It might sound absurd to suggest that sitting down to write about thoughts and feelings can in any way have a substantial impact on the way you think, or how you approach your problems. But that’s essentially what therapy is – guided thinking, helping you become aware of problematic thoughts that lead you down dark roads of self-harm, self-loathing, and self-destruction.
In much the same way, journaling can further help you improve what you’ve been figuring out at therapy, applying it in a way that’s significantly less ridiculous or strange than speaking to yourself while staring into a mirror. However, if done without some mental preparation or consideration for where your train of thought is going, journaling can also backfire.
There are limits to how effective journaling can be. It’s important to understand that depressive thoughts have a long list of causes, and “thinking differently” is not always a solution to these causes. Journaling can help you cope with stress in the aftermath of an event that left you struggling with symptoms of depression. Think of it this way – you can treat a wound, but if the cause is internal rather than external, then you’ll need to treat further. A plan that tackles all the symptoms, instead of stopgap measures.
That doesn’t discount journaling or its potential, especially on a person-by-person basis. For some, sitting down every day and writing is a path to salvation. For others, it’s little more than a waste of time. But before you decide on which side you fall on, give it a try, and give it some time.
Continuing Therapy on Paper
There are many names for it. Self-relations therapy, self-therapy, self-counseling – and so on and so forth. The idea is that you can resolve issues without professional help, using certain techniques. As part of the concept of self-help, there is one flaw to begin with: while therapy does ultimately involve the self, the help part must be external. Relying on yourself is a good practice, but it’s not an absolute rule. Learning to accept help from others is a big step in confronting depression.
You must come to terms with the idea that you deserve help, and that you need it, too. Help from friends and family is important, as is their support in your treatment, including journaling. Guided self-help, for example through the Internet or over the phone, is also more effective than simply reading a book on how to feel better.
Journaling is best used as a tool to continue working on things you figured out through external help. That doesn’t mean professional help, but consider talking to a friend about your problems, and getting their input. Early on, it’s almost impossible to look at your thoughts from a different perspective. Hearing something positive from someone you trust can be a good start to realizing that there’s more good going on in your life than your depression would have you think.
How Journaling Can Work Against You
There are many benefits to practicing mindfulness. As mentioned elsewhere, the ability to be mindful of your thought processes is like observing a traffic jam from above, rather than sitting right in the middle of the “action”. However, journaling isn’t always ideal. Reflective exercises such as journaling give a person the time and format to consider their thoughts differently. That’s the essence of mindfulness, and therapy as well. But without proper guidance, this can backfire.
Instead of giving you a better perspective, one that may be less negative, it may cause you to instead get hung up on your own thoughts. Living too much inside your head causes you to lose perspective, and to instead come to even worse conclusions, with even more negative thinking.
It’s important to be prepared, and to know what your goal is. Journaling for journaling’s sake can lead to aimlessly drifting around in your own head. But if you have a goal – that is, for example, to find one positive thing to write about at the end of the day, no matter what it might be – then you can avoid the issue.
Tips and Methods
Journaling affords a certain amount of freedom. The rules for journaling are quite simple – you basically want to set up a writing project that you work on regularly, for helping you figure out your feelings. It doesn’t really have to conform to any other rules unless they’re self-imposed – you could write a story, create a diary, explore your depression by reviewing art, create poetry, write music; the list goes on and on.
Here are a couple tips to consider, if you’re not quite sure how to get started or what to keep in mind:
- Consider starting a blog.
Instead of keeping a journal, you can consider starting a blog. Blogs are digital journals, and they are typically hosted on the internet – blog meaning weblog. But that doesn’t mean you can’t keep your blog private. Keeping it in blog form and keep it password protected. This way, you can write from anywhere in the world, using only an Internet connection and any device that can connect to the Internet. It’ll also never go lost, existing on the Internet forever, for your eyes only – or anyone else you selectively choose as a reader.
- Use pen and paper, rather than going digital.
Everything may be converting into 1s and 0s, but if you prefer to keep things more analog, pen and paper has its advantages – especially if you invest a little in a nice pen, and some quality paper. A sturdy and qualitative notebook can live a good many years, and there’s something much more personal about writing with a pen you can call your own – one that is unique, feels good in your hand, and writes beautifully.
- Use Twitter or create a daily list of unpublished tweets.
The length of a journal entry is meant to reflect the thinking you’ve been doing on your feelings and thoughts. But if your goal is to write regularly, journaling will quickly turn into something forced. Some days, you need to sit down and work through your issues. But on other days, instead of writing something uninspired, aim to write something that encapsulates how you feel, in a sentence or two. Use the first sentence to describe what bothered you today. Then think about that sentence, and respond to it with a second sentence, or a longer entry at some other time. For example: “Today, I felt that I was lazy. However, I still got work done, despite all difficulties and distractions.”
- End your writing session with something affirmative or positive.
Journaling can cause you to spend too much time trapped in your own head. It’s meant to be a healthy way to confront depression: that is, depressive thoughts that are false, and self-deprecating. But journaling without rules can send you into a spiral of dark thoughts, and leave you feeling worse than before. It might be unnatural at first but make it an imperative to end each session with something positive. Look back on what you wrote and see if it was actually true. Counter emotions and feelings with facts – give yourself credit where it’s due or find a silver lining. No matter how forced it might feel, it’s important to use journaling as a way not just to express your feelings, but to examine them.
It’s not easy to find the right words to put to paper, sometimes. Then there are the days where words just come gushing out of you, and time passes as pages fill up. It’s okay to struggle, and it’s okay to be flexible with your rules. You can write something short one day and write your heart out the next. What matters much more than what’s actually put on paper is what’s going on in your head while you write. Progress can be a little slow sometimes, but with time the act of sitting down to write will automatically kickstart the process.
Being aware of your thoughts and whether they’re logical or illogical is important. Depression is not something that dominates your every thought, every day – it’s always there, but there are normal thoughts and depressive thoughts. We have thousands upon thousands of thoughts a day, and many of them are inherently false and depressive when struggling with depression.
These thoughts include things like “it’s all my fault” when it definitely is not, “I can’t get anything right” when you in fact rarely make mistakes, thinking “nobody liked me” after coming home from a party or gathering when in fact everyone had a good time, or thinking “I did a terrible job” at work when you managed an issue better than anyone could have. The list goes on and on, but there’s a common thread between these thoughts – they distinctly warp reality and change your perspective on events after the fact, turning positives into negatives, blinding you to good things and making you focus on just the bad.
Journaling might not help, but in many cases of mild depression and in some cases of severe depression, taking these thoughts apart on paper can help you improve in the long-term. You start evaluating your thinking, first in hindsight, and eventually in real time, stopping a line of thought before it grows. It takes time, but with time, you can turn your false thoughts into fact-based thinking – seeing things clearly, for what they are, rather than what the depression makes them out to be. It doesn’t mean you’ll always be happy, or that your thoughts will always be positive. But they’ll be true. Something you can affect with time.