When I hit 40, I became very unwell with an underactive thyroid. The thyroid is a gland in your neck that balances your hormones, impacting every system in your body. When it’s underactive, everything slows down. Your mood is lowered, and you experience a whole host of other unpleasant symptoms.
I’d been sick for a while, but I was so used to feeling rubbish, I thought it was normal. Looking back, I’m sure the biggest triggers were stress and an overall lack of self-care. I was placed on medication to correct the imbalance, but for some reason I became more unwell. As I struggled with fatigue and low mood, I felt helpless because ‘the fix’ for my condition wasn’t working.
As a cognitive behavioural therapist, I could tell my mental health was starting to suffer. I had to do something. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to journal my way to wellbeing.
Eventually, I’d go on to author The CBT Journal, a practical self-care tool designed to help others do the same.
Why should good mental health be a priority for everyone?
Your mind is one of your most precious assets. Within it, you experience every moment of life. Good mental health is closely linked to physical well-being and it’s also fundamental to feeling happy and content.
Our minds are busy, and our lives are demanding. Many of us struggle with stress and overwhelm. The brain is like a muscle. If you train the worried and anxious part every day, it becomes stronger and your ability to have a calm, settled mind becomes weaker. But you can train your mind to behave in other ways – it just takes practice.
Creating awareness of the mind
When you start CBT, we begin by creating awareness of your mind. This awareness gives you more choice over how you think, feel and behave. Journalling is another way to achieve this.
As well as describing events from your day, the practice usually involves noting down thoughts and feelings. It enables you to step out of autopilot and become more aware of the patterns you’re in.
Just like talking, writing things down – getting them out of your head and down on paper – can be both freeing and healing. Thoughts lose their power when we release them, so the intensity of difficult emotions is often reduced. Ultimately, writing helps us create clarity and become more objective about what’s going on inside our heads.
Why is journalling is such a powerful tool for self-care?
Writing is a left-brain activity. This side of the brain likes thinking in words. It’s logical and analytical. Journalling fully engages the left-brain, freeing up the right-brain to deal with non-verbal cues, to intuit, and to tune into feelings. Both parts of the brain get to do what they’re best at, and they get to do it in tandem, allowing you to better understand what you’re thinking and feeling.
If you think something and don’t write it down, you’re only engaging the right-brain. The mere act of putting those thoughts down on paper means your left-brain is on-board too.
The power of this whole-brain activity is that it taps into the subconscious mind, allowing you to see things differently and feel more confident about the steps you need to take to achieve the change you want in your life.
How journalling helped me
Over time, the personal insights I gained through regular journaling helped me change my lifestyle. It’s been a real journey, but I feel healthier, happier and fitter than ever before.
Initially, I started journalling to try and unpick everything I was experiencing when I fell ill. Slowly, I began to feel more in tune with my body, my symptoms and their variations. This meant I was able to approach health professionals with much more useful information.
Taking responsibility for my own health in this way was empowering. Rather than feeling ruled by my broken body, I was in control. I also became more compassionate towards myself and what I was experiencing. As a result, I was able to share my struggles with those around me. As my symptoms weren’t visible from the outside, opening up in this way helped others understand what I was going through.
The benefits of journalling
In short, journaling makes us feel better by improving our well-being. Here are a handful of things it can help with:
- Improved self-awareness. Regular journalling will help you gain clarity about the situations and things that cause you to react emotionally, whether in a good way or a bad way. It’s only once you have this awareness that you’re able to actively engage with the things that make you feel good and disengage from those that make you feel bad.
- Reduction of stress. Writing down how you’re feeling and what’s causing you to feel that way helps release the intensity of these feelings. The emotional and subjective right side of the brain is instantly able to share the weight of your worries with the logical, rational left side.
- Improved relationships and conflict resolution. Writing about relationship issues or disagreements, rather than just thinking about them, means both sides of the brain work together to look objectively at the bigger picture and find a positive way forward.
- Increased problem-solving ability. The right side of the brain isn’t great at problem solving, so if you’re only going over and over things in your head, you’re unlikely to reach a resolution. But by writing things down you engage the logical left side of the brain, making problems clearer and easier to overcome.
Just write. Set aside an achievable amount of time each day and create a familiar routine around your journalling practice. Whether it’s the first thing you do when you wake up or the last thing you do at night, it’s a good idea to establish a few gentle cues to keep you on track. Try setting an alarm on your phone or incorporate writing into your existing bedtime routine.
Don’t think about what you’re writing, don’t edit, and don’t worry about spelling or grammar or making any sense. There are great benefits to be gained from following a structured journal, focusing on a specific issue or topic, aiming for a set word count, or limiting your practice to a set of short, simple bullet points. But the key to getting started is to just let the words flow and see where they take you.
The minute something starts to feel like a chore, we’re less likely to make it a priority. As journalling can unearth difficult feelings and emotions, it’s important to make the experience itself as enjoyable as possible. This will look different for everyone, but simple things like listening to your favourite music, burning a beautiful scented candle, or creating a comfy, cosy space in which to write can all make a huge difference to your motivation levels.
The CBT Journal
Using journalling as a form of self-care got me through my physical health problems, and it continues to play a huge role in helping me deal with any challenges. Previously, if things got tough, I looked outward to fix things. Now, I also look inwards and think about what I need for my well-being too. This approach makes me more resilient and less likely to burn out.
Because of this, I went on to create the CBT Journal. It’s designed to help anyone who’s keen to understand their mind more. Maybe you’re currently experiencing mental health problems or have struggled in the past. Perhaps you’re simply curious about your current patterns of thinking, feeling, and doing.
Investing just 20 minutes a day will significantly impact your life, making you feel more content, fulfilled and happy, both in yourself and for everyone around you. You can find out more and purchase the CBT Journal here.
Sarah Rees is a cognitive behavioural therapist and author of The CBT Journal. She’s worked in the field of mental health for over 20 years.