How to journal as a self-comfort tool, according to a mental health advocate

Mental health advocate Nicole Russell helps kids discover self-comfort tools in tough times. Here's what she recommends for everyone.
Nicole Russell, co-founder and executive director of the Precious Dreams Foundation, shares her best tips for coping in stressful times.
Nicole Russell, co-founder and executive director of the Precious Dreams Foundation, shares her best tips for coping in stressful times.TODAY Illustration / Teri Parker / Daniel Vasquez / Pitch House Productions
/ Source: TMRW

Nicole Russell is no stranger to helping people find comfort in tough times. As the co-founder and executive director of the Precious Dreams Foundation and author of "Everything a Band-aid Can’t Fix," she provides self-comfort items, like blankets and plush toys, to children in foster care and homeless shelters.

Just as she aims to prioritize the emotional needs of the children she serves, the 34-year-old mental health advocate believes we all should prioritize our well-being as we continue to navigate COVID-19. Below, Russell shares how she started the organization and provides self-comfort strategies anyone can use to find peace during stressful times.

TMRW: What is the Precious Dreams Foundation and what are your future goals for it?

Nicole Russell: The Precious Dreams Foundation provides bedtime comfort items and programs that teach kids in foster care and in homeless shelters how to cope with adversity and find comfort. We have begun to develop new programs that actually have a longer impact for the kids. Initially, our focus was immediate comfort — how do we make the first day in foster care or the first night at the homeless shelter a bit more comfortable? Now we have begun to focus on how to help these children recognize and realize their dreams and take action in trying to fulfill those dreams for a better future. My personal goal is to challenge educational institutions and the child welfare agencies in all states to prioritize the emotional needs of these children.

How did your childhood influence your career path?

I grew up in a single-parent home with a father who battled depression for many years. Communication wasn't common, and mental health was never a conversation in my home. As a young child I struggled to make sense of my parents’ divorce, experiencing ADHD symptoms that challenged me in school. So I was trying to make sense of everything and cope at the same time. And I started channeling my frustrations into positive energy by writing, talking to myself and creating. As I transitioned into adulthood, I reflected on those activities that kept me sane and realized I was developing these skills to self-comfort at a really young age.

When I was growing up, I kept a journal and it was found quite a few times. Sometimes I was shamed for the things that I wrote in my journal and sometimes I even got in trouble for it. That prevented me from being vulnerable in my writing. The children who we're serving in Precious Dreams, while they were sheltering in place during the pandemic, they didn't have their own closet to hide their journal and they didn't have a place to take the journal so that they can ensure that their parents never found their writing. Because of that, I really started brainstorming, what are some ways that we can inspire them to keep writing but then promise them that their writing won't be found? So, I created this [“Write Here and Tear”] journal that has perforated pages. It was created to be ripped at and torn apart without falling apart. I created this journal for people who needed to write during the pandemic, but didn't have the privacy to do so openly.

The "Write Here & Tear" journal allows the writer to put down their thoughts and keep them private, which is important for feeling safe enough to be vulnerable.

What advice do you have for people trying to find peace and meaning through these turbulent times?

I always stress that self-care looks different for everyone. Go where the mind can be still. Meditation can be a very difficult practice when we're trying to force it. So figure out where is the place where you can feel at ease, and go there as much as possible just to be still. And focus on the breath. I try to make sure to acknowledge my breath at least once a day. Obviously, it's just something that we naturally do. But as I take the time to look in the mirror every day, and check my hair and brush my teeth, I also try to feel my breath and express my gratitude, even if it's just for a few minutes.

Make sure that you're staying connected with other people because that is one of the biggest challenges that I'm seeing. Even adults who might go vent at the office about their husband or their kids or whatever it is, they don't have that outlet anymore. So, I think people need to get very creative about how they stay in touch with their loved ones. I personally have wellness accountability partners in my life. We do daily check-ins with each other by text or phone to ask each other how we're really doing. And we give each other that safe space to vent if necessary. People really need to stay connected with the self and then also with others.

What strategies, like journaling or meditation, can people practice right now? How can they help provide comfort?

The number one comfort tool that keeps me sane is journaling. I've recently picked it up more because of COVID. I had some family that tested positive, and I even lost some family to COVID. But, I think that's the thing that helps me release. I always encourage people to just write. Whether it's on paper or in your phone or to a friend. You have to release some of the craziness that's going on in your head and in your mind so that you can get a good night's sleep.

Sleep is super, super important. Make sure you’re finding ways to destress before bedtime, so you're not carrying a heavy load to bed. You have to find a way to release, whether that is taking a few minutes to just get down on the floor next to your bed and stretch or journaling before. Or, if there's something that has been on your mind that you need to say, just let it out. If you've been meaning to call someone, if you've been meaning to say something, just do it.

I've been playing online games with friends and family more than ever, which has been a really fun way to take my mind off of the chaos of COVID. It’s funny, my boyfriend and I practically live together, and we sometimes sit on the couch and play Monopoly together, but on our phones. I would encourage people to find an online game that you can play with your family and friends.

What’s a mantra you’d like to follow in 2021 to stay positive and motivated?

Everything is going to be OK. And even if it's not OK, it's still OK. I've learned to be OK with whatever today brings, and whatever happens tomorrow. I've recognized this year how much control we've all lost over our daily lives. And that's OK. We're still here, we're still trying to navigate all of this. But ultimately, we all still have the chance each day to adjust to change and to just make it work. So, I would say that mantra is, everything is OK. And that is something I have to remind myself on a daily basis.