The Write Way To Start
Today we’re looking at a special friend we all can make. They listen, never judge or let you down. You can pile all your angst and emotion onto them, and they don’t let you forget the important things that have happened, and how you felt about them at the time. Your friend, the journal.
Recording what’s happened in a journal or diary can be a great way to help you navigate and overcome adversity. Whatever the unwanted changes in your life – loss of a person or animal companion; career, health or financial challenges – writing, drawing, collage, can help get your thoughts and feelings out in a safe way, and help you build resilience.
Research by J W Pennebaker done in 1997 found that writing about emotional experiences can benefit your physical and mental health. Indeed, people have been journaling for hundreds of years.
We have Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic journal: ‘Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.’
Not all journals are stirring and poignant. Samuel Pepys started his in 1660 and recorded all kinds of things, from domestic happenings to great wars, adding his own reflections.
Sylvia Plath kept journals from childhood, and latter ones have been published, showing her raw emotional process.
I have found journaling my thoughts and feelings as I navigate bereavement has helped me express my grief privately and safely. There are many ways, but I have found the form of letters – writing directly to the lost – gave somewhere to put my feelings, and make promises and goals.
Here are some hints and tips to start you off on your journaling journey.
The Reason to Journal
It’s your own private journal you can do anything with it; work through emotions, document memories, write what you’ve done during the day.
Journaling can become a beautiful part of the day, where you collect everything that’s happened and throw it down, put it together, pull it apart, add colour and texture, making it a piece of poetry or art; and a way to grow your mind.
It’s good to start with a purpose. Overcoming adversity isn’t just about writing down what’s happened, to get it out of our heads. It’s also about working through the pain or problem, seeing the things that uplift us, get us out of bed in the morning, keep us breathing. A celebration of achievement, and taking that through, to tomorrow.
If you start with a positive goal, you know there’s a reason why you are writing sometimes distressing thoughts and feelings.
Mine is to help me build around the hole my loss has left. To take a positive legacy into the future.
Choosing a Format
What suits you best? A blank notebook, a specific journal, a digital document, an art journal, a video or audio diary – what is the most comfortable for you, that you know you’ll use regularly?
Prompts and Quotes
The Blank Mind. It’s not unusual to find, once you’re sat with your notebook, or poised with pencil or brush, the Muse has floated off elsewhere. No worries, there’s a wealth of inspiration out there to help you reflect. They are everywhere – in your day, something someone said to you, a thought that came when you were travelling.
I have jotted down quotes from characters on the TV. One is from ‘The Missing’ A UK crime drama. ‘If everybody held up the sky, one person would not get tired.’ This made me think of how much we can keep inside, like a big weight, and how sharing can make it feel easier to deal with.
Think about your day. Document what happened, challenges faced, your thoughts at the time, and as you look back. This can help you gain insight into how you think and behave in certain situations.
You might find whatever you are facing is very prominent in your mind. A heavy sky to hold up on your own. Let your friend Journal analyse it with you.
Express Your Emotions
Don’t be afraid to write your sorrow, angst, guilt, whatever. Writing about your emotions helps you understand the connections between what happened, what emotions it brought for you, which lead to how you thought and reacted (a bit of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in action).
But also, we can sometimes unconsciously skip over our feelings, or dismiss them. This is where a private journal is so precious. You might write it to get it out and never read it, or write it and analyse the hell out it.
However you do it, it will be right for you at this time.
You can incorporate mindfulness exercises or meditation reflections into your journaling. Meditating before journaling is a good way of quietening the mind chatter and can increase focus.
Here is a 10 minute meditation ‘Journey to Self’ which I love. The setting is a beach and a house. Scroll to the bottom for the video:
Gratitude, Achievement and Aspirations
Writing about what you are grateful for increases positivity. My husband was a big one for this, even in the depths of chemotherapy he always said he really appreciated the time nurses spent with him.
Celebrate achievements too. Small wins can make a difference to your thinking.
If you are ready to look beyond today, you can acknowledge what you’d like to happen in the future – short or long term. When navigating adversity, hope and dreams are so important.
Art, letters, lists, sketches, doodles, stickers, pictures. It’s your journal and they’re all good ways of expressing thoughts and emotions.
Challenges can be worked through. Use your journal to write about possible solutions, test them out and analyse what happened.
Documenting how you solved small problems can help with the larger ones.
Review and Reflect
Take time to read back through past entries, see patterns, track your progress and write about insights you’ve learned about yourself and the situation.
When I read through my journal since June 2023 I see how I have moved through raw emotion, and made decisions at certain times that have had positive effects. In there are some of the things I thought I might forget – the good memories, and reading them makes me smile.
Conclusion: Journaling Can Support Overcoming Adversity
Journaling is a form of safe expression. It can help when you are facing unwanted changes, as they can make us feel we have lost control of ourselves.
It’s a private place where you can unbottle emotions, reflect on thoughts and feelings, and bring in different perspectives and ideas about what’s happening.
The end result? Better mental health, self-awareness and a feeling of empowerment.
There’s no set way to do it, just whatever works for you, whether it’s a blank exercise book, a special journal, an audio or video app.
If you’d like some pointers or prompts you can download the free Brave Journal Page and start your Journaling journey straight away.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162–166.
Julie is a writer and has worked in mental health for 34 years, first as a psychiatric nurse, then in mental health advocacy. Richard her husband received a diagnosis of an aggressive cancer in 2021 and died in June 2023. He left a legacy of positivity and resilience which The Dark Pen takes forward in its belief that words and stories can empower us through unwanted change