When it comes to journaling to help cope with depression, it’s important to be mindful of what helps and what doesn’t.
I’m having a terrible day, and it’s all my fault. My boss hates me, and I get it. I didn’t meet my deadline for a writing assignment for an important client. I truly messed everything up. Why can’t I just get myself out of bed and get motivated like everybody else? I’m useless, and I’m going to get fired. I just know it. My life sucks. I suck. Ugh, I thought journalling was supposed to help me feel better, not worse.
Oof. That journal entry stings when I read it. When I was at one of my lowest points in 2021, most of my journal entries looked like this. Full of demeaning comments and self-blame.
Do you struggle with journaling, and the above entry reminds you of something you’d write? I have some words of wisdom to share with you to help you re-frame journaling and use it as a tool to decrease your mental distress rather than heighten it.
First, I want to point out one key pitfall to avoid when it comes to journaling for mental health: the tendency to fall into on-paper rumination.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, rumination is when your brain keeps focusing on and thinking over the same thing. It becomes a problem when you’re depressed because it prevents you from seeing the situation from a new perspective.
The above journal entry is chock-full of rumination. I kept going over the same event and my negative beliefs about the situation. Just because I wrote it down in a journal instead of ruminating in my mind doesn’t mean I practiced an effective healing strategy. After I wrote that entry, I only felt worse about myself, and the rumination continued in my mind.
So, why do so many therapists and mental health advocates believe that journalling is a tool for healing?
Well, it works wonders, but with the caveat that you must journal with intention. A 2013 study by psychologists at the University of Michigan suggested expressive journaling decreases the depressive symptoms of those dealing with Major Depression.
But how can you ensure your journal entries take you on a path toward healing rather than making you feel worse?
Here are some strategies I learned in therapy and the psychiatric hospital that made journaling beneficial for me.
Recent studies support that writing down what you’re thankful for can help you feel less depressed, more connected within your interpersonal relationships, and improve overall wellness.
Sometimes it can be tough to think about the things you’re grateful for when you’re in a pit of despair, but stretching my mind to give thanks in these moments can help pull me out of a funk. Feeling grateful helps me feel more connected to the people I love and reminds me that I am not nearly as alone as I feel.
Let’s go back to that dismal journal entry from the beginning of the article. The whole entry focuses on what’s going wrong in my life. While it’s important to vent about your struggles, it’s also important to balance that with the positive to bring a little hope into your mindset.
Before I went to a psychiatric hospital in the fall of 2021, I was skeptical of positive affirmations. It felt so fake to me. How could telling myself I’m capable and strong when I don’t believe it actually change my life for the better?
I even knew about the scientific evidence that backs up the impact of positive affirmations on a person’s mental health. Studies going back over 10 years suggest that positive affirmations have a significant impact on the brain and behavior.
So, when the group therapist, in the partial hospitalization program I was admitted to after my inpatient mental health treatment, asked us to practice daily self-affirmation, I was hesitant.
She gave us a long list of possible self-affirmations and told us to try writing down three that felt meaningful to us each day. I was willing to try anything at this point to feel better, so I gave it a shot: I am strong. I am brave. I am learning.
I wrote these three self-affirmations down every morning. At first, I felt like a fraud. But after about a week, the meaning began to sink in. I could feel the truth in the statements.
I don’t write these affirmations down daily anymore, but I do write them down at the end of a particularly tough journaling session, along with any other self-affirmations that resonate with me at that moment: I am capable. I am thoughtful. I am kind. I am beautiful. I am trying my best.
I notice that self-affirmations help me shift to a different line of thought and focus on self-love rather than tearing myself down.
If you’re struggling to think of ideas for self-affirmations to use yourself, you can Google a list of sample self-affirmations to try for yourself.
After the doctors released me from my partial hospitalization program, I returned to my regular therapis, and we began Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT is an evidence-based treatment framework created by Dr. Marsha P. Linehan in the 1980s.
I was first exposed to DBT during my inpatient stay, and I found one concept from this therapeutic framework to be particularly healing: the “Wise Mind.”
Imagine a Venn diagram with “Emotion Mind,” the part of your mind that comes from the emotional perspective, on one side. On the other side is “Reasonable Mind,” the part that provides the logical viewpoint. In the middle of the Venn diagram is “Wise Mind.”
Tapping into “Wise Mind” means finding a balance between your rational thoughts and emotional needs. It helps you understand the situation from a mindful perspective and allows you to make safer choices while in crisis.
The journal entry I shared with you is very much stuck in the “Emotion Mind.” I was so focused on how bad it felt to disappoint my boss that I didn’t consider the logical side of the situation. The likelihood that I would be fired was, truthfully, very low. Getting out of bed is difficult for me because I have Major Depressive Disorder, not because I suck. Finding this balance is essential to constructive and healing journaling.
So, before I go, I want to leave you with a re-frame of my journal entry to show you how intentional, healing journaling often unfolds for me:
I’m having a terrible day so far. I can’t shake the feeling that my boss hates me, even though I know rationally that can’t be true. I didn’t meet my deadline for a writing assignment for an important client. It truly feels like I messed everything up. I just couldn’t get myself up and out of bed today. I feel useless, but I know I deserve to give myself some slack because life is hard and depression is hard. I’m terrified that I will be fired, but I know that most likely my boss will give me another chance and I can still do an excellent job on the assignment, even if it is late. I’m so grateful to have an understanding boss and a family who supports me on my worst days. I am strong. I am brave. I am capable. I’ve got this!
Thank you, Journal. I feel much better getting my thoughts out on paper and reminding myself of the bigger picture.
Sometimes we just need to vent and complain in our journal, and that’s okay too. But when battling depression, it’s important to be mindful about how you speak to yourself and find ways that help you vent AND feel better after.
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