We explore the history of journaling and its role in promoting better mental health, as well as provide prompts to help enhance the practice for both interested beginners and seasoned record keepers.
Many people have kept a journal at some point in their lives, though not many have been able to sustain the practice. For some, life simply got too busy; for others, the appeal of the act might’ve waned over time.
Whatever the reason may be, expressing one’s thoughts and feelings is such an integral part of the human experience that countless people around the world have attempted to do so through writing at least once.
A Timeless Activity
Keeping a written record of daily life and thoughts is an act that’s been around almost for as long as writing systems have existed. One of the earliest pieces of personal writing that, in today’s terms, people can classify as a journal or diary is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. This is a collection of works that detail the Roman emperor’s musings and anecdotes, which date as far back as his reign from 161 AD to 180 AD.
This series of self-reflective pieces were—as with many diaries—never meant to be published. Rather, Aurelius wrote them as a way to “help himself carry the weight of his imperial responsibilities,” as per an article from the Big Think.
Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book is another one of the earliest diaries in the world. Shōnagon was a Japanese lady-in-waiting under Empress Teishi during the Heian period (794 to 1185 AD). She left a lasting legacy with her written records of court life in Japan, which offered an interesting glimpse into the lives of the upper class.
A slew of great thinkers and writers also kept journals to record their experiences, feelings, ideas, and reflections. These include Virginia Woolfe, Franz Kafka, Susan Sontag, Anaïs Nin, Joan Didion, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Albert Einstein, to name a few.
Susan Sontag once wrote in her piece On Keeping a Journal: “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of self-hood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent.”
The Effects of Journaling on Mental Health
That said, you don’t need to be a genius or professional writer in order to journal. Despite their fame, the aforementioned figures never intended to show these personal pieces to anyone: they’re simply products of a desire to translate and record the intangible. It’s as Plato said: the unexamined life is not worth living.
Anyone can create a journal; flowery words and profound thoughts are not prerequisites. This record is for your eyes only, so you don’t have to worry about what you write. Once you let go of your fear of the blank page, you may find the act quite therapeutic. In fact, research states that it actually is.
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, journaling can help people manage anxiety, reduce stress, and cope with depression. It can also improve mood by providing a liberating outlet of expression. Writing can give your nebulous fears and concerns a clearer shape, allowing you to better identify and resolve these issues.
Of course, journaling is not an all-in-one cure or solution to good mental health. You’ll still need to pair it with other practices like getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and exercising. Still, the act of writing can be a powerful tool in your self-care arsenal.
Is Journaling Every Day Necessary?
There’s no right or wrong way to journal. Many people give up the endeavor due to the preconceived notion that they must write every day. Although keeping a regular routine is good, it’s not the be-all and end-all.
From personal experience, forcing yourself to write completely negates the meaningful nature of the act. At the end of the day, journaling should work with your circumstances in order for its benefits to take effect.
I tend to write when I feel strong bursts of emotion, experience something I find worth recording, or observe things I want to remember—though sporadic, this schedule has never tarnished my overall experience.
You can do anything with your journal: if you’d rather draw or type words on a computer, then that’s fine. Whatever gets your thoughts and feelings across in a way that’s accessible. Journals don’t have to record exciting experiences either, in case you’re worried your life is routine-based or uneventful. Write about the things that interest you, or talk about a film you recently watched; the possibilities are endless.
Granted, unlimited freedom can be daunting in itself. Where would you even start? What is there to write about? It’s a roadblock that many have encountered, even those that regularly keep journals.
Regardless of your level of experience, below are a few possible prompts you can try that may help get those creative juices flowing (and promote better mental health):
When life gets tough, there’s something rather comforting about—quite literally—counting your blessings. Oftentimes, negative emotions and experiences tend to overshadow the more positive things in life.
By making the conscious effort to recall and acknowledge the good, you can provide yourself with a source of hope and comfort in times of need. You can choose to do this first thing in the morning or at the end of the day—whatever works for you.
List down things that you’re grateful for or positive experiences that happened on a particular day. However, you don’t have to make it too long; even recalling a single thing that made you smile—or at least lifted your spirits momentarily—would be more than enough.
Usually, the hustle and bustle of daily life makes it difficult to pause and reflect on what causes us to feel anxious or stressed. We move on with our busy days and hectic schedules, unable to reflect or address these problems. This creates a vicious cycle of exhaustion and fear that seems almost insurmountable.
Journaling gives you the avenue to stop for a few minutes and think about these stressors and fears—which can effectively break the cycle. What’s more, under instances of distress, it can be difficult to pinpoint what’s wrong. After all, thoughts and emotions tend to be nebulous until they’re untangled and given shape.
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, you can start by describing the experience. Does your chest feel tight? Are you having difficulty breathing? Take a moment to think about what these reactions may be telling you and write it down. If you tend to catastrophize, list down your anxieties. Then, you can either debunk them on the other side of the page, or trace their possible source so you can plan the next logical course of action.
If you struggle with feelings of inadequacy, journaling can be a good way to gently remind yourself of your accomplishments and merits. This might seem like a tall order amid insecurities, but a concrete prompt can help. You can list one thing you were proud of doing, or just simple qualities that you like about yourself.
If you’re a vivid dreamer who tends to forget your dreams later in the day, keeping a dream journal can be a fun endeavor. You can try writing about your latest dream the moment you wake up, or simply record the ones that you find interesting enough. Writing down about your feelings after a nightmare can also be incredibly cathartic.
Write book, film, or TV show reviews
No one said journals are limited to thrilling anecdotes and everyday experiences. Your thoughts about a particular piece of media—be it a book, article, film, TV show, and the like—are worth journaling about. You don’t have to write a piece that’s fit for The New York Times; penning down a few sentences or even a couple of words is more than enough.
Keep a visual album
If you’re tired of writing, you can also draw or simply paste mementos in your journal. These can include tickets, wrappers, receipts, photos, and brochures, among other things. Caption them or provide a short word to describe their significance to you; again, no need to go into detail or write lengthy paragraphs.
The point of this exercise is to relish in the act of compiling meaningful tokens and creating a visual map of the things that hold significance to you. This way, when you do look back at your past journals, you’ll find pages of time capsules that preserve what matters most.
Banner photo by Prophesee Journals via Unsplash.