going to look or sound like anything in the New Yorker. Get used to that.
  • Find yourself a notebook. Please don’t buy something too fancy. A Moleskine (or something like it) will probably be more sturdy than a dollar-store spiral bound notebook, but you don’t have to be picky. Start writing after your Biology notes or on loose-leaf in a binder. It doesn’t matter. You just need something to write in that won’t look too intimidating. (A lot of people suffer from Terrifying Blank Page Syndrome, so don’t go for something leatherbound and too beautiful for scribblings. Be gentle with yourself and get a notebook that fits what you need.)
  • Get a reliable pen. That’s it. (Don’t lose it.)
  • Make a habit of writing. If you’ve ever been prescribed antidepressants, you know that it usually takes 2-4 weeks for them to work. Journaling is the same way– you will probably see a difference eventually, but you have to stick with it first. Like swallowing pills, it’s not super rewarding the first few times you do it. Just do it anyway. It has to stew in your nervous system for a while.
  • Practice freewriting. Freewriting is the art of writing whatever the fuck you want. The idea is to start writing, and then not stop for a certain amount of time (maybe 5 minutes to begin with). Don’t revise– this is stream of consciousness. If you don’t know what to write, write “I don’t know what to write” until you think of something. If it helps, think of it as “brain dumping” rather than journaling. This is by far the most effective form of writing if mental health is your goal. It’s also the official method of drafting taught in many creative writing programs. Eventually it will become effortless, and that’s when the interesting shit comes up. Trust me.
  • Julia Cameron says that three pages, every morning, is the perfect amount of journaling. No, it doesn’t matter how big the pages are or how many lines they have. Just three pages, that’s what she says. Write three pages every morning and see what happens. It should feel like yoga: not painful, but gently stretching your writing muscles.
  • Alternatively, write for a certain amount of time. Five minutes of writing is a good place to start. If you feel like writing more that day, write more. (I am a seasoned writer and journaler and I do around 20 minutes a day of freewriting, plus some optional thought-provoking prompts from the internet afterwards. You don’t have to devote a lot of time for it to be effective.)
  • You don’t need to write about your feelings. You don’t have to stick to serious topics. You can write about what you had for breakfast or anything else that rolls through your brain. Eventually, you WILL get around to your feelings, and you will probably surprise yourself with some of the stuff that you write. Let it happen naturally.
  • For your own sake, date every entry. Someday (but probably not any time soon) you’re going to want to reread these, and you will be glad you wrote down the day and year.
  • If you feel consistently stuck, write some affirmations about writing in the front of your notebook. Read them to yourself when you sit down to write.
  • Learn to reach for your journal when you’re upset. Writing out negative feelings is not the only point of journaling, but it is a good way to cope.
Good luck journaling! Please let me know if you have any questions!

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