People are already asking psychotherapist Dr. Stephanie Sarkis how to make 2021 less terrible than its predecessor, and her answer is to find ways to gain back control. One way to do that? Setting personal goals.
From meditation to yoga, there are several mindfulness practices to help boost your mental health and productivity. And after living through such a turbulent year, journaling should be the first coping strategy you try.
“We've been through a lot of things this year, a lot of crises, and it's important to process what we've been through,” Sarkis said. “(Journaling) helps build resilience so that when we look back, we say, ‘Things were rough, but I'm here.’”
The essence of journaling is pouring out what’s on your mind and transferring it onto some other format. A study in the Psychophysiology journal found that when people with chronic worry wrote out their thoughts, it decreased their anxiety. The study shows how offloading worries out of your mind and onto a page can help you process life events.
“When we focus too far ahead, we tend to get anxiety and when we focus too far on the past, we tend to lean toward feelings of depression,” Sarkis said. “Mindfulness is staying in the here and now as much as you can ... and journaling helps keep you in the present moment.”
Before testing out the journaling waters, it’s important to understand that there’s no right and wrong way to do it. In fact, Sarkis says the very process of journaling helps people realize that “good enough” is more than OK.
And one size definitely does not fit all. Sarkis emphasized that especially for those who have dyslexia, physical limitations or don’t prefer to write, journaling can include using dictation apps or software to help you speak out your thoughts. It's just as effectively as writing, she shared.
One aspect that rings true for all journaling is the importance of looking back to review your past writing.
“When you step back and look at what you wrote, it's almost like you're reading a story from someone else,” Sarkis said. “And when we read a book about someone else, we're better able to make judgments about what we think they shouldn't have done.”
Whether it’s the traditional “dear diary” or gratitude journaling, there are so many different forms. One in particular that’s currently trending is the bullet journal — a way to organize your thoughts and schedule and reflect all at once.
Ryder Carroll, art director and inventor of the bullet journal (or BuJo for short), describes it as a “mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system.” What sets apart bullet journaling from other forms of writing is that it serves as an all-in-one diary, planner and mindfulness tool.
“I provided a way for people to quickly be able to categorize their thoughts into three distinct categories: the things you have to do, the things you don't want to forget and the things that you experience — so, tasks, notes and events,” Carroll said. “Each one of those is represented by a symbol, so that allows you to very quickly create bulleted notes, bulleted lists, that allow you to declutter your mind very quickly and keep all those thoughts organized.”
“Keep it simple, keep it honest and keep it yours.”
The golden rule of journaling is to be as honest as possible, and that can start by setting an intention, Carroll suggested. While bullet journals have popularized across social media, and it’s common to see people sharing their journal entries, it shouldn't be about pleasing others.
“Almost every form of self-expression is a performance — if you sing or if you draw, it's for somebody else most of the time, and journaling should not be,” Carroll said. “Keep it simple, keep it honest and keep it yours.”
Bullet journals are designed to be flexible. Whether you’re using it to track your fertility, manage schoolwork or maintain a busy schedule, it’s there to provide you with some structure through reflection.
“You can see what's worked, what hasn't, how it's made you feel and what are the next steps,” Carroll said.
Kim Alvarez, artist behind the @tinyrayofsunshine Instagram account, has journaled most of her life and uses her platform to provide bullet-journaling inspiration.
“Journaling can help by being a cathartic way to let out your innermost thoughts and feelings, Alvarez said. “There's just so much noise in my mind, but once I write it down I can see what actually needs to get done.”
For those just starting out, she says to just take it one page at a time and use prompts (you can find them online) if you’re stuck.
“You can just make a list, draw images, create a collage, it doesn't have to be fancy — it can be however you enjoy it,” she said.
Regardless of the way you choose to format your journal, it all boils down to self-reflection as a mindfulness practice.
“Journaling is a way we can release all of our thoughts and emotions in an unfiltered way,” Alvarez says. “Especially during such a turbulent time, to just make sense of the world, it’s a good way to take a moment for yourself and just mentally breathe.”