How journaling can help boost mental health, encourage self-reflection and ease stress and anxiety

One of the presents I got for Christmas this year was a journal. On every page there is an inspirational quote. This was a perfect gift for me as I’ve always kept diaries and I love to journal as it helps me with my mental health and wellbeing on a number of levels.

My mum has always kept a diary and we’ve had some really special moments where she’s read extracts to my sister and I from when we were little – laughing and smiling at things that may otherwise have been forgotten.

I used to just keep diaries that were a catalogue of the day’s events and I had stacks and stacks of them stashed in cupboards and under my bed, detailing years and years of my life. I didn’t get the same joy picking them up and reading them. They made me sad. Most of the pages were filled with drama surrounding men, plans of how I was going to lose weight and self-obsession. Not a hint of self-reflection or self-realisation. They were painful to read and I dreaded anyone finding them. So much so that when I lived with one of my best friends I made her promise that if I died she’d get rid of them for me. When I moved into my new flat in April last year, I didn’t want to bring all that negative energy from the past with me. I gave them one last look through and said goodbye to those memories, shredding page after page, getting paper dust in my eyes and cuts on my fingers. It was very cathartic.

These days I use journaling in a very different and much more positive and productive way.

Yes, I still use them when I need to head dump and calm the thoughts that are swimming around in my mind, but in balance to that I also use them to set goals and intentions; to explore how I’m feeling; to examine my actions (good and bad) and to reflect on my day.

As a journalist, writing has always been a big part of my life and is something I really enjoy, but even I didn’t realise how powerful it is to actually write things down, to pick up a pen and paper, rather than just typing into a computer or phone.

And it’s not just my imagination. Studies have shown that journaling has a positive effect on mental health and can be a really good stress reduction tool too.

It helps you to organise your thoughts and expose them to the light of day and I believe it’s just as powerful, if not more so, as saying them out loud as you can trust your journal to keep your counsel, even with what you perceive to be your worst thoughts and fears.

If you have ever suffered with depression you will know how difficult it can sometimes be to drag yourself out of bed and motivate yourself for the day so I also find journaling in the morning a great way to set goals and intentions. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, once I have a list of things to do or have set myself tasks to complete, I have to do them. Although these days I try and be a little kinder to myself. I just try and do my best and don’t use these goals or lists as a tool to beat myself with, more of a wish list for my day or things I’d like to achieve.

Journaling also gets you into the habit of writing things down so it’s a great way to jot down any ideas or inspirations you may have.

As I’ve said it’s also been shown to relieve stress and help with depression and anxiety. There’s a very good comprehensive article on why on Positive Psychology.

One of the most powerful benefits of journaling for me is self-reflection. It is a wonderful daily tool to use to keep me in touch with how I’m feeling and what’s going on for me. I usually do this before bed in the evening. This has been a practice I’ve got into doing as part of my recovery programme but you don’t have to be in a 12-step fellowship to benefit from this. I ask myself: How have I treated myself and others today? Have I done anything for others/been of service to others without expecting anything in return? Do I have any anger or resentments and if so what’s going on – what is that rooted in and can I let it go or can I take some positive action? Have I harmed anyone and do I need to make amends? What assets and defects of character have been present today? And so on.

I don’t know about you but I find it very hard to identify how I’m feeling. We always ask people “how are you?” And the answer is us usually “fine” or “I’m ok, you?” Less often people really tell you “I’m feeling a bit low” or “I’m pissed off or angry about this or that” but beyond that our vocabulary for expressing how we feel to others in general is often quite vague and non-descriptive because, let’s face it, do they really want to know. If you run into an acquaintance on the street and in answer to their “how are you?” said: “well I’ve been feeling quite lonely and lost and am really examining my life choices”, you’d likely be met with an awkward shuffle on the pavement. And the truth is we don’t have to blurt out the ins and outs of exactly how we are feeling to everyone who asks, but it is good to get in touch with our emotions and feelings ourselves and journaling is a fantastic and safe space to do that.

If you don’t understand how you are feeling it can be very difficult to address anything you need to and things can fester and come out in self destructive behaviours or in being moody or snappy with others.

I use this feelings wheel developed by Dr Gloria Wilcox to help me identify how I’m feeling. It sounds really simple but reading the words I can tell if that resonates with me, hits a nerve, or doesn’t result in any reaction and that’s a fairly good indicator of whether that’s something I’m feeling.

So why not try journaling this year to boost your mental health, get more in touch with yourself and your feelings and reduce any stress you are feeling.