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Sharp Health News

How journaling can improve your mental health

Jan. 28, 2021

Woman at home write notes in a diary while drinking a cup of tea.

These are extraordinary times. Even among people who were not previously struggling with mental health issues, the pandemic has triggered anxiety and depression, leaving many unsure how to cope.

However, there are things people can do in their daily life to improve their overall mental state, whether or not one has sought therapy. One very effective tool is journaling.

According to Michelle Wenzler, LCSW, a therapist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, journaling can help to clarify thoughts and feelings about difficult situations and mindfully focus on the present moment. Writing about how we feel and noticing what internal dialogue is going on in our brains can help us make choices about what we want to think.

"The word 'pandemic' is enough to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a fight-or-flight response in the body that causes anxiety, worry, stress and fear," says Wenzler. "When we write out our thoughts, we can objectively decide what we have control over and make plans to take action. Alternatively, we can decide what we do not have control over and shift our attention away from negative thoughts to activities that promote calm in our lives."

Journaling helps people understand what their triggers are, allowing them to decide how they want to manage their feelings about big issues. Doing so causes the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, which helps reduce stress and anxiety.

Getting started with journaling
The structure, frequency, format and content of journaling is completely one's own personal choice and may evolve over time. Remember, anything one writes is valuable, whether it's recording daily events, jotting down favorite quotes, venting or simply writing out the thoughts swirling around one's head. There are no rules.

To get in the groove, it can help to set a goal of journaling daily, weekly or monthly. If possible, pick a relaxing space and enjoy a cup of tea or listen to relaxing sounds while writing. For some inspiration, consider writing about one of the following prompts:

What is causing me to feel upset or uneasy right now?
Understanding what triggers you can help you figure out the next steps of how to manage your feelings. The answer may not be as obvious as you might think. Give yourself time to explore your thoughts a little deeper.

What do I have control over and what is out of my control?
Often we feel like we need to take action on an issue that is bothering us, but it is important to ask yourself: Is this something I actually have control over and can do something about?

What can I tell myself that makes me feel better?
Self-soothing statements work. Positive affirmations, such as "I am good enough," "I am in the right place at the right time" and "this too shall pass," can help us be more positive. Rather than just writing down these statements, say them aloud to yourself several times to help them sink in.

In what ways am I proud of how I handled 2020? What life lessons did I learn?
Even if you don't feel like you're at your best, remember that you are surviving an extra challenging time and that you are not alone in trying to find ways to cope. You likely learned at least one thing in 2020, and taking time to reflect on that can help you process and try to find some positives.

What forms of self-care did I practice in 2020? What practices can I incorporate in 2021?
Self-care is critical for both mental and physical health. Think about what you did to make yourself feel better in the past year, and what activities make you happy. Whether it is meditating, lighting candles and taking a bath, practicing yoga, or taking time to relax without electronic distractions, think about what self-care practices you can build in to your routine.

What are my top 5 priorities and goals for 2021?
It can be helpful to think ahead about specific things you want to do or achieve and hold yourself accountable for taking steps toward accomplishing them.

When trying to manage any difficult situation, it's important to maintain balance. While journaling is wonderful on its own, it is best as one part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Ask yourself: Am I eating healthful meals? Am I exercising my body and mind? Am I getting enough vitamin S (socialization)? All of this is important.

A journal can do much more than help you work through problems and issues. If you are writing about your daily life, think about the historical context of beginning to write during this time - you are recording history! While you might not want to revisit this chapter of life anytime soon, one day your current thoughts, activities and memories may be fascinating and help you see how far you've come.

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