The joys of journaling: stories from Grace House ...
‘By keeping a journal I have been able to reduce lots of my negative thoughts and recognise how many positive elements there are in my life.’
Journaling is ‘so therapeutic by just emptying my head and getting it down on paper.’
Journaling is becoming an increasingly popular and important way to maintain our wellbeing. Multiple research studies have confirmed the many health benefits of journaling and these have permeated into magazine and newspaper articles and on-line blogs giving everybody easy access to information, including how to start writing a journal (https://thewritepractice.com/how-to-write-a-journal/).
Earlier this year I was invited by Grace House to run four sessions on journaling for parents and carers as part of their ‘You Are Not alone Project’ http://www.gracehouse.co.uk/support/.
The first session at Grace House was held on 17th March 2020, exactly one week before the country went into lock down. Not to be deterred by this the journaling sessions switched to on-line delivery via Zoom. Once the remaining three sessions were completed the weekly journaling sessions continued because of their popularity and are still running now as we continue into July.
The key idea behind the journaling sessions has been to introduce a different approach to journaling each week, so we have covered gratitude journals, guided journals, free form journals, morning pages, night notes, bullet journals, five minute journals, mindful journaling and eco-journaling so far. Many of those who have attended the sessions have either taken up journaling for the first time or resumed journaling after having been resting for a while. Some journal in the morning, whilst others prefer to journal at night, with a few journaling at both ends of the day. Gratitude journals are popular and some use bullet points, but most prefer long form journaling (writing in sentences) or a mixture of the two.
Journaling in its simplest form involves committing your thoughts to paper. This can be done in a short five-minute burst utilising three bullet points and this is a good way to get started. People confide all sorts to their journals including how they are feeling, what they are looking forward to, what they are grateful for, what they are angry about, their disappointments and their excitements. Journals often contain details of events and activities they have been involved in, especially with their family. Others use a journal to set targets and goals for the day, whilst some use them to reflect on the day as a way to make sense of their experiences.
Several parents have benefitted from the Grace House journaling sessions and have either written to me or spoken about the reasons for this and I have included their thoughts below in this newsletter. The names of the contributors have been changed to protect their identity.
Sarah confirms that ‘taking part in the journaling course has inspired me to keep a regular record of my thoughts and feelings. By keeping a journal I have been able to reduce lots of my negative thoughts and recognise how many positive elements there are in my life.’ This is a common response from people who start journaling, especially if they have a ‘gratitude’ element to their writing. Sarah also points out one of the advantages of journaling regularly because it charts your thinking over time. ‘I read back my writing regularly and it’s great to see how far I have come in terms of my mental health. Since I began journaling using the skills I learned from the journaling sessions I’ve been through an enlightening period of self-reflection.’
Katy took the idea of a gratitude journal and introduced it to her family. At teatime when the family are all together Katy asks each member of the family to say what they are grateful for and why. She has noticed that her children don’t copy each other, but instead they all come up with different ideas and this gives a positive focus to their conversation and family teatime.
Katy went on to confirm that she has benefitted hugely from the You are Not Alone Project at Grace House, which has been ‘invaluable in helping me through an incredibly difficult period.’ In particular, Katy found the Writing for Wellbeing course of great benefit because ‘for too long I ignored my feelings, pushing them away to try to remain my positive self. But this had started to cause damage, mentally and physically. The course taught me to write my feelings down to release them and help me make sense of them.’
What Katy found when she first started was that her ‘mind kept trying to change the subject so I started each post with "I am feeling ...." I now do this regularly, without holding back. It is liberating and has given me the confidence to take action.’ This is a common obstacle when commencing journaling, so Katy’s suggestion to start with a statement that gives focus to your writing is excellent advice.
It is heart-warming to see that journaling has given Katy the confidence to take action. As she says ‘it sounds so easy and so obvious, but it has made such a difference. I am truly grateful’ for the opportunity to join this course.
Emily uses a journal based on a morning focus and evening reflection (you can see an example below). What Emily likes about this particular structured journal is that it gives her focus for the day because ‘I think writing some aims down in the morning gives me something to look forward to and helps me to put some structure into my day. I think that it’s going to be beneficial whilst I am off work, as it’s hard to be motivated and think of new ways to spend the day at home.’
Emily is already thinking about the future and confirmed that ‘when things go back to normal, I am interested to see how it might benefit me during the working week. It will be good to focus on fitting my three goals into everyday life and see if it helps me to use my time better.’
Emily also likes to reflect at the end of the day and has noticed that the things she is grateful for do not change very much, they are pretty constant. Emily likes to journal in the evening because it helps her ‘to sort through the events of the day and make sure I will end it well, focussing on the positives.’
Completing the journal twice a day by responding to the prompts in bullet point format requires no more than five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night, but what Emily is noticing is that the bullet points don’t necessarily give sufficient detail for her to look back on, so she is considering providing more detail in her evening reflections by adopting long-form writing.
Louise confirmed that she ‘was interested in doing this course as journaling is something I have done off and on most of my adult life, mainly only when something major has happened in my life, illness, bereavement etc. I am so pleased I took the plunge and joined this group as I have learnt some great strategies for doing the journaling.’ This is one of the features of the journaling course because whilst some are new to it, several are coming back to journaling after a period away from writing. Louise continued by stating that she ‘always wrote at night and even though that was good I decided to try writing on a morning (Morning Pages). At first I just stared at the page and to be honest only wrote a few sentences about the day before and plans and hopes for that day.’ This is a common problem when first starting out, but as Louise went on to say ‘then after a few days I found my mind wandered off thinking about the world and his wife and I wrote and wrote spilling all my thoughts out onto the paper and only stopped because breakfast was ready and I was being shouted for.’
Louise’s reference to ‘Morning Pages’ is taken directly from the course where it was introduced as a specific long form writing practice developed by Julia Cameron in the 1990s, but as Louise points out it takes up a bit of time every morning. ‘In truth I don't always have time to write on a morning but I don't panic about it just do it whenever I get a minute or two. I don't worry about grammar or neatness. I used to and would rewrite pages, now it's only for my eyes and it's so therapeutic just emptying my head and getting it down on paper.’ Here Louise is referring to one of the barriers to writing that some people starting to journal get caught up in, whereby the grammar, punctuation, spelling and neatness get in the way of the writing, of what you want to say. Over time, however, this preoccupation subsides as the process of writing takes precedence over the presentation of the journal.
Not only do adults keep journals, but children are very keen to record their experiences too. There are lots of children’s journals available to buy, but the one that Holly (age 6) uses is called The HappySelf Journal. The Happyself Journal is structured around writing (and drawing) frames with a series of sections to be completed. There is an emphasis on positivity and gratitude with affirmations and acts of kindness, as can be seen below in the extract from Holly’s Happyself Journal:
In this extract it is clear to see the structure starting with an inspirational quotation from Nelson Mandela, followed by an emphasis on the top three things that day (positivity) and then a plan for a random act of kindness (gratitude). As Michael Eggleton, Head of Charles Dickens Primary School in London, wrote recently ‘we are pretty good at looking after physical health [of our children] but what about the mental health?’ The Happyself Journal is one way to address this. It is designed for children across the 5-12 age range and is supported by a website (https://happyselfjournal.com/).
I hope that the positive statements from Sarah, Katy, Emily and Louise about their journaling experiences, as well as Holly’s journal extract above, will encourage you to start a journal yourself and before long you too will be benefiting from the daily routine of expressing your hopes, fears, goals and ambitions.
‘The course taught me to write my feelings down, to release them, and help me make sense of them.’
‘Journaling on an evening helps me to sort through the events of the day and make sure I end it well, focussing on the positives.’