For as long as I remember, I have written in a journal (or diary, as I used to call it). I remember my first ever journal with its shiny ‘Friends Forever’ cover and mini padlock, a Christmas present from my mum that I accidentally found before the big day. I had asked her for it for weeks and was so excited to finally get my hands on it. I drew big red crosses and wrote threats on the first page addressed to any would-be sneaky readers.
I have always loved writing and my journal gave me space to do so with no adult correction or intervention. I liked the secrecy of it, the ritual of using the tiny metal key to crack open the spine, having a paper space that was totally mine, private, a container to spill all my secrets and big feelings into. I have some of my diaries still, including the one I wrote in aged 10, the year my mum died. Oh how my heart breaks for 10-year-old me.
I have always been someone with an active, buzzy, sometimes anxious mind, even as a child. My journals companioned me throughout my childhood grief and typically angst-ridden teenage years and into the heart-bursting excitement and nervousness of university. I have the journals from the year I met my now husband. A lot of career pondering happened in those pages, many lists of pros and cons. It held all my thoughts and so many fears about becoming a mother, and my journal accompanies me today as I navigate freelance work, family, friends, a social life and being a responsible human in the world.
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I live with anxiety and my head can feel very noisy sometimes. Writing down and processing my feelings in a non-judgmental, totally unbiased blank book has always been immeasurably helpful in my life. As soon as the words are out of my head (written or spoken), I feel instantly calmer. Journalling is one of the best ways I can support my mental health – and it’s free! The space in which to simply state what’s actually happening in my life or in my mind, and reflect on it in an unbiased way, resembles therapy to me. In reality, there is no comparison to therapy, which I think nearly everyone would benefit from, but this comes close enough.
Ten years ago, on one New Year’s Eve day, my husband and I decided to write a review of the previous year, and plan the following one. We called it The January Book, and we enjoyed this process so much that it became an annual tradition, and an important part of our relationship. We find ourselves discussing topics that we wouldn’t otherwise make time for and it has brought us much closer. We use it through the year at key points, like our wedding anniversary, and at the quarter points of the year to check in on our goals – so we have since renamed it The Life Book. It’s a process we do both alone and together.
The Life Book has led to deep discussions around the health of our marriage, career and house moves, decisions about children, money and lifestyle. It encourages a regular reassessment of our goals and keeps us focussed on what’s actually important in our lives.
Journalling is a way of checking in with yourself and your happiness; checking you’re still doing what you want to be doing, asking yourself if you need to make any changes. It’s so simple but an utterly crucial part of my life and something I feel passionately about sharing with others.
Here are my tips for both getting starting – and carrying on…
How to start your January journal
Write down how you feel
Just that. Pain/joy/sheer boredom – whatever. This in itself is a revealing process. This can be a couple of sentences or pages and pages. It can be as simple as: “Feel exhausted and overwhelmed today” or “Feeling so happy right now”. Or it can be an essay. Then pause, and read it back. Allow any moments of clarity to bubble to the surface.
Write down 10 things you are grateful for, from the sublime to the ridiculous. My morning coffee makes it on there most days, as do things like lovely moments of friendship/marriage/motherhood. Gratitude is a powerful state of being that can literally rewire your brain and change the outcome of your days in amazing ways. It lifts you up and trains your brain to see the positives around you. Even on the days when I feel exhausted and anxious, when I write down the stuff I am grateful for I can feel my brain and heart shift a fraction, away from pain and instead to joy. It literally amplifies the joy. I sometimes write down a grateful point for every moan too. It’s hard but there is always something there, even if it’s learning a tough lesson.
I credit affirmations as a key tool in helping me to have a trippy and amazing home birth, and I have continued to use positive affirmations ever since. There is solid science related to using affirmations, and immersing yourself in those positive feelings, and the amazing outcomes that can happen as a result. Some of my favourite affirmations are “I am calm, confident and relaxed”, “I am enough”, “I choose to focus on the positive”, “I love and value myself”. These act as a sort of manifesto for the day ahead.
I also sometimes write down how I want to feel. I visualise the ideal way I want a work meeting to go, or the way I want to start my day, the ways I want to spend time with my family or do the creative work I love. I focus on it and allow the lovely feelings to bubble up as a result of imagining it. Then I go and take steps toward making that happen – and it feels a bit more natural and joyful, rather than a slog. A personal example is when I feel nervous about driving somewhere, I picture myself sat in the driving seat, smiling, with my favourite music on, calmly and confidently getting to where I need to go. It works!
Hannah’s journalling lessons
- Drop the perfection – Don’t let the fact that you haven’t written in a while prevent you from journalling. Similarly, don’t allow how it looks, or whether or not you have completed your process, stop you either. You can do it anytime, messily or neatly. The important thing is creating a space for your feelings.
- Art journalling – You might feel you want to express your feelings creatively – with collage or drawings or sketches. Allow yourself to play. You might enjoy sticking in momentos from your day – a pressed flower, a ticket or photo. Go with the flow.
- Dealing with icky feelings – Sometimes journalling will reveal some super icky feelings; feelings you would rather you weren’t experiencing. Jealousy, resentment, or deep, deep pain. Just the act of looking those feelings straight in the face is courageous and the crucial first step in doing something about them. My coach/sister-in-law Ray always says, “We are not our feelings”. I found that incredibly powerful when dealing with painful feelings. Once you have looked at your feelings straight on, you will probably find that you actually know what action you could take – asking for help, taking a positive step, forgiving someone, stopping comparison, releasing a story you tell about yourself. But even if you don’t know what to do about it, simply acknowledging your feelings will be useful, even if you can’t see it at the time. I want to say here that if you are finding a lot of pain when you dig down then therapy might be a really helpful thing for you.