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My Journaling Journey: Why it's so valuable to write down your thoughts

Emily Harvie explores the benefits of journaling through a self-imposed twenty-day challenge.

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Image Credit: Emily Harvie

I wrote my last Editor’s Note on the topic of writer’s block. The topic in question was very fitting for the time, as I had been struggling to come up with ideas for articles, my dissertation and university work in general! At a time when deadlines are looming and you have stacks of work building up, writer’s block can feel like a death sentence – so, I thought to myself, why not take on more writing? I therefore decided to give myself a challenge of writing in a journal for twenty days straight.

My current journal is very new, so I have only written in it a couple of times. At the very beginning of 2021, I found my old journal which I had used throughout my teen years, and re-reading some of my entries made me want to start a new one for my twenties. I’ve never been too big on journaling, and I will definitely never be the type of person to write in one every day. Although, I do like being able to look back on some important life events and see what I was thinking and feeling on those particular days. By giving myself this challenge I hoped to overcome my writer’s block and I was curious to see whether it had any effect on my mental health and general well-being.

Research into journaling demonstrates a plethora of benefits. From reducing stress and increasing self confidence, to increasing your IQ and even improving your immune system, journaling has become a vital part of mindfulness, even going so far as to being a popular, upcoming method in psychological practice. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. James W. Pennebaker – a social psychologist and pioneer of writing therapy – explained that journaling ‘helps to organize an event in our mind, and make sense of trauma. When we do that, our working memory improves, since our brains are freed from the enormously taxing job of processing that experience, and we sleep better.’

I will admit, the first few days of writing felt a bit like a chore. I had to remind myself to write by adding it into my to-do list and I struggled to even write a page of thoughts. As the days carried on, however, I found myself slipping into a routine and steadily beginning to enjoy the time spent writing more and more. I quickly realised how much I had to write about, despite living in another lockdown. Before I set myself this challenge, my lockdown life appeared the same everyday, with nothing new or eventful. By writing at least a page each day, it forced me to think more deeply about what I had been up to. Admittedly, it was a struggle sometimes, but I frequently found myself writing in quite a lot of depth about some small drama or event that had occurred that day (it’s surprising how eventful online learning can be!).

Over the course of my challenge, I loosely followed Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” method which, put simply, involves writing your stream of consciousness uninterrupted for at least three pages. I initially chose her method as it supposedly aids writer’s block. By writing your stream of consciousness, this method helps you discover new ideas or explore the thoughts in your head more closely. According to her method, you should write these in the morning (clue is in the title after all) but I quickly turned to writing at the end of the day, just after finishing my work. For me, writing once my day’s work was over meant I had something physical to look forward to that signified the end of my day. At a time where my workplace is also my living space, ending the day by journaling and reflecting allowed me to step away from working and take the day’s stress off my mind. With all this in mind, I did momentarily consider patenting a program called “Emily Harvie’s Night Pages”, but unfortunately this has the ring of an old school porno mag – so probably not.

In terms of the effect of journaling on my mental health, I found on days where I was more anxious or worn-down, I would really have to encourage myself to even bother writing anything. I didn’t want to have to relive my day through writing. However, those were also the days when I had the most to say. Not long after beginning this challenge, I found myself  struggling a lot with my self-esteem surrounding my university work, planning for next year, and general life, and these events really started to physically and mentally impact my well-being. The first day of writing about these events was tough. Yet, writing each day and assessing how I felt compared to the day before ended up being incredibly useful and almost therapeutic in helping me evaluate my emotions and grow into a more happy, relaxed person again.

As you may have guessed, journaling is incredibly beneficial particularly to those struggling with anxiety or stress. There has been an incredible amount of research into the benefits of journaling in these areas. This includes patients struggling with anxiety or pain and students struggling with stress or classroom engagement, and generally has shown to improve cognitive function. Journaling has shown benefits for “recovery” from processing grief, to mental or physical health recovery, with research even suggesting it could be as beneficial as the popular therapy technique, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in reducing symptoms of depression.

As I drew to a close on my twenty days of writing, I found myself looking forward to picking up my journal, regardless of whether much had happened that day. However, now that my self-imposed challenge is over I have decided that I won’t continue to write everyday. Instead, I have started writing on Sundays as a way to reflect not only on my day but also my week as a whole. By writing about my week instead of my day, I hope to be able to continue my self reflection and continue to grow mentally in the next coming months. Additionally, as Boris Johnson’s roadmap to lift Covid-19 restrictions begins to be enacted, I look forward to being able to reflect on these changes when we are back to normality.

This time spent thinking about my life and my days in York has given me greater motivation to write more frequently. I can’t exactly say that journaling alone helped my writer’s block, but I did find the time incredibly useful for thinking about essay or article ideas. Inspiration would occasionally crop up from my writing, or even better, motivation to write more for an article would occur through my journaling. If someone is struggling with stress or anxiety these days, I would definitely recommend giving this a shot. Forcing myself to confront my own emotions and almost scrutinise my well-being helped me come back from a very low point in this term. This challenge almost couldn’t have been better timed!

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