5 Ways To Keep A Daily Journal
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Journaling or keeping a daily diary is often suggested as a way to improve mental health, but it all sounds a bit vague at first - what do I write? How do I write it? This articles gives a few ideas on how you can keep a journal and explains why it can be so helpful!
1. The Daily Check-in
If you're not too into writing then this is a great one for you. It involves checking in with yourself daily and rating your mood on a scale of 1-10 (10 being amazing). So it starts with just a number, and whatever criteria you are using to assign that number will remain a mystery at first, the idea is to try and explore what that criteria is!
If you were a 7 yesterday and today you are a 5, start asking yourself why that is. What has changed between yesterday and today that has brought you down? Equally if your mood goes from a 4 to a 6, what has happened that made you feel better? Using this daily check-in will really start to give you an idea of what is helping or not helping you, of what is bringing you up or down. It's a really good place to start if you are not sure why your mood has dropped recently or why it fluctuates so frequently. The goal is self-awareness!
2. The Positivity Journal
This one is for building self-esteem, something many of us will struggle with at some time in our lives and something that is often at the core of many other issues we face. It's a great first step for confidence building or raising your self-esteem.
Try to write between 1 and 3 positive things each day relating to yourself - this last part is really important, it needs to be something you have achieved or done well rather than "I saw a nice dog today". Here are a few examples:
- You ticked something off your to-do list
- You achieved a goal, big or small
- You showed a positive quality by helping someone or teaching someone
- You challenged yourself or tried something new
- You avoided something unhelpful
- You made someone smile
- You were brave enough to be honest about how you were feeling
Some people very visibly cringe when I suggest this kind of journaling, saying things like "but not everything is positive and I can't pretend it is" or "I don't see how writing 3 positive things is going to solve all my problems". That is absolutely true, not everything is positive and no amount of journaling will solve all your problems - that is NOT the goal here.
So what is the goal? Building self-esteem and confidence by challenging the negative filter you may have on your life. Some people only pay attention to the bad things that are happening and everything good gets filtered out, this exercise is about bringing balance back into your life, it's about saying yes life is difficult and painful at the moment but
there are also some good things that I can focus on. It is not a 'cure' for whatever distress you are experiencing, but it is a good place to start, and on those really dark days where your self-esteem is at rock bottom, you will have pages and pages to remind you of the positive impact you have in this world.
3. The Thoughts and Feelings Diary
This journal is deeply routed in the CBT theory that negative emotions are caused by the way we think about and perceive situations, rather than the situations themselves. I have come across a lot of clients who have been suggested to try this, but with no real explanation as to how to go about it so I've broken it down into 3 clear steps.
Step 1 - Write
When you notice that you are feeling some distress, pay attention to the thoughts you are having around that feeling. What were you thinking about before the feeling started? What is running through your mind now. Once you have pinpointed the thoughts, write them down along with the feeling.
Step 2 - Rationalise
Next you are asking yourself two key questions: Is it a fact? Can I control it?
It is very likely that the thought you are having is not based on any facts or evidence but is just your interpretation of something. This is one way of rationalising the thought and reducing distress.
However, it might be that there is some truth to what you are thinking or worrying about, but do you have any control over it in this moment? Remember we can't control other people's thoughts or actions, certain aspects of health or our jobs. So what CAN you do? You might be able to talk to someone and get more information, research or prepare for something, or it might be that re-focusing on something else entirely is the most helpful thing in that moment - but it must always be something you can control. Make a note of this process in case it comes up again, then you can see what you did last time and whether it worked or not.
Step 3 - Replace
Sometimes rationalising is not enough, if you don't replace the unhelpful thought with a more helpful alternative then it will keep coming back again and again. A lot of people skip this stage or get very stuck on what a helpful thought looks like. What you replace it with will really depend on the original thought but here are some examples:
Original thought: "Everyone in my life hates me"
Alternative thoughts: kind things people have said or done for me, positive things about me, what I would say to a friend who felt like this
Original thought: "I'm going to be fired"
Alternative thought: the facts of the situation, reasons I'm good at my job, reasons they might not fire me
It's also good to have a few helpful mantras to use such as "I am safe now", "I can't control this", "thoughts are not facts". What you choose to write all depends on your individual situation, but what you will hopefully end up with is a list of much more helpful ways of thinking that you can use as a resource when needed.
I have had quite a few clients who are hesitant to try a thoughts and feelings journal because "you can't just put a positive spin on everything" but this is NOT about trying to turn every negative into a positive. Life can be extremely painful at times and writing in a journal will not take that away, however, the idea here is that there are helpful and unhelpful ways of interpreting events and situations. The helpful thoughts will bring you up and the unhelpful thoughts will not only bring you down, but they will keep you there, feeding your depression and anxiety.
This journal is not an easy task, it requires a lot of repetition and consistency for it to start to take effect. Some people are reluctant to try things that are not an instant fix for their problem, but that instant fix does not exist. Change and growth takes time and if you can put in the effort, this way of journaling can be extremely effective.
4. The Goal Tracker
A lot of clients come to me with lack of motivation, a sudden inability to do simple tasks, or procrastination. The key for overcoming these issues is to set small, achievable goals for yourself and track your progress to stay motivated.
A common example of a goal is wanting to exercise more, but trying to achieve the recommended 150 minutes a week (or whatever) can seem impossible when you're starting from zero. Instead, starting with a 5 minute Youtube workout 2 or 3 times a week is more than manageable, and even though it's a small goal, your brain will still feel happy when it's achieved. After a couple of weeks you might want to step it up to 5 minutes every day or 10 minutes 2 or 3 times a week, and continue building on that until you get to where you want to be.
When things feel overwhelming we tend to shut down and do nothing at all because we fear failure, setting small goals and building on them over time will help you to side-step this problem. Tracking the goals is an important aspect because on the tough days you will be able to look back and see how far you've come, and seeing evidence that you are making progress no matter how small, will help to keep you motivated.
5. The ACE Journal
It's sometimes considered a recipe for healthy wellbeing, if you can fit a little bit of these 3 things into each day then it can really help boost your mood and overall satisfaction. It might be that there is one in particular that your life is lacking at the moment and the ACE journal can help identify what that is, giving you something to work on. Here are some examples of each:
Achievement: did something well at work or school, cleaned the house, got up on time, exercised, smoked less, saved money
Connection: talked to family, friends or colleagues about something meaningful, engaged in a social activity, attended a group, got some positive feedback from someone
Enjoyment: engaged in a hobby, tried something new, laughed or smiled, sang in the car, let your hair down
It can be a really eye-opening experience sometimes keeping a journal like this and realising how much connection you are lacking or how little time you give yourself to do the things you enjoy. It's really about self-care and making sure you are nurturing yourself so that you're meeting these 3 basic needs each day.
So that brings us to the end of the article, hopefully there is something in here for everyone and if you are considering keeping a journal for your mental health, I hope that some of these ideas might be useful for you. Remember if you're not that into writing these can all be done on a phone, tablet or computer as well; and keep in mind that these things don't work for everyone! If it doesn't work for you then that's ok, the important thing is not to give up and to keep trying until you find something that does!