Feelings — don't you find them to be fascinating yet unfathomable at times like I do? I get furious when my plans for the day are being interrupted. Yet, these intense emotions get dispelled quickly after I make myself a cuppa and put on my favourite playlist. There, too, are times when I am consumed by bouts of confusion, frustration and sadness, which usually occur after I’ve read the news about the rising death tolls surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. How do I make sense of this myriad of emotions I experience on the daily? Is there a need for me to keep them in check?
In an attempt to resolve these burning questions, I decided to see if journalling was the answer. Journalling, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the act of entering or recording your daily thoughts and experiences. Turns out, it’s more than just the act of putting pen to paper, or an activity that elementary school students participate in as part of their homework.
Why should we try journalling?
Journalling is recommended as a stress relief activity, where ‘writing down your thoughts and feelings can be a good release for otherwise pent-up emotions,’ according to the Mayo Clinic. As a step further, I also sought advice from two clinical psychologists, Dr. Annabelle Chow from Annabelle Psychology and Ms. Annelise Lai from Resilienz Singapore, to learn a little more about journalling and its effects on mental health.
Dr. Chow shared: “Journalling has been found to be effective in managing a wide range of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety disorders. It’s especially useful for persons dealing with overwhelming emotions, or where seeking a private outlet to organise their thoughts or expressing themselves without fear or ridicule or judgement.”
Ms. Lai also believes that journalling helps us to better understand ourselves and our emotions. She added: “Journalling enhances self-awareness and cultivates mindfulness. Through journalling, people become more aware of their negative thought processes, body responses, and feelings.”
So, what are some tips to getting started? Dr. Chow shared: “Write [your journal] in an environment with no distractions, and reflect upon some of the things which you might be grateful for, especially if you’ve just encountered an extremely stressful event.”
Heeding Dr. Chow’s advice, I decided to clear out my work desk and sit myself down with a new notebook. While journalling can be done either electronically or on paper, I decided to go with the latter as I figured that I was spending too much time in front of the computer. Sharing about the usual steps which patients should abide by when journalling, Ms. Lai recommended the following: “Don’t get logical. Write freely and fearlessly. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar or staying within the margins and lines on the page.”
Unfortunately for me, I have the tendency to read too much into situations — as a result, I ended up staring at the blank papers of my journal for what seemed like an eternity before I got started on the actual process. It dawned on me that I was simply too afraid of putting my thoughts into words. Even then, I still had to try. As a way of easing myself into this situation, I decided to doodle on the page to keep my mind and hands relaxed before getting into the thick of things.
I learnt that making tiny sketches of significant items or events helped me to better express myself. I was more in tune with visualising these moments rather than writing them down. Nonetheless, I made it a point to string my messy thoughts into sentences whenever I could and gradually built up the guts to expand on them.
Opening up and letting the words flow
The next two days of journalling had proven to be the most difficult for me as I was still trying to adjust to the process. I was so tempted to use these daily moments of self-reflection for other things instead, such as cleaning my room or catching a new music video on YouTube. I dreaded journalling.
Fortunately, as I reached the halfway mark during this seven-day process, I started to appreciate the act of journalling a little more. By the fourth day, I found myself looking forward to recalling the day’s events and in identifying moments which stood out the most to me. I also began to accept that these significant moments didn’t have to be entirely positive. Some accounts were distressing even, but they made me realise how much stronger I had become to have endured those painful experiences.
My final thoughts
Undergoing a week’s worth of journalling proved to be a relatively therapeutic experience for me. It encouraged me to be honest with my thoughts and feelings as I began to view the journal as a trusty confidante. I also enjoyed tuning out of my devices for a few moments in order to reacquaint myself with the manual process of writing on paper. Having had a taste of what journalling felt like, I was also curious to learn about how this process has helped others to manage their mental health a little better.
Sharing about her patient’s experience with journalling, Ms. Lai revealed: “[A patient with anxiety] gained wider perspectives and deeper self-understanding after she opened up to herself through journalling. With her new insight, she was able to practice acceptance and self-compassion. On her last entry, she felt like the therapy journey was a closed chapter in her life and she was ready to move on.”
That being said, I still couldn’t see myself committing to this activity for the long term. While I deeply enjoy writing, I found journalling to be quite taxing. Dr. Chow shared: “Not everyone likes or wants to journal as the process can be emotionally draining, time-consuming, or they may be afraid of their journal being read by others. Others find it tough to reduce their thoughts and emotions into words, or express themselves more effectively through other mediums such as music or art.”
All in all, I believe the process of journalling has helped me realise the importance of paying more attention to my mental health. It has also made me come to terms with the fact that experiencing a myriad of emotions — from the good and bad to the ugly, isn’t a bad thing after all. Our feelings and emotions are valid and we should learn to be comfortable with them. It’s time for us to treat ourselves a little kinder.
Next, read about our tips on self-care and social distancing here.