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Why Is It So Damn Hard To Keep A Journal?

Welcome to Press Pause. This January, we're asking: What does self-care look like when it’s not all-or-nothing? What if we simply pressed pause here and there?
Photographed by Tayler Smith.
I’ve never been the sort of person who keeps a diary. There was that fluffy padlocked notebook in my tweens, but I only ever occasionally remembered its existence. If I could find it now in the ruins and cardboard boxes of my childhood, it would likely be 85% blank pages, 10% doodles, and 5% “spy notes” about my family (nothing quite like scribbling down all of your loved ones’ movements, eh?).
Still, like countless others, I’ve spent a lot of time watching influencers’ morning and evening routines on social media. A lot of time. And, yes, I’ve noticed that almost all of them include a journaling session or two. It makes a lot of sense: Studies have repeatedly shown that engaging in regular journaling can help reduce stress, manage anxiety and depression symptoms, enhance self-awareness, promote emotional regulation, provide opportunities for positive self-talk, and even strengthen resilience in the face of challenges. If you can stick to it. 
Intrigued by all of the above, and keen to see if it could help me get a better handle on my own stresses and worries, I decided to give it a go for myself — but not before consulting with the experts. And, as you’ve likely guessed already, it turns out my snarky tween diary definitely wouldn’t cut it when it comes to reaping the myriad psychological benefits of this popular pastime. 
“Journaling is essentially another way of saying ‘putting our thoughts and feelings down on paper,' giving them a place to exist outside of our heads,” explains mental health advocate, author of Therapy Is…Magic, and trainee psychotherapist Jo Love, describing it as a “tool that allows us to process our emotions and creates an opportunity for self-reflection.”
“Its effectiveness varies based on individual preferences and psychological needs,” adds author, psychologist and certified therapist, Kalanit Ben-Ari, PhD. “Reflective journaling is particularly beneficial for emotional release, processing feelings and thoughts, and reducing anxiety. It enhances self-awareness; as one writes, reads, and perhaps edits or adds to their entries, they create a psychological space between themselves and their thoughts and feelings. This process allows for framing experiences and opens the door for processing and reframing.”
Reassuring me that there are no set rules for how to journal “properly,” Love notes that “there are thousands of helpful ideas and prompts out there if you find yourself staring fruitlessly at a blank page.” 
“The main thing is to ditch the guilt about achieving perfection,” she adds. “Even if all you do is write a single line, then that is totally OK.”
“Personal preference absolutely plays a role,” agrees Dr. Ben-Ari. “Some find it beneficial to write in the morning to set intentions and establish a positive mindset for the day, while others prefer journaling before bed, which helps in reflecting on the day and calming the mind for a good night’s sleep.”
With their advice in mind, I dug an unused notebook out from the back of a drawer, scoured the house for a pen (a fruitless task: I wound up buying a pack of biros at the corner shop), and positioned them artfully beside my bed.

Even if all you do is write a single line, then that is totally OK.

Reader, I won’t lie to you: I found it incredibly difficult to think of anything to write for the first few nights and mornings. The words of my university’s creative writing tutor rang in my ears, however — just start writing, and the words will come — and so that’s what I did. I wrote banal little sentences about my day: about what I’d eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. About how delayed the trains had been. About the weather (how incredibly, painfully British of me). Unsurprisingly, I began to view the journaling as a chore to be ticked off, rather than as valuable time for myself. 
This is normal: as humans, we are notoriously bad at forging new habits. In fact, research shows that 23% of people quit their resolutions by the end of the first week, and 43% quit by the end of January. “Like resolutions, you might start journaling with great intentions and goodwill, but find they often fade within a few weeks,” says Dr. Ben-Ari. “People might find it hard to stick to a journaling schedule, as it doesn't offer the same benefits for everyone's mental and emotional health.”
Thankfully, both of my experts had some tips on how to get more out of my tentative journaling experiment — in the hope that I might be able to keep the good habit in place for longer.
“Treat your journal as a private exploration space just for you and no one else,” suggests Love. “Take some time to reflect on your day, important events in your life, or decisions you’ve made. You might want to jot down anything you’re worried or bothered about. It can be helpful, too, to think about what has made you feel good or proud of yourself. And a letter to your past or future self can be a truly powerful experience.”
Dr. Ben-Ari, meanwhile, had another suggestion with regards to what to write. “In my clinic, I encourage clients to keep a dream journal, as dreams, which are easily forgotten, carry messages from our inner wisdom and unconscious,” she told me. “Writing them down serves three functions: remembering the dreams; learning about the dreams narratives and themes; and noticing the psychological shifts they reflect in therapy.”
I began taking a cup of chamomile tea up with me to bed and sipping it as I noted down all of my thoughts and feelings in a bid to make my head — and world — feel that little bit clearer. I’m the sort of socially anxious person who worries over every perceived slight, so I used my journal to explore these fears rather than lying awake obsessing over them. And, as someone whose inner critic is her biggest bully, it was genuinely lovely to take a moment each night to pay attention to the things I’d done well — no matter how small. 
As time ticked on, I found myself looking forward to curling up in bed with my journal. And, as someone who usually spends a great deal of time tossing and turning and fretting before eventually plunging headfirst into a series of anxiety-fueled dreams (dreams which I’m now making a point of committing to paper, I hasten to add), I’m happy to report that I found myself falling asleep more quickly after journaling, too. The dreams have proven as erratic as ever, mind you, but I’m hoping that keeping this habit up will help to improve them over time.

If I’m being completely honest, my inner cynic wanted this experiment to prove a failure. I’ve never been fond of elaborate morning and evening routines — especially when they reek of “wellbeing washing” — and all of the “click to buy” links on people’s social media made me assume it was nothing but a cash grab. 

As time ticked on, I found myself looking forward to curling up in bed with my journal.

I also found that buying myself an extra-special sparkly notebook added a sense of occasion to proceedings, but anything will do the job in a pinch. All you really need is a few minutes each day: Yes, many people aim to write for 15 or 20 minutes, but starting small is honestly the best way to set a habit in motion (and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find that you wind up writing more and more as the weeks tick by).
If you need some help getting started, Love suggests that you try something like “a ‘gratitude journal’ and jot down three things you’re grateful for, or a ‘one sentence a day’ approach to help take the pressure off, particularly for those who find writing hard or are out of practice. “Writing about whatever events, thoughts or feelings that came up that day can be another simple entry point to journaling,” she adds.
Just one word of caution: While this activity has proven incredibly beneficial to many people, and while I myself have been won over, it’s important to pay attention to how the activity makes you feel. Everyone is different.
“Reflective journaling, when feeling overwhelmed, offers a space to make sense of experiences and feelings, helping to calm the mind,” says Dr. Ben-Ari. “However, I generally don’t recommend journaling ‘to-do lists’ as they can add stress or distract from deeper issues that need attention. Also, writing that dwells excessively on negative events or feelings, a process known as over-rumination, can lead to increased stress. Concerns about privacy can also impact the honesty needed for reflective journaling.”
Adding that “it’s also important to note that not everyone enjoys writing,” Ben-Ari notes that its benefits can still be reaped “through art, drawing or other creative means as a way to process feelings.” We just need to remember that it is a tool, and use it in a way that works best for us as individuals.
On that note, I’m off to bed — and, yes, you’d best believe I’ll be journaling about the experience of writing about journaling. Things are about to get incredibly meta…

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