In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.Susan Sontag
I am new to journalling. I started this past March just before the lockdown. I see the irony of being new⏤given I teach groups and facilitate clients to write reflectively and constantly extol the benefits of expressive writing⏤but there it is. The research evidence shows that writing a journal has multiple benefits for mental health: expressing our thoughts reduces stress, gives you a place to share things you might otherwise keep inside, helps to develop a sense of having a voice (what we call a sense of agency), and helps with the processing of challenging experiences.
The timing was auspicious, although not designed; I was struggling to get going with my academic writing and read someone somewhere say that they always began the writing day with a warm-up exercise in their journal⏤so that’s how it began. And then the virus happened. And I was ANXIOUS.
I found that one way to reduce my anxiety was to write down⏤to chronicle⏤all of the developments related to the virus that I’d come across in the day: numbers of infections, numbers of deaths, lockdown measures (the closing of pubs was the first big one), major stories in the press. Nothing personal, nothing about what I was feeling. Just the facts. I think this helped because I wasn’t simply suffering the pandemic, but rather was telling its story: I got distance on the events by describing them and also assumed a degree of self-agency in taking on the role of narrator. Jennifer Moon (Learning Journals, 2006) identifies reflective writing as vehicle for self-empowerment; telling our story is a place of power.
This approach served its purpose for a month or so; then my journal moved into a new phase⏤what I think of as my Gerald Durrell My Family and Other Animals phase⏤where I started to observe and report on the activities of the neighbours. (I realise as I write this that it sounds a little creepy, but bear with me.) The bloke two doors up is building an ambitious shed⏤we call it the shedifice⏤from scratch, which means its a long process with lots of stages. The neighbours are bored at home; the wood arrives and it draws the men first, who watch the timber unloaded. The walls start to rise and more men come, and the women join them: shedifice becomes the whole focus of the street; at nights there are parties in the roofless shed. Every day I check progress and note it down. You get the idea. What did this stage of the journal do for my anxiety? Well, it took me outside of the worry in my head and trained my focus on the here-and-now of the outside world; it took me away from anxieties about a projected future. Jon Kabat Zinn posits mindfulness as the antidote to anxiety; in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994) he writes ‘one practical way to do this is to look at other people’. In therapy we commonly use grounding exercises for attacks of anxiety: turning your attention to the things you can see, hear and feel in the external environment⏤and away from anxious thoughts in the mind. You can google grounding exercises and find audio walk-throughs that are helpful.
Anyway, then there was a third stage of journalling. I started re-reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (1992) which is an 11-week programme for unlocking your creativity⏤which I recommend if you haven’t read it. The keystone of the programme is ‘the morning pages’⏤three sides of stream-of-consciousness writing done as soon as possible after you wake up. This type of writing is rarely a pleasure, but rather more of a discipline which forces you to get what’s inside of your head outside. Through this raw type of writing you can see a self emerge which you may or may not have been aware of: a messy whole person written with openness and a sense of acceptance. I always think of the Carl Rogers’ quote: it is a curious paradox that when I accept myself as I am, then I can start to change. I started to get to know myself without the anxious bits edited out.
Now I am in a fourth (and final?) stage where I do the morning pages and jot down notes and observations at other times of the day. My journal has become more than an activity⏤it has become somewhere to go, a space, a place to hangout when my emotions need some care. It can be a distraction or an abstraction (I am still keeping tabs on the shed), it is often a dumping-ground⏤but it is increasingly becoming a place I can be myself and find myself and, I think, create myself⏤oftentimes in unexpected ways. While journalling isn’t a universal panacea for anxiety, I have found that it certainly can calm me when I find my thinking leading me into dark waters.
Give it a go.