Be Your Own Therapist: Journaling for Mental Health
As people, it is in our nature to tell stories. Social media is a core part of 21st-century life and is built on the premise that we curate and share fragments of ourselves with others, to construct a story of who we are. But what about when these stories about ourselves are flawed?
We put ourselves through a great amount of suffering with faulty thoughts about our everyday lives. We tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, and our problems can’t be solved and that everyone else sees it too. But journaling can be a powerful tool through which we can transform our thoughts and feelings.
This article incorporates the ideas of Dr David Burns - whose book about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Feeling Good, is the most prescribed book by mental health professionals in the US and Canada - and journaling tips from Dr Deborah Holder, an integrative counsellor and psychotherapist based in London.
Tips for Journaling:
· Buy a notebook that doesn’t restrict you with small boxes or lines. You can buy a blank journal that gives you the freedom to annotate, sketch or mind-map.
· Consider why you’re journaling. Is it to track your mental health, or maybe to change your perspective on negative experiences? This can help you with choosing the right journal.
· You may be more motivated to journal on your phone. I have even used the notes app to complete the following journaling exercises, as I’m more motivated to write when I’m consistently on my phone anyway.
Of course, one of the benefits of journaling is the creative freedom over the format, but below may be a helpful structure if you’re struggling to start.
How are you feeling?
Rating your mood will help you track any progress in your mental health. Seeing your progress in numbers can reduce resistance to writing. You can track your mood however you like, by focusing on which feelings you find most important. Dr David Burns has free scales that are 95% accurate for depression, anxiety, happiness, and relationship satisfaction if you’d like a more rigorous approach.
What are you thinking?
Identify the upsetting event overwhelming you. Try framing your different thoughts as individual sentences to give you more clarity about the situation.
How much do you believe these thoughts?
Rate each thought out of 100% for how much you believe it. This is important because negative thoughts are almost always irrational. We will come back to this rating later.
Put the journal down
Get some perspective and return tomorrow to reassess how you feel. Put your journal down and take a break.
How are you feeling? What are you thinking? How much do you believe these thoughts?
Repeat the previous steps, rating how you feel, identifying upsetting events and thoughts and rating how much you believe these thoughts.
Return to yesterday’s entry
How much do you believe the negative thoughts of yesterday’s entry? Almost all negative thoughts are caused by distorted and irrational thinking. We 100% believe we can predict the future and read people’s minds, or that situations are black and white when they’re more complex. Burns’ Feeling Good provides revolutionary guidance on challenging irrational negative thoughts, but you can do this yourself with new insights about yesterday’s feelings. What rational thoughts can you put to yesterday’s negativity? How much do you believe them?
Do the same tomorrow!
Repeat! Write about your day and return to yesterday’s troubles with the gift of a bit more perspective.
Journaling can support mental fitness and wellbeing. Studies show that keeping a journal nurtures problem-solving skills, as the clarity and perspective gained from translating complicated thoughts into words gets to the root of the true problem. As well as problem-solving, the clarity of keeping a journal allows individuals a window into the ‘self’ and their habits. Fonagy (2009) stated that when journaling, individuals can ‘fill the gaps in their understanding of themselves and how they have come to be the way they are.’
Emotional regulation is another crucial benefit of keeping a journal. Writing can be an outlet for a deeper understanding and expression of your emotions. A study found that writing about emotions as well as cognitions can nurture positive growth from trauma, as the benefits of the event may be made obvious.
Creative expression is also encouraged when journaling. In therapeutic studies, participants seemed more motivated to journal than go to talking therapy, as it was a creative outlet. It also gave more power to the participant, as they chose how to express their thoughts and emotions with art materials.
Lastly, journaling can reduce symptoms of mental illnesses such as depression. When mental health is particularly poor, journaling may not be a substitute for professional help, but it can moderate feelings of everyday stress and rumination.