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How to Use a Brain Dump Journal to Improve Mental Health

by Jacki Andre July 23, 2018

How to Use a Brain Dump Journal to Improve Mental Health

Dear Sparkly Unicorn Friends,

Imagine that you’re walking down the midway at the county fair. The sun is hot and bright. There are SO MANY PEOPLE streaming every which way, talking, shrieking, laughing. You get separated from your friends in the crowd. The air is saturated with aromas: corn dogs spitting up fat in the deep fryers, the sweet sticky smell of candied apples, dust kicking up at your feet. The booths and stuffed animals hanging from their rafters are a rainbow of color. There’s SO MUCH YELLOW everywhere. (Seriously, world, please stop the Minions train already so that I can get off.) The barkers are shouting, the calliope is pumping out music, the safety bars on the rides clang as they lock into place. Ooh! Look! Whack-a-Mole! I rock at Whack-a-Mole! Clouds scuttle across the sky and light rain begins to fall. The world is a cacophony.

It’s fast-paced. It’s chaotic. It’s ever-changing. It’s overwhelming.

It’s a metaphor for what’s going on inside your head.

Maybe not every day. But we’ve all had times when our brains scramble to take everything in, focus and prioritize. We’ve all had days where we struggle with racing thoughts that go off on tangents, making us losing threads and forget stuff.

Keeping a to-do list in a personal diary or lined journal can help. But sometimes the thoughts swirling in our heads aren’t suited to a to-do list. You know the ones: hopes and dreams and bucket list items; random observations; songs you’re stuck on; decisions that need to be made; worries; fears; memories.

Here’s the thing, sparkly unicorns: having that much going on in your head isn’t good for your mental health. It’s stressful! Sorting through all the detritus to remember and prioritize stuff can be exhausting. For example, I need to buy a gift for a friend’s birthday. But, in addition to all the other random tidbits my brain is lugging around (I need to pick my raspberries! When was the last time I watered my lawn? I get to see Jim Cuddy again in September! What am I going to wear???), I’m also thinking: What should I buy? What did I get her last year? How much should I budget for this? When do I need to mail it? When’s her birthday again?

#TrueStory. And buying a gift for my friend is JUST ONE THING. I know you can relate and can rattle off 57 other things currently vying for your attention. At 4:24am. When we both should be asleep. But we’re not. ‘Cause our brains won’t stop.

Well, here’s what we both need to do: a brain dump.

What's a Brain Dump?

A brain dump is an easy and effective way to manage the clutter in your mind. All you need is a pen, paper (or a writing journal dedicated to brain dumps), and 10-15 minutes to write down every abstract thought in your head. Shelby over at littlecoffeefox.com likens a brain dump to spilling the contents of a purse onto a table. Just dump it all out into a big disorganized pile.

Spill it ALL Out

At this point -- The Spill -- don’t worry about being organized and don’t worry about being neat. Just write. Bullet points work great, but as Emily Counts points out, mind maps and scribbles are also good. (Some people, like Matthew Kent, recommend doing brain dumps in your bullet journal. But since each bullet journal spread is usually hemmed in by other spreads, you may find the space -- and the exercise -- limited.)

Once you have everything written down, walk away for a little while. Let it all percolate. If more thoughts come bubbling to the surface, you can add those in. Emily at smallstuffcounts.com suggests doing your brain dump before bed. Then, sleep on it before addressing it in the morning.

How to Address a Brain Dump

What you do with your brain dump is up to you. Sometimes, it’s enough to write it all down. As Shelby from littlecoffeefox.com says, a brain dump is like a pressure valve, a way to clear your mind. And, in some cases, there is nothing more you CAN do. Maybe you just needed a safe place to vent and say those things that you can’t say out loud. Or maybe your brain dumps can serve for self-reflection. As you continue doing them, you should begin to recognize what annoys you, causes you stress, or brings you joy.

But if there are to-do type items in your brain dump, taking it to the next level can further improve your mental health. As Brighton Keller points out in her blog, “there is NOTHING better than after you do a brain dump and start knocking things off that list. NOTHING! It’s one of the best self-care practices I’ve ever done for myself and the feeling afterwards is like nothing else. Peaceful, inspiring, strong.”

How do you get to that same mountaintop as Brighton? Break your brain dump into a to-do list. Using highlighters or color-coded asterisks is an easy way to mark off the different categories:

  • Go ahead and cross off any random thoughts and observations.
  • Easy and urgent to-dos, that you CAN do to today SHOULD be done today, so that you feel as invincible as Brighton.
  • Non-urgent tasks can be moved to a to-do list in your personal diary or bullet journal.
  • Hopes, dreams, and bucket list items might benefit from dedicated brain dumps, where you can brainstorm ways to make your dreams come true.

Do you do brain dumps? What’s  your method? What’s your routine? Do you have any tips to share? I’d love to hear from you.

Jacki Andre
Jacki Andre

Jacki Andre has been journaling for over 30 years and still has her jam-packed Judy Blume Diary to prove it. Somewhere along the way, she started writing for reals, and is now a published author and Huffington Post blogger. In her spare time, Jacki supports dog rescue, advocates for disability rights, and educates other drivers via hand gestures about the importance of using turn signals. She keeps in shape by chasing joy (and her ‘80s teen idols) in earnest.

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