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Journaling Tips to Help Manage Mental Health

by Jacki Andre October 10, 2018

Journaling Tips to Help Manage Mental Health

Dear Sparkly Unicorn Friends,

Sparkling can be really fah-reakin’ hard sometimes. I hear you. I really do.

There are all kinds of reasons why a person’s sparkle might be a little dull. Grief. Chronic illness or other disability. Marital discord or relationship issues. Financial hardship. Mental illness.

Please know that if you’re struggling with any of these things, you’re not alone. I’ve dealt with most of them, and many other people have too. If you need to, please reach out.

About 5-6 years ago, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I first went to the doctor because my heart was racing for seemingly no reason. I would wake up in the middle of the night, with my heart doing a frantic rat-a-tat-tat in my chest. My blood pressure was high. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was anxious all the time, running a constant stream of “What if” scenarios through my head. Once, I went to a movie in an attempt to distract myself. It didn’t work. Frustrated, I screamed and beat at the steering wheel as I drove home.

It took a while to get my doctor to understand that I wasn’t just having physical issues; the root cause was mental illness. Once she understood that, she gave me a referral to a therapist. It was the therapist who helped me understand my anxiety and gave me the tools I needed to manage it.

One of those tools was journaling. This all happened in 2012-13, right around the time Ryder Carroll was perfecting and launching his Bullet Journal® (Bujo) system. Since the concept was so new at that time, I missed the boat on Bujos back then. That’s kind of a shame. Writing in a personal diary or lined journal has proven mental health benefits. But Bujos, with their lists and trackers, can be a terrific tool for managing mental health too.

Personal Journals and Mental Health

Using a lined journal to write down your thoughts can do a lot for your mental health. As Kate over at Meraki Lane points out:

Journaling can do wonders ... providing you with a creative, cathartic release and allowing you to rid yourself of daily stresses. It also allows you to look back on your journey to reflect on personal patterns of behaviour, growth and how you’ve overcome challenges that once set you back.

In addition to anecdotal evidence like Kate’s, there are a lot of studies that prove how impactful journaling can be on mental health. Positive Psychology Program has a terrific, comprehensive overview of those studies. Some of the most interesting bits:

  1. Writing in a personal journal is particularly effective for people who have PTSD. A lined journal is a safe space to explore suppressed emotions, to process difficult events, and to compose a coherent narrative.
  2. Journaling is also helpful for people who have clinical depression. As with PTSD, depressive symptoms can be alleviated by exploring suppressed emotions. With guided exercises, journaling can also help people focus on the positive.
  3. For people with anxiety, journaling can help identify negative thought patterns and triggers. Once those patterns and triggers are understood, it can be easier to manage your anxiety. But journaling is also beneficial because it allows you to clear your mind by getting rid of pent-up feelings, stress, and negative thoughts.
  4. A personal journal is also a powerful tool for those in recovery, whether it’s recovery from an eating disorder, addiction, or grief.
  5. Journaling gives us a way to shape our narrative into a story we are proud to own.
  6. A gratitude journal or a happiness journal can help boost our positive thoughts.

Bullet Journals and Mental Health

Bujos are known for the lush and artistic spreads that many Bujoers design. I am the first to admit that creating pages like that is WAYYYYY beyond my skillset. Which consists, basically, of messy handwriting, lopsided stick people, and loads of washi tape.

If you’re not artistic either, that’s okay! The themes driving those spreads are what’s important. Dedicating spreads to certain topics can help keep you on the sunny side. Sylvia at Mommy over Work has some great examples of themes that may help you work towards optimal mental health:

  • Things that make you happy
  • Inspirational quotes
  • Daily affirmations
  • A log of compliments that you’ve gotten
  • Things you love about yourself
  • Things to improve on
  • A gratitude list
  • A list of random acts of kindness you’ve done
  • Happy memories
  • An “Undo List” of things that you need to stop doing (like procrastinating or comparing yourself to others)
  • Things that will pick you up when you’re feeling down (a kitchen dance party with ‘80s music always does it for me)
  • Self-care ideas
  • Physical activity/exercise  
  • A brain dump to get all those chaotic thoughts out your head

In addition to themed spreads, Bujos are also known for their trackers. You can track virtually anything. Coloring in shapes with various shades can be more revealing than simply checking things off a list. You might choose to simply color in grid squares; or you might create (or print off!) a more artistic tracker, where you color in things like leaves, flower petals, or Tetris tiles.

Beth Hallman explains the point of it all:

[Trackers] have been invaluable in improving my mental health. I can see trends. Have I gone a few days without showering? Am I sleeping more? Not leaving the house? For me, those all indicators of a depressive episode. If I see changes in my moods, I can take a step back and assess what’s going on in my life, especially if suicidal ideation pops up. The data allows me to see correlations between behaviors and events.

But it’s important to be objective about the data in your trackers. That data can help manage your mental health … but only if you aren’t beating yourself up for not doing certain tasks. As Beth points out, “Tracking is meant to improve my mental health, not add a bitter layer of guilt to an already complex and serious condition.”

Do you keep a journal to support your mental wellbeing? I would love to hear about it if you do. Please drop me a comment below.

This blog was written in honor of World Mental Health Day, which happens annually on October 10.

Photo by Estée Janssens onUnsplash

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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