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  • Writer's pictureShaun McMahon

A Starter's Guide to Journal Writing

One of the simplest, easiest, and cheapest ways to improve your mental health is to write in a journal. This daily practice can help you to better understand your thoughts and feelings, regulate your moods, and process difficult experiences or situations in your life.


It might seem silly to read a guide on how to write things down on a piece of paper. But there’s a few things to consider about the practice of writing in a journal that can help you to get the most out of the process.


Setting You Up For Success


If you’re interested in keeping a journal, here’s some things to consider to set you up for success. A journal works best when it’s something you do on a routine basis, so that it becomes automatic, in the same way you brush your teeth each day or eat meals at roughly the same time.


Timing: Most people like to write in their journal first thing in the morning, or right before they go to bed. A morning writing session can help to set you up for the day, while an evening writing session can help to clear your head and prepare you for bed. It might be worth experimenting with both times, however if you often have trouble sleeping and find yourself laying in bed and ruminating on your thoughts, I’d recommend you start writing in the evening before bed. A session of journal writing before bed can really help to get things off your chest and give you a better night's sleep.


Amount: It can help to set yourself a goal, or limit, of how much you write in your journal each day. I recommend 1 A4 page of writing, which might seem like a lot at first. We’ll get into ways you can expand on your writing if that feels like too much in the moment, but for now consider how much you would like to write. You can always write more if you’ve got a lot on your plate or have had a really bad day, so feel free to go beyond one page if it feels right. 


Method: One of the most common questions I get asked by clients when discussing journaling is “can I write on a computer instead?”. Ultimately this is completely up to you, however I believe there is something special about writing things down on paper. We often write a lot slower than we type, and it’s harder to go back and erase what we’ve written, which allows our mind to focus less on ‘getting it right’ and more on expressing whatever is coming to mind. If you’re considering digital journaling, the program ‘standard notes’ is free, available on multiple platforms, and allows you to set passwords to protect your privacy.


Accessibility: Ideally, we want your journal to be something that is private and confidential. This gives you the freedom to write whatever you want, even if it might be bizarre, or hurtful to the person you’re writing about. This can make having a digital journal appealing, as you can protect it with a password. However, if you’re worried about someone finding your physical journal, you can always hide it in a safe place, or disguise it amongst your other books so that it doesn’t stand out as a journal.


To review, or not to review?: Another contentious topic is whether or not to review your journal during, or after you write in it. I personally do not like to read over what I’ve written, and will gladly discard any of my journal entries. This is because I mainly use journal writing as a brain dump. However, some people like to keep their journals to be able to read back over them at a later date to see how far they’ve come, or to review what they were thinking/feeling at a time in their lives. Some also like to bring journal entries into therapy to talk about them. Think about whether or not you need to access your entries at a later date when considering where and how to write your journal.


After giving some thought to these points, let’s consider some ways to journal. There is no right or wrong way to journal, and finding what works best for you might take time as we’re all different. I encourage you to experiment until you find what fits - a useful metric can be to monitor your day to day wellbeing and see if the way you’re writing in a journal helps, makes things worse, or has no effect at all.


Stream of Consciousness Writing


My personal favorite form of journaling, and the one I recommend most to clients, is called stream of consciousness writing. It sounds like a fancy, technical process but it’s actually really simple, and can have powerful effects over the long term.


When I use the word consciousness here, I’m talking about that constant voice in your head which never turns off and comments on what you’re doing and everything that’s going on around you. Some might call it an ‘inner monologue’, like a narrator who’s talking over the top of the movie of your life.


The idea of stream of consciousness writing is to make a ‘transcript’ of that voice in your head. To write down, word for word, the thoughts you’re having, no matter how nonsensical, scattered or bizarre they might be. Imagine you’re a reporter writing down, word for word, what a famous person is saying during a speech, only the famous person is just the voice in your head. Here’s a sample of what that might look like:


I’ve been waiting three weeks and still haven’t heard back from the landlord. This is getting insane. I’m so angry. What are these people doing? I could email them again but I don’t really see the point at this stage. I’d like to think the real estate agents have a number of clients they’re trying to manage on the go, and that I’m one of many, but it seems more tempting to believe they’re just sitting around doing nothing. What’s the deal with these people? How hard can it be to reply to an email?

My clients often report that they feel they’re going around in circles in their thinking and never getting anywhere. Stream of consciousness writing helps to tackle this because we’re often keeping these thoughts and feelings to ourselves. Like a dog with a dry bone, we keep nibbling away at them, but never really get anywhere.

When you write your thoughts down, you externalize them and can therefore observe them from a different perspective. You might gain clarity on your thoughts, recognize that you’re being really negative or focusing on things outside of your control, or begin to notice patterns every time you sit down to write.


A major insight I had from journaling came after noticing that I consistently kept writing about the same three or four core feelings I was having, and that I was always being negative when I wrote about them. This insight helped me to notice this habit of negativity, and begin to have more compassion for myself.


I encourage you to give stream of consciousness writing a try for a week, and see what you’re able to notice about your mind after the first 7 days. If you find yourself getting stuck a few minutes in and have nothing to write, write about that. Write about feeling stuck and not knowing what to say, and then start to explore why that’s happening. Maybe you’re scared of what you’ll find if you explore your mind, and that definitely sounds like something worth writing about!


Writing Letters


One of the most impactful forms of journaling is to write unsent letters to people. The key word here is ‘unsent’, meaning that the letter you’re writing will never be witnessed by the person you’re writing to, or potentially anyone else. 


Much of the time, our complaints and problems in life are often tied to our relationships with other people. You might be stewing over something involving a friend, colleague, partner, or family member. But if we were to express exactly what we’re thinking and feeling to this person, we might ruin the relationship or really hurt them.


A way around this is to write a letter to them in which you can outline your true thoughts and feelings. This can help you to gain clarity and insight into what’s really going on, and why this really bothers you. It can also be a useful method for moving forward and getting closure in a relationship that has ended because you’re no longer in contact with the person, or they have passed.


Here’s a sample of what this might look like:


Dear John, I’m writing this letter to you knowing that you’ll never read it. I think that’s important, because I find it incredibly hard to say these things to your face. I don’t even know how to start in describing how hurt I was by what you’ve done, but I know that if I were to tell you directly that you would deny having done anything wrong. I guess the first feeling that comes to mind is a lot of sadness that we’re no longer friends. 

After doing this many times myself, and hearing feedback from clients, I’ve often found that you will reach a point somewhere in the letter where you run out of things to say. This is a critical moment, and a sign that you need to keep going. Often we get bogged down in the initial thoughts and feelings we’re having, and without anywhere for them to go we just go around in circles.


However, if we can get those thoughts and feelings down on paper, we’re presented with an opening into deeper thoughts and feelings about this situation that we might not have considered or explored.


In this moment, I encourage you to reconnect with the idea that you’re addressing this person. What do you really want to say to them? What would you want them to hear if you had their full, undivided attention? Be bold and take a risk, knowing that they’ll never read it, and this is your chance to really say what you need to say. 


Capitalizing on this moment can help you to step into a place of vulnerability in this relationship and get to the heart of what really matters for you. 


Gratitude Journaling


The last method of journaling I recommend is to focus on gratitude. Our minds are wired to focus on problems, dangers, threats and obstacles. This has helped us to survive as a species for millions of years, because it paid to be vigilant in a world where many things were trying to eat or kill us.


While this focus can help us to overcome challenges in life and move forward, too much rumination on problems and the bad things in life can often create a feedback loop of negativity. Not only does this mean we’re constantly on the lookout for the next thing to go wrong, but it also blinds us from all of the things in life that are going right


As a therapist I frequently encounter people who are facing incredibly difficult situations that they never thought they’d find themselves in, and often feel completely unprepared to deal with. While it might be hard to find any light in dark places like that, I believe there’s always something to be grateful for. If you’re still in doubt, you might ask yourself “how could things be worse right now?”


Personally, one of my go-to things to be thankful for is modern plumbing. Even when I’m having a terrible day, I find it easy to be grateful that we have these wonderful devices called toilets, which people 200 years ago would have found to be an absolute luxury. If your world is falling apart around you, the good news is that you don’t need to do your business in a chamber pot then carry it outside to get rid of it. One less thing to worry about!


You might also find yourself grateful that you have a warm bed to sleep in, and a roof over your head. No matter how bad things are right now, they’d be considerably worse if you had to face those problems while also sleeping on the street in the freezing cold.


An alternative is to consider difficult times in your life that you’ve encountered when things felt completely hopeless, only for things to work out in the end. We often become laser focused on a specific problem we have, and feel that it’s never going to get any better. But in my own experience I’ve learned that the moment the problem gets solved, I quickly forget it, and no longer think about it unless I actively make an effort to, because I’ve moved on to focusing on the next problem.


Reflecting on how things have worked out in the past can be a great way to gain perspective on your current situation, and consider possible ways that things might turn around for the best. 


Closing Thoughts


One of the best parts about keeping a journal is that it’s really accessible. Aside from the cost of buying a notebook and a pen, the only thing you’re spending is your time. Just like daily practices such as going for a walk, eating healthy meals or brushing your teeth, writing in a journal is a great way to take care of your mind and mental health. It might be hard to get into the habit at first, but in the long run it can greatly pay off if you stick with it. I encourage you to give journaling a try, as it can be incredibly helpful to have in your toolkit when things get tough.


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