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Dear Diary... Can keeping a journal really be good for your health?

Science says that you can write yourself out of an emotional funk. Zoë Beaty says hers reminds her that difficult times don't last for ever

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By Zoë Beaty on

There’s a little thing that’s been there for me, snuck in my backpack, hidden under my bed, or sticking to beer-soaked pub tables, for a long time. Over the years, it has been black, green, sometimes patterned; it’s been leather and it has been garishly emblazoned with stickers I collected from magazines. Once, it took the form of a stolen exercise book from school; another time it was bound by a shiny gold, flimsy (but convincing, or so I believed) padlock. Right now, it’s red, with a tie around its boxy waist, hugging its leather folds. It’s battered and scratched, and there are remnants of spaghetti bolognese on its side. But I love my journal, just as I’ve loved others before it, probably more than anything else I own.

It feels whimsical and clichéd to admit you keep a journal. Who has the time or the inclination, people often say when I confess I do, and anyway, they ask, isn’t it a bit self-indulgent? The kicker, too: what if someone reads it? They are all valid points, of course, and journalling isn’t for everyone (if anyone read mine, for the record, it would break my heart). But it turns out that spending a little time contemplating, page by page, could be very good for you. And I have to agree.

A study shows that writing out your thoughts and feelings can have a big positive effect on your mental wellbeing. You can write yourself out of an emotional funk, the research says, with just 20 minutes per day, for three days. Professor James Pennebaker studied the benefits of writing for 40 years, and with each experiment he conducted – for instance, comparing groups of people writing about emotional experiences, and another writing about mundane everyday items or journeys – those writing about difficult or emotionally compelling times saw a marked improvement in their mental and physical wellbeing.

His study concludes that, to lift ourselves out of an emotional funk, we should set a timer for 20 minutes and write (in a notebook or on a computer, whichever is most comfortable) about emotional experiences from the past week, month and year. We should write freely, only for ourselves, with no care for grammar or coherence, and then, once the 20 minutes is up, dispose of whatever we cast out on to the page. Repeat for three days. Or, I suppose, whenever you feel the need.

It sounds a little too good to be true, doesn't it? But I believe the advice is worthy of some attention. Journalling might not be able to solve everything – and it’s certainly not a substitute for professional mental-health treatment – but, looking back, it’s helped me more than I give credit for.

And, at a time of unease, reading from my past reminds me that nothing lasts forever – not orange bikes, nor divorces, nor heartbreak or the blinding fog of anxiety

My habit started somewhat instinctively as a child. I remember being given a diary for Christmas – one I deemed, aged eight-ish, as “grown-up-looking”: red, with gold lettering on the spine – and I decided I ought to do something “grown up”, like commit to write in it every day. The entries are each mini maps of the unpredictability and fickle nature of childhood emotions. “My dad left today,” one reads, solemnly, with a touch of self-awareness. Then, “I got a bike yesterday!” bounds the next line. “And it’s ORANGE.”

I would write in the night, illegally after bedtime, and then stealthily slip it out of sight under the mattress. I was quite gleeful that I had a space between those pages which was only for me. And that feeling hasn’t changed in adulthood.

I don't always write – my journals aren't governed by time and dates, but mood. Since I began haphazardly keeping a diary as a child, there have been gaps of months and years that remain undocumented, interspersed with months during which I've written every day. There have been several periods of letter-writing, bad poetry, songs. Crass teenage lists of people I’d kissed, tales of enthusiastic, inexperienced encounters. 

Perhaps because, and not in spite, of the fact that I'm a writer by profession, I don't try to write well. Instead, the notebooks I write in are a nest of thoughts and absolute thoughtlessness. I write half-formed sentences, inane worries and vacuous ones. I don't scrutinise the flow of what I write or long for the prose to be more poetic. Sometimes I just write things I don't feel comfortable saying out loud for fear of embarrassment – my innermost neuroses over relationships, friendships, insecurities, health and work. And then I shut them all away again.

Over the years, having a journal has not only been cathartic, but helped me figure out toxicity in relationships, and see the good in others. It’s helped me through difficult periods with family, insecurities at work. Journals are where I keep the things I find difficult to talk about, and where I try to convince myself that I am – no matter what the critical voice in my mind says – doing OK.

It does worry me that someone might betray my trust and open one of my notebooks. But still, converse to Professor Pennebaker’s advice, I do keep them, even if that means keeping them well hidden. Because I’ve found that, while I rarely read anything back, to occasionally glance at a snapshot of a different time can give me perspective of how meaningless these worries become as time chips away at their enormity. It shows me how I’ve changed over the years, and focuses my mind on who I want to be in the future.

And, at a time of unease, reading from my past reminds me that nothing lasts forever – not orange bikes, nor divorces, nor heartbreak or the blinding fog of anxiety. When I feel low, I flip back over previous, unhappy entries and keep reading until the words on the page grow light again, even for just a short time. It forces me to acknowledge that happiness might be evading me in that moment, but it came back before: proof, written in black and white, that no matter how bad things might feel there’s a chance they might just get better.


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