During the summer, there is more time to focus with my patients on practices that will take longer for them to develop. This is not possible during the school year because the practice during this time must be schoolwork itself. The practices we have been developing so far this summer are mindfulness and behavioural activation, but I am now working with a few patients who have these two practices firmly in place to develop journaling.
Why journaling? For a certain group of people, young or old, it can be fun. Certainly, I only work with those who think it might be fun to develop a journaling practice. It seems odd to have to state this, but it is important for one’s mental health to develop things to do that are fun.
Apart from journaling being something fun to do for many people, it is reflective. Even if you’re only recording what you talked about with Aunt Sarah or what the weather was like, writing out something about your day does result in you thinking about the day and documenting something that you might like to remember. This is the most basic reflective exercise. If you happen to record a little extra, like how Aunt Sarah’s story resulted in an insight about your mother or how being inside all day meant you could spend the whole day on a favourite indoor activity, all the better. Thinking about what you remember is the next step in a reflective exercise and, like you, my patient is probably already beginning to see that there could be a mental health benefit to journaling.
Finally, when you do go back and read what you have written, even more insights and memories might begin. Some of these might be disturbing. I remind people not to worry about that. If the thought is too disturbing, having a journal allows you to be able to record it, and then leave it. You can leave it for a time when you are ready to consider the thought, either with a supportive person or by yourself. If you do happen to read some of the oldest journals available to us, you will quickly realize the extent to which people long ago reflected in journals about their lives, instead of with psychiatrists. If I weren’t in such a growth industry as mental health, I might be worried about saying this but, trust me, I am in a growth industry with no shortage of work in the foreseeable future.
For those readers seeking an academic reference or more information regarding the therapeutic value of journaling, I refer you to the work of Ira Progoff and his book At a Journal Workshop: The Basic Text and Guide for Using the Intensive Journal Process.
You also don’t have to look too hard on the internet to find some simple journaling prompts, but I do urge my patients to write from their own lives – I also remind those who might be inclined to “embellish” their memories, not to worry about it. Their journal is truly for them and not me, or anyone else. I urge my patients that the more private they can keep it, the more valuable their journal will be. Besides, it is through the retelling, sometimes embellished, of real life stories that fiction writers develop.
Finally, if someone is struggling to find time to journal, or if they need a reminder to keep their journals nearby, I borrow advice from Oscar Wilde:
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”
(Note: I had a diary that looked like this one growing up. The lock is not effective at keeping your brother from reading what you wrote about him.)