Journalling: Help or Hindrance?

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Image Description: Hands over a journal in a low-lit room

“To be honest, these entries are probably going to get shorter as I go along,” 18-year-old me remarked in my first diary entry.

I had decided to start writing a diary just before going to university, in order to reflect on the events that were happening in my life and to note the thoughts and emotions which were circulating in my head. At first, writing in a diary felt cathartic and positive. I would spill out all my worries and negative thoughts, externalising everything into words on a page as if confiding in some imaginary person. 

Yet 18-year-old me couldn’t have been more right. After a while, the entries in my diary did become shorter, and were often spread out over several weeks. Even during the pandemic, when an increase in journalling as a way of documenting the strange and unprecedented times may have been expected, I rarely opened my diary. 

I began to realise that, although writing in a diary works for some people, using it to express my worries and anxieties didn’t necessarily help me deal with them in the best way. I started to wonder if there were other, more effective approaches to dealing with our worries, where instead of ‘throwing out’ our negative automatic thoughts, we reframe our relationship to them.

I think that part of the reason why journalling didn’t work for me is because my response to the cathartic nature of diary writing changed over time. Whilst externalising the thoughts did help me to observe them, I was increasingly finding that I was ruminating on the same things over and over again. By focusing on the cathartic process, I was essentially reflecting only on the negative and overanalysing the situations I wrote about in my diary.

Moreover, I think that maybe I liked the ideas surrounding journalling more than the act of journalling itself. There is, to some extent, a hype around it as being part of an aesthetic incorporating productivity, organisation and the implication of stability. Trends such as the growth of StudyTubers over the past few years, and the recent resurgence of the Dark Academia aesthetic trending on platforms like TikTok contribute towards this romanticised image. 

Ultimately, by thinking about journalling through this romanticised lens, it became something I felt I had to do in order to convince myself that I was organised, productive and on top of things. I consequently went through a phase of vigorously writing eight or nine pages every night, regardless of how late it was or how tired I felt. 

The content was still the same, but after a while the rigid thinking and pattern of negative ruminations made me begin to see diary-writing as more of a chore than a way of expressing and dealing with my worries. At this point, I started practicing mindfulness more seriously, and found that this internal processing approach was useful in dealing with negative automatic thoughts and rigid thinking.

Mindfulness is a prominent feature in Buddhist practices and philosophies, but is also used in various psychological therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). What both of these therapies have in common is that they don’t try to externalise thoughts onto something – or someone else – but instead look inwards at the ways that our thoughts and feelings interact with our behaviours and physiology (bodily responses). Practices such as these encourage a focus on noticing these interactions without overanalysing how a thought came about, or why we feel a certain way. In other words, we use mindfulness to prevent being overcome by an “analysis-paralysis” mindset.

Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.” Letting the thoughts come and go, we distance ourselves from them not by pushing them away, but by growing comfortable with them and knowing that the thoughts do not define us. You are not your thoughts. This doesn’t mean that the thoughts won’t hurt, we just learn to not be consumed by them and instead to think of these negative thoughts as a babbling parrot that doesn’t really say anything of value.

The great thing about mindfulness is that it is so accessible. You don’t have to book on courses, use meditation apps (which can be quite harmful anyway due to the compulsion to unlock different levels/different materials), or even schedule in formal sessions if you are short on time. In Japanese Buddhism, the Sōtō Zen tradition includes the belief that everything can be done mindfully. 

This means that mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, anytime. In my practice, I have been mindful of things like the sound of my feet on different textures, and of noticing which parts of my body are in contact with my desk chair and how these feel different to the parts that are not touching the chair. As mindfulness can be practiced in all aspects of life by all people, it seems like less of a chore and more a way of life.

Of course, there are many other ways of expressing and dealing with anxieties and worries. However, I personally find mindfulness to be the best way because it teaches us to not react or ruminate on our worries, but to observe them without trying to get rid of them or distract ourselves. If mindfulness underpins everything, then journalling itself can be an activity where I incorporate it. I can enjoy the fluid motion of the pen moving on the pages of my diary, for example.

Journalling can be good for some people, but it doesn’t suit everyone and it isn’t necessarily effective for changing the way we understand our thoughts and emotions. In many cases, writing in a diary might just transport (or parrot) our worries onto paper, becoming a kind of second mind rather than an effective mental health strategy.

Sources:

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology-Science And Practice, 10(2), 144-156.

Harris, R. (2008). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Trumpeter Books.

Image credit: Isaac Taylor, Pexels

 

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