A Return to Journaling

We live in the age of anxiety. If you don’t believe me, just bear in mind that that a man you wouldn’t trust to order a pizza has the nuclear codes. Feel anxious yet?

I’ve spent my entire life trying to managing my anxiety.  Some of my strategies have been more effective than others. This is ok. I am doing my best to view life as an iterative process. There is a lot of stuff I have tried that hasn’t worked. Can I rework some of these strategies, or do I need to develop entirely new ones? I am still trying to figure it out, and I keep having to remind myself that, at 26, I have a lot of my (don’t say miserable James) life ahead of me; and while I shouldn’t be solely concerned with self-improvement, it is something I should at least bear in mind.

But there is one strategy that I have returned to that definitely has its uses, and I think that the energy and time expended in it is more than worth the benefits. I am talking about journaling.

I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was about ten years old. I still have all of them. Every so often, I go back to them and leaf through. Lots of angst, naturally. Lots of longings I don’t remember having for people I don’t remember knowing. And lots of first drafts of poems and stories.

That last point I’d like to expand on. I’ve found keeping a journal an excellent creative practise in numerous ways, but the drafting is what I’ve found the most useful. Because a journal functions as a judgement-free, and private, space, it is an excellent way of shutting up the inner critic and just getting something down. No one ever has to see it. You can go back immediately and type it up, or you can leave it there, using the journal as what Harlan Ellison calls the trunk, letting a piece of work rest before coming back to it with fresh eyes. And the act of typing up is useful in itself, as it forces you to reengage with the text in a different way, something that is essential to proofing and editing. I don’t recommend writing a 100,000 word novel this way, if only for the sake of ease, but for drafting poetry or short stories, it is an excellent method, and one worth trying.

For the other great use that I have found, I return to the anxiety angle. I am the kind of person who has trouble getting thoughts out of their head. Nagging worries, fears, fantastical scenarios. There are other strategies for dealing with this kind of thing, and I am not saying journaling is a silver bullet, but I have noticed that when I am journaling every day, and taking care to write down what things are worrying me, and what things I can’t stop thinking about, the volume of the noise in my mind gets turned down a little bit. Of course, it might be that I am experiencing a (relative) period of calm of my mind’s own accord, and am journaling because I have the surplus mental energy. I intend to force myself to stick to journaling every day for a month or so, and see which way round this goes.

And of course, I’ll have a record of it. If you’re going to experiment, you should try and collect some data.

The idea of a journal being a thought dump does just make intuitive sense to me. There is no judgement, and total privacy. It is a way of getting your thoughts outside of your head so you can hopefully see them with a bit more clarity, and the act of writing itself forces us to think differently and to focus, something that anxiety makes difficult. But it doesn’t hurt to practise in an environment where there is no fear of failure and no expectations whatsoever, bar doing your best to write down what you did that day, and what you thought and felt as you did it. Even if you’re having a bad time, don’t underestimate the power of paying it forward to your future self. One day a record of how bad you once felt might serve as a helpful highlight of just what has improved in your life, and how much better you’re doing now.

N.B: I would like to stress that I am not a mental health professional, and that your experience almost certainly differs from mine. I just wanted to detail a practise that I’ve found useful in the hope that others might too. YMMV.

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