As part of our Men’s Wellbeing Matters campaign, Chris, one of our clients and regular blog contributors, explains how he uses journaling to process difficult thoughts or emotions from his day, make sense of them and move on rather than give in to endless rumination. If you are new to journaling, this blog will give you great tips on how to make a start and how to use journaling as a powerful self-help tool to support your mental health.
“So many people spend their days living with their heads in the past or the future that they forget about the now. Yet, life doesn’t happen in the past or the future, it’s happening here, right now. Getting lost in one’s thought is easily done – to find yourself mulling over a conversation that happened yesterday which didn’t quite go your way or to be always thinking ahead and playing out future scenarios in your mind. It’s easy to find yourself fearing the future or thinking “I’ll be happy when… such and such has happened or when I’ve got this or that”. However, when you’re doing this you’re missing out on the present moment, a moment that could be filled with joy or contentment, a moment where you could be engaging fully with your family or colleagues, giving the current task your complete focus or simply observing the beauty of the natural world around us.
I was recently chatting with a friend about my habit of journaling which I’ve developed over the last year or so to help me with these situations. My friend was saying that he’d thought about journaling but wasn’t sure how to go about it and whether it’d benefit him. He was saying how some people buy a big expensive journal book with heavy paper and a posh pen, but he’d never made the move. To me, that’s not necessary to get started. In this article I share how I do it.
I prefer to use my laptop. For each journal entry I create a new Word doc with the date and the topic that I think I’m going to write about. Sometimes when I sit down I’ve a clear idea about what I want to say, other times I just start, let it flow and see what comes. I like using my laptop for this. For me, it’s a comfortable way to get my thoughts down. I’m a touch typist, so it’s quick, but I also like the impermanence of a word processor. I find it easier to get started when I know that it hasn’t got to be ‘right first time’. On the computer, it’s easy to go back and change what I’ve written. Often I don’t, but it brings a barrier down in my mind. In my journals, it’s important for me to tell my story in the way I want to tell it; and being able to go back and edit makes that easier. Some people blog; but to me this is a little different. Knowing that it’s only me that’s going to read it frees me to be completely honest and express exactly how I feel. If I knew I was going to publish it, I fear I’d be a lot more guarded. I’d find it difficult to communicate my feelings and most likely wouldn’t get the therapeutic benefit.
I started journaling back in late 2019 when my therapist at the time suggested I write a ‘letter to myself’. The idea was to write about the things going on in my life at the time and how I was feeling about them, seal it in an envelope and not look at it until a year later. Then open it up and see how things have changed and contrast those that seemed like big deals then that have become just small fry now. And then, write another for the year ahead. This is a great first exercise if you’re looking to start out journaling.
Since then, I’ve been using writing as a tool for understanding my ‘reality’ more and more. In my journals I tend not to write so much about things I’ve been doing; much more I write about how I feel about things that have happened, or indeed what I think is going to happen. It helps me beat my ruminating habit; where I go over in my mind situations of the day, again and again, or to think ahead and spin out possible situations I might face in the future. I’ve done this enough to know it can be a very debilitating and unhelpful habit. Don’t get me wrong, thinking back to past situations to undertake a “review” with yourself and learning from what’s happened is beneficial. But, playing back a negative experience in your head again and again and triggering the associated painful emotions takes its toll on one’s wellbeing and can become a habit of self-torment.
Journaling helps me in this situation as I can quickly open up my laptop and get down on the page the situation spinning out in my mind’s narrative. I can take my time over the words and choose to remember the experience exactly how I want to. I can think through the experience, how it made me feel, what I wish I’d done differently and how I’d approach the situation in the future. I can also deal with my ‘forecasting’ brain which is thinking ahead to challenges that I’m about to face and think through how I want to behave and respond if that future plays out. I find that the process of getting my words down gives my mind a release. Once it’s down on the page I can stop thinking about it and it lets my mind move on, be more present and enjoy the day, safe in the knowledge that if I do want to recall the situation it’s all there safely recorded in my journal.
Of course, writing doesn’t work for everyone. It takes time and depending on where you are or what you’re doing it’s not always convenient. The other method I use sometimes is to record short videos on my phone. I’ve found it to be a good technique if I’ve something churning around in my mind and I can’t get to sleep. I sit up in bed, think about what it is I want to say and give myself a time limit, usually about 3 minutes works for me, and hit record. I just sit there, talking to the camera and expressing what’s concerning me. It’s similarly effective to writing, and by saying things out loud and capturing it on film I feel no longer compelled to hold the thought in my mind. It’s there now, recorded on my phone and if ever I want to go back to it I can. Usually I’ll watch the video back immediately after recording it. It’s a bit weird watching yourself talk at first – “do I really sound and look like that when I’m talking?” And “oh, I have some strange little mannerisms!” – but once you’re used to that it’s strangely reassuring.
Depending on where I am, what I’m doing, and how I’m feeling, I’ll journal sometimes every other day but on average it’s more like once or twice a week. Looking back over the year, some are quite deep. On one or two occasions I’ve spent the whole day doing them – but this isn’t typical. Those journals were dealing with big, long lasting traumatic events from my life where I needed the time and space to get my thoughts sorted out. Generally though, I’m able to rattle out my thoughts in about 20-30 minutes.
I’ve often thought about sharing my journals. Perhaps by creating a blog or sharing them as guest entries on established blogs. I can’t believe my experiences are completely unique to me and my way of working through them might help others. Maybe I’ll share something in the future.
So, next time you find yourself talking to yourself – that’s the classic sign – pick up a notepad, a laptop or your phone and get it out of your head. Believe me, you’ll suddenly feel a lot better for it.”
Chris was also a guest on our July radio show, The Wellbeing Hour, where he discussed journaling with Taryn. To listen to his interview again, please visit The Wellbeing Hour – 5 July page.
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