Dear diary… how keeping a journal can keep you sane

Woman writing a journal

You might have heard that keeping a journal has been proven by medical professionals to be good for your mental health? As someone who has been emptying my head onto paper for more than 40 years, I have to agree.

Woman keeping a journal

While I’m not fanatical about writing in my journal every day – sometimes I’m so busy I can barely write appointments on the calendar.  At times when I feel my brain is scrambled, sparing a few minutes to write things down becomes a satisfying way of sorting them out.

And it turns out there’s some science behind it. Psychologists say that keeping a journal can help lower anxiety, improve cognitive recall (memory) and enhance creative output.

I’m talking writing long-hand here, and it’s all to do with how your left brain is for analysis and logical thought, and your right brain is for creativity and intuition. The process of writing stuff down allows the left and right brain to balance context and find perspective.

So that’s what it’s all about? Oh yes!

My teenage journals bore witness to my attempts to catch the eye of a lad in my history class, my urgent need for a feather-cut hairstyle, who was at the bus stop last Wednesday, and my exploits as a Saturday girl on the cheese counter in Woolworths.

Fast forward a lifetime and my pages nowadays record rants about motherhood (two adult children back home), ageing parents (my mother is 93 and lives in a care home), retired husbands (enough said). And all the other daily dross such as the price of petrol, dire weather, holiday plans (or lack of them) and how that 5/2 diet sounds almost possible.

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Getting started

You don’t need much in the way of equipment to start a journal, just pick up a pen and a notebook – you can start simple with an inexpensive children’s exercise book – find a place where you can write undisturbed, and scribble away.

The end of the day is a good time – try making journalling part of your bedtime routine, and get into the habit of writing regularly. Daily is best, but don’t beat yourself up about missing a day or two.

For your eyes only

Above all else, find a way to keep what you’ve written private – a personal journal should be for your eyes only. That way you can write what you like without fear of judgement or censure, and with no worries about copyright or plagiarism.

You can copy styles, prose from books you love, make mistakes in spelling and grammar, you can use foul language, do caustic character assassination, fantasise and reminisce – no-one will know, and you’ll feel lighter and unburdened at the end of it.

But be sure to lock it up, hide it, write in code, whatever, but keep it PRIVATE!

Of course, if you’ve written something truly vitriolic about someone you know, you may not want to keep it for future reference – so try burning the pages, shredding them, flushing them down the toilet or burying them in the garden. Trust me, the effect is wonderfully liberating and cathartic.

If you’re wondering what to write in your journal, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Write about what you are wearing today: how long have you had those shoes/boots; who gave you the umbrella/bag/pen; do you always wear those colours; do you have a favourite piece of clothing?
  • Describe your physical self as if you were a missing person
  • Top ten lists are a great idea, too. These can be favourite types of biscuit, modes of transport, pop music, wild animals, garden flowers – the choice is yours. If you keep your journals, you’ll find these lists fascinating a few years down the line.
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As I did last week when I discovered one from 2002 when my favourite drink was red grape juice, favourite board game Scrabble, favourite animals cats.  No change there then – but my favourite colour is no longer blue and ‘Charmed’ is no longer what I watch on TV!

So if you’re looking for a way to mentally declutter as well as keep a record of your life, I can highly recommend keeping a journal.

About Louise G Cole

Originally from Worcestershire, I moved to rural Ireland in 2003 with my husband, two children, and a herd of alpacas. We were looking for the good life when that Celtic Tiger gave us quite a mauling (and sent the alpacas packing), but we’re still here. After many years in journalism and PR, I now concentrate on creative writing, having had some modest successes writing poetry and short stories. And in order to call myself a writer, I am of course, working on a novel. I work in community development and run creative writing classes for beginners, including courses on how to keep a journal.