Every year since 1949, the United States has designated May as Mental Health Awareness Month. The theme for May 2014 is “Mind Your Health,” and it should serve as an important reminder for all of us of the effects that mental illness has on people and families around the world. Mental illness is a diagnosable and often treatable disorder that affects approximately one in every four people, yet it carries such a weighty stigma that people suffering from it often go untreated or are ostracized by even those closest to them.
Luckily, with the right treatment and coping mechanisms, many people experiencing mental illness are able to take positive and protective measures for their own health. In recent years, researchers have carried out numerous studies on the restorative effects that journal writing can have on one’s mental, and whole body, health. With the purpose of spreading the word about mental health awareness, here are five ways that keeping a diary can help in the prevention and treatment of mental illness.
Healing from Grief
When you experience a devastating loss, it’s incredibly important to nurture yourself as you recover from this life-altering event. Journalling has always been a privately held part of dealing with emotional pain, but it has also become recognised in grief counselling as an important way to slow down and acknowledge what you are feeling as you mourn a loss. The blank pages of a notebook are patient and without judgment, allowing you to put into words the stress and grief that you are experiencing. Many practitioners recommend writing daily, or as daily as you feel up to, in a one-year diary so that you have tangible and quantitative evidence of the work you’ve done as time has passed.
An addiction recovery journal can function in much the same way as one used to get through the grieving process. Writing down your innermost thoughts in a journal that no one else will see can help you to be truly honest about how you are feeling and thinking in the moment. When you re-read a few of these entries together you will begin to see patterns and triggers that may not have been as apparent when they are happening one at a time. This can also increase personal accountability, an important part of addiction recovery, as it’s far more difficult to deny having made unwise decisions when there is a written record of them. You can also look back, as you celebrate milestones in your recovery, on where you were just a short time ago. Even after a relapse this this help, as you can see that one day at a time truly does add up to substantial achievements.
Everyone experiences stress. It’s when this stress is so overwhelming as to be unmanageable that it becomes detrimental to your mental health. Keeping a journal to monitor an appropriate amount of stress (after all, experiencing some anxiety is natural as it just means you truly care about an outcome) is a vital part of preventative healthcare. Writing in a journal forces you to reflect and recharge, as you stop reliving or imagining a situation and actually put to words what you are feeling. Organizing your thoughts in such a manner can also facilitate problem-solving, thereby reducing the need to over-think and over-analyse. As American philosopher, psychologist and trained physician William James said, “If you can change your mind, you can change your life,” and the perspective you gain by writing down what’s going on in your head can help you do just that.
Getting Through Insomnia
Documenting your daily routines can help you identify the bad habits that may be affecting your sleep cycle. For instance, you may eat popcorn so rarely that you’ve never noticed the trouble you have sleeping after a movie night, but if it’s written down it’s much easier to go back and check the similarities between last night and your last bout of insomnia. However, it’s important to make sure you’re writing and reading this journal anywhere except in bed, as a key part of insomnia prevention is training your body to know that the bed is only for sleeping and not for waking activities like reading or watching television.
Battling depression can be an immensely painful and private endeavour. While keeping a journal may seem like a simple step in helping to understand your feelings, it can often feel too overwhelming to write about negative feelings. This is why more and more practitioners are recommending keeping a regulated mood journal. Rather than looking at a blank page and attempting to put to words all that you are going through, keeping a focused mood journal allows you to be honest about what you are feeling in that moment without wallowing in it or being swallowed up by the emotion. In depression, strong mood changes can happen without notice, so keeping a mood journal of not only when these changes occur but of what you were doing at the time can help you understand the buried emotion behind the shift. It may be painful and difficult at first, but over time the journal can become a key tool in getting out of a negative thought cycle. On the flip side, a gratitude journal can also be a helpful step in getting away from this type of thinking, as forcing yourself to write down one positive thing you are thankful for that day can help to remind yourself of the good that is in your life.
The point of these types of journals is to better understand your own feelings and emotional triggers and to gain immediate and clearer perspective on these thoughts and events as they happen. Obviously, mental illness does not take the same form in every person or situation so there can be no catch-all cure for dealing with its symptoms. Journalling isn’t necessarily the most important part of recovery and treatment for everyone, but it does have documented therapeutic benefits that can be important parts in maintaining and enhancing mental health.