How to Journal for Mental Health: 2021 [Organize Stress and Manage Anxiety]

Happy New Year and a New YouTube video!

Journaling has been the keystone habit that saves my mental health when I am feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. I’m optimistic that 2021 will be more positive than last year. If you are looking for a positive habit to start the new year here are my top tips for starting to journal.

Amid stress and uncertainty, there are many tools to strengthen our mental resolve and boost well-being. Some people find solace in communing with nature or cuddled beneath their covers with a good book, while others find it more constructive to reach out to their social networks for support and distraction. I’ve tried my fair share of cure-alls when wrestling with life’s challenges. Exercise, mediation, and social engagement have a place in my life, but no other practice has helped me untangle my knotted stress mess more than journaling.

Mental Clarity

Journaling is an open platform where you can unapologetically speak your truth. It doesn’t need to be a day-by-day account of your activities. Writing is and always has been an emotional and mental cleansing exercise.

I like to think of journaling as a real-life pensieve. If you’re unfamiliar with the magical world of Harry Potter, let me educate you on this crucial symbol in nerd lore.

“I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure.

It becomes easier to spot patterns and links,

you understand, when they are in this form.”

Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

A journal, like a Pensieve, is a space to freely work through challenging moments, express your feelings, and bring clarity and objectivity to decision making.

It’s challenging to prioritize 10 competing trains of thought floating around your mind. Extracting my inner dialogue by writing it down helps me separate priorities from mental clutter. It emotionally detaches me from my mental task list or a problem I’ve been ruminating over. Writing allows problems to live physically in your journal and helps you to symbolically close and let go of things out of your control.

Writing is also a very therapeutic exercise. James Pennybaker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has done some interesting research on writing’s ability to reduce stress and improve immunity. He investigated the impact that disclosure through writing has on university students, professionals after a job loss, and victims of serious emotional and physical trauma to find that …

“writing is an easy, inexpensive, independent and

relatively universal way for people can resist the

mental and physical ravages of stress and disease.”

James Pennybaker, Open Up! Writing About Trauma Reduces Stress, Aids Immunity

I’ve linked the study below, and it’s worth reading the abstract if you’re into that. But in a nutshell, it affirmed my personal experience that writing is a helpful and effective way to sort through your baggage.

Goals and Values

Words and actions are very different things. I know I’m guilty of having said one thing having meant another, or even saying something that my actions contradict. It’s instinctive to share the best version of ourselves when we proclaim our values. Actions, however, tell a completely different story.

Reflection has helped me find the driving force behind my goals and discover my intrinsic values. The tendency to step back and analyze may be a quirk of my introverted personality. However, I think that focused reflection is helpful for even the most outgoing among us to improve our self-understanding and solidify the concept of our aspirational lives.

To build something meaningful, we must have a clear idea of the proposed end product (or goal). Keep in mind this comes from someone who helps to build infrastructure projects in their day job. You don’t get far without a plan. Articulating what you want is the first step to realizing it. Writing it down dramatically helps to discover the actionable steps that will enable your aspirational self to move from fiction to reality.

“Know yourself, you need not fear

the result of a hundred battles.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Getting intimate with your core values is a powerful tool for habit creation. It helps to separate authentic goals from societal expectations. I also get a lot of motivation from knowing that a goal or aspiration resonates with my values and long-term plans, and I think I’m more likely to turn that goal into a routine.

I use journaling as an inspirational platform for my goals, but it can also function as a habit tracker. Systems like bullet journaling are a fun and easy way to track your goals if you’re not interested in downloading the latest habit tracking app. I’ll leave a link in the subscription to journaling prompts to refine your goals for the new year and track new habits.

The Real Life Pensieve

Cataloging your experience is a great way to record pivotal moments in your life – to accurately remember the good and the bad without the distortion of faded memory. Currently, I have a journal collection reaching back over ten years and it is a gift to be able to relive an experience through writing.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

Anais Nin

We all mentally look back at life through videos or photos, but rereading my stream of consciousness rebuilds the memories more vividly than any other medium. That raw emotion in experience is hard to capture in a picture. If we use journaling as a tool to understand ourselves better, it’s important to be able to accurately recall our mental and emotional reactions to events to learn from them.

Tips for a Novice

  1. Know your whyNew habits, like starting to journal, most easily turn from aspiration to routine when you’re clear why it would improve your life. What’s your why for journalling?
  2. Don’t take yourself so seriouslyNot every journal entry has to be a novel, and it’s sometimes paralyzing to expect yourself to go from a blank page to long-form journal entries in a day. So, start small and be kind to yourself. If one day, you are in an artistic mode – make a cute doodle. If the next day you can’t think about anything but your building task list – write it out, or if you’ve had a particularly rough social life this quarantine season, feel free to have an emotional meltdown within the confines of your journal.
  3. Make it Fun“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” ― Mark TwainI think part of the reason we often find work, school, or building healthy habits to be drudgery is that we think of them as an obligation. I have to complete this long boring paper for my thesis, or I have to fun a 5k at the gym, so I don’t lose my ab definition. If we are results-focused, it’s helpful to reframe the grunt work and methodical tasks as a privilege to trick our brain into being more productive.If I were in a reading contest, my strategy would be to run for the fantasy tomes. Not because they are any easier to read, but because I know that if I’m having fun, I become lost in the “work” and breeze through 1000 pages of magic and adventure faster than a 200-page self-help book.But you don’t have to instinctively love the task to come to find it fun and fulfilling. Reminding myself that I’m lucky and grateful to be working on projects that leave a positive impact on the world helps make menial tasks more enjoyable.In the context of journaling, I recommend keeping it light-hearted. Use pretty gel pens and cute stickers if you want to engage your inner child, make a mini collage, or share your goals and aspirations for the New Year with a friend.
  4. Make it EasyTo actually start journaling, focus on journaling more, not writing the next great piece of literature or having a therapeutic breakthrough every time you start writing. Like I said before – it doesn’t have to be so serious. You are more likely to journal if you remove some of the friction from starting. I like to journal in physical notebooks, but if that’s annoying to carry around with you, feel free to download a journaling app on your phone or jot down a few thoughts on a sticky note when you want to get something out of your head at work.
  5. Build a system that works within your existing routinesTry and find small spaces in the day to write down your thoughts. Don’t feel like you need to carve out an hour for self-reflection. If you have a few minutes waiting in line, you can pull out your phone to write down your thoughts. You can also make some journal scribbles over lunch or curl up with your journal before bed. Test out different ways to bring the act of journaling into your life and find what feels the most natural to you. Then you can set little reminders on your phone, leave your journal in your favorite reflective place or pick up a new journal that inspires you to write.

Lessons Learned

I hope that helps you to get the ball rolling. Here is what I’ve learned after 10 years of active journaling.

Remember the Date

Generally, the more detail you put, the better. I’ve looked back on previous journal entries and wished that I’d taken the extra two seconds to, yes, do something as trivial as including the year. You never experience the same moment twice, so I encourage you to layer as much detail into your journal entries as possible to preserve your memories and share them with your future self. Unraveling our feelings while writing is not always a pleasant experience, but it’s just as important to understand your pain as it is your pleasure.

I’ve come very far and have further to go

Maybe the gaming industry has brainwashed me into thinking that progress is always in a positive direction – up and onward. In my reality, life’s progress has felt more like a labyrinth. Of course, I recognize a lot of progress and self-improvement when I overcome challenges that once felt all-consuming.

But, I also know that I’m very much a work in progress. My perception of self-worth, tendency to internalize conflict, and struggle to both speak and own my truth are as challenging to me today as they were ten years ago.

I hoped that I would have found a magic key along the way, but honestly, I’m still working on the optimized workflow for personal development, and some days it feels more challenging than engineering.

Same Old Me

So what’s left after a decade of journal entries? Maybe a better sense of self-understanding and a stronger resiliency muscle, but if anyone intended to be transformed while recording their life, they’re probably asking for too much.

There are intrinsic character traits of my self-identity that remain constant despite the time and self-development activities. If I learned anything, it’s that reflection is not always about creating change. We can act as a best friend, confidant, and coach through personal writing, and that itself is productive, positive, and worthwhile.

You inevitably experience an evolution over time, but journaling is how I analyze that, not how I initiate the change.

Good luck everyone, let me know your favorite journaling prompts in the comments section below.

Resources

How Writing About Trauma Reduces Stress

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