Over the past two decades or so, journaling has been one of the most prolific strategies to cope with a variety of mental health issues, particularly anxiety, depression and stress.
Journalling is a great tool to express oneself in a healthy way and confess one’s struggles and fears privately without any judgement or fear. It is mainly helpful because it helps to take back control over your life and your emotions.
Enough appointments with counsellors over the years have indicated that I present some symptoms of anxiety. For me personally, its not something that is a huge deal or revelation, its kind of a fact of life that I’ve accepted as a part of me for years. It was a very passive approach to my growth and wellbeing. As an avid believer of self-care and mental health, I decided to be proactive and start keeping a daily journal in high school. I desired to have agency and take control and leadership of my life and emotional responses.
I watched countless videos and read endless blogs and articles about how to journal properly. I started writing three things I’m grateful for every day, a practice I still continue today. I started journaling every day, setting aside 30 mins to an hour daily to process what happened that day. I wrote in excruciating detail, the tone of voice someone spoke to me in, or the colour of my nails that day, or down to what I said and heard in any important conversation.
For a few years, I thought it was helping me. I thought it was doing what it was supposed to do, prioritizing my problems, fears, and concerns. I thought it was helping me recognize red flags or negative triggers in my life so that I could cope with them. I thought it was pushing me towards more positivity and self-growth.
Wellness culture nowadays, is almost omnipresent. It exists all around us in social media, on tv, and within workplaces and schools. But they all exist for one primary function, productivity. Most of the wellness initiatives I see around me are there to boost wellbeing in order to perform better or ‘to the best of one’s ability.’ This approach situates genuine self growth and understanding as a function of or a stepping stone to being a better worker or student, rather than being the ultimate goal or discovery. The presence of ‘wellness’ as an entity all around us is quite tiring because it bears a constant expectation for someone to want to be better.
One thing definitely did happen after journaling consistently. I became highly self-aware. I was aware of my presence in my surroundings more than ever, observing how I react and how others react to me. I would reflect on why I may have reacted to certain situations in certain ways, and why others may have acted the way they did towards me.
But, I didn’t notice any resolution. I was writing them down, I was highly observant and detailed, but I couldn’t tell how this was actually helping me. I didn’t notice any identifiable difference in my approach. I was overthinking about overthinking.
I realised just last year, that maybe, journaling was having a negative effect on me. Rather than helping me, it was hindering my well being. I know, it sounds counterintuitive to everything we know about journaling, but, it is actually a common outcome.
I became a passive observer of my life, focusing too much on remembering the details to write about instead of experiencing it and acting on positive behaviours. Instead of taking control of my life and emotions, I let my emotions and life happen to me because I was more concerned with noting everything down and reflecting. It made me live too much in my head and remain stationary in the negative things that happen to me.
The reason why writing down what you are grateful for every day is recommended so much, is because, over time, you start to seek out and look for things to be grateful for, manifesting a positive and happier outlook on life. For me, writing down all the minute details of negative situations ended up making me seek out more negative situations. I needed something to write about right? I needed something to journal about, to complain about, to analyse. I manifested negativity within my life.
After talking to my university health counsellor, we decided to try not journaling for a few months to see how it would change my life. The past year has been exceptionally difficult mentally for me due to several reasons. I had to attend synchronous virtual classes at my university with a 13 hour time difference, making me stay awake all night. The floor below my flat was having construction during the day, leaving me with only 4-5 hours of sleep a day for the most part. Staying isolated in my room for most of the time I was awake (the nighttime is especially draining) didn’t help either and made go further into my head.
Stopping journaling, so far in the last 7 months, has actually been quite beneficial for me. The self-awareness that I have gained from the years of journaling has made me more aware of my surroundings. I am able to actively identify triggers or situations that I shouldn’t push. I am focused more on resolving the situation or strengthening myself at that moment rather than observing the details to write about later. I am still in the initial stages of this progress and I have a long way to go. But, every small step is a victory. What works for me, is not necessarily what works for someone else, and what is a small step for me can be a big step for another.
Don’t get me wrong, journaling is an incredibly beneficial practice for our well-being. It is something I would suggest to anyone that wants to do something small and beneficial for their mental health which they can incorporate into their daily lives without much hassle. But, everyone has their own sweet spot. Take your time to explore options and reflect on how they enrich or contribute to your life. Now that I have seen positive progress in my approach to life, I think in the future, I may get back into journaling to see if I can complement the progress I have started to make. Perhaps now that I have seen the lessons learnt through journalling presenting itself actively, I can go back and start a more proactive and conscious journal.
There is a tendency within the wellness world, particularly the toxic wellness culture, where wellness strategies are given a ‘one size fits all’ tag as my friend likes to put it. This isn’t always the case. Elements of certain practices can benefit some while hinder others. Journalling, at the end of the day, is a tool towards self-growth. And just like any other tool, the user needs to find the right way to use it (or not use it). Passive observation can be a great tool for someone who isn’t ready to jump all in and wants to take a step back and look at their life. But for someone like me, who wants to take the reigns of my life and stay in control, at some point, the desire for agency is what fuelled me to stop using this tool and find something more suitable.
Stay strong and keep fighting!
Mental Health Resources in Singapore:
For more information:
University of Rochester Medical Center. “Journalling for Mental Health.” University of Rochester Medical Center. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentID=4552&ContentTypeID=1.
Stosney, Steven. “The Good and Bad of Journalling” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201309/the-good-and-the-bad-journaling.
Phelan, Hayley. “What’s All This About journaling?” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/style/journaling-benefits.html