I was using writing as a therapeutic exercise before that was ever a thing.
I started writing in a diary when I was 6, and after its pages were filled I never threw it away. I kept it and I still have it. I also kept every diary I ever wrote in since then. Now I have one 8-inch deep drawer full of diaries, plus a few more in the drawer above it. Once I had kids my journaling became pretty haphazard, because everything because haphazard when you have kids, but it’s still a habit I keep up regularly even now. Obviously, the diary entries I wrote when I was six are quite different than the ones I wrote when I was 20. (They’re also harder to read. I was a terrible speller when I was in first grade.) But that’s the great thing about journaling regularly – over time, you create snapshots of the everyday moments of your life via your words. My bad spelling and lack of any kind of perspective beyond myself when I was six wouldn’t be something I could see in a photo album, and without my writings from early motherhood I might have very little memory of those moments at all, because traumatic experiences have a way of taking center stage in memories, painting whole chunks of time into blackness that covers up some very important moments of pink or yellow.
Currently I am drafting a memoir that I intend to publish, and I am using my old diaries, prayer journals, and photos to supplement my rapidly failing memory. I’ve wanted to publish a book of my diary entries ever since I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was about twelve, but over time that idea began to seem childish. Then a friend from a 12-step group I’m involved in said that she thought I had some really amazing stories to tell, and I started thinking about writing again, but this time I would write for others. And so here I am.
I think I was at least aware of the mental health benefits of journaling long before I ever needed mental healthcare, but when I did need it, my experience with journaling gave me a long view of who I was and why I made certain choices or reacted in certain ways. In short, journaling has helped me to know me. So I thought that maybe it might work like that for you too.
Journaling for Mental Health
Writing and diaries and self-reflection are so much a part of life for me that I have no idea how much of my thinking, my emotional responses, and my mental clarity are different as a result. I only know that I kept writing, particularly on the especially bad or especially good days, because it felt better to write it all down, to record not just the event but the event through my own eyes. No one read my diaries that I know of, and I doubt that anyone beyond my immediate family ever knew I was keeping them. I must have sensed that writing about hard things helped me feel less crazy, and maybe I had unintentionally discovered that by writing I could be my own therapist.
According to the Mental Health Center of San Diego, journaling provides:
- Reduce the symptoms of chronic stress including the stress that comes in the aftermath of traumatic experiences
- Provide a healthy coping mechanism for periods of negative thoughts and emotions
- Improve your mood and increase your sense of happiness and wellbeing
- Create therapeutic connections that strengthen your emotional responses by enabling you to connect more with your own inner needs and better regulate emotional responses
- Reveal patterns in your life that consistently result in negative emotions, allowing you to make changes and identify areas for change and growth.
- And about 20 more like this
But the lab-coat version of this list doesn’t even touch the incredible benefits I know from my experience. What other pass-time allows you to create a map of your mental/emotional life and reveals how you’ve grown and changed? What other practice allows you to meditate on paper? How else are you going to prove to your best friend that you really did kiss a boy on the school bus for $1 when you were in second grade? (That one was my daughter actually.) Consistent journaling can reveal intellectual disabilities or strengths you wouldn’t have recognized otherwise, it can point out to you that have an obsession or addiction, and it can tell you if you are a sucker for one-sided relationships. You could even begin to see patterns in your physical health that you would not have connected if you hadn’t recorded them in writing. It is a hobby that is therapeutic, versatile, always available, confidential, healing, strengthening, informing, and life-changing.
Have you ever sat with someone for a long time while she told you about incredible things that she’d done while traveling, about a fairy-tale marriage that lasted for decades, her grief after becoming a widow, or her adorable mini-terrier who gets so excited when she comes in the door that he pees on the floor every time?
As I am aging I am realizing why elderly people so often want to tell you their stories, good and bad. It is the same reason that I am writing mine. Who we are, who we were, how we loved and lived, what we cried over, what we screamed about, what moments made us laugh until we peed our pants, what filled us with rage, what we were doing when that happened, what the internet was like when it was also the phone… These are the things that make up our lives. And as much as I want to tailor the way I tell my story so that readers will clearly see the message my life is writing in my heart, that message is really made up of little pieces of life coming together into patterns that I don’t yet know are there.
I hope you’ll come along with me this month to explore how a journaling practice can enrich your day to day life and provide you with a balanced account of your losses and victories. I’ll be providing journaling format suggestions every week in the month of October, and you can check my Instagram and Facebook pages for prompts that will get you thinking more deeply. If you need some interaction to balance out the self-reflection, you can join my private Facebook group, PTG Overcomers Community, which remains free to join for a limited time period.