Mindful living through daily journaling

Journal of Psychiatry Reform vol. 11 #7, July 10, 2024


Caroline Giroux, MD, FRCPC

Author information:

Professor of Psychiatry, Psychiatrist, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Sacramento, California, USA. [email protected]


An act as seemingly trivial as writing down what happened each day can be a treasure trove. Think about Anne Frank, this 14-yo Jewish girl who was forced to hide from the Nazis with family and friends in an annex in Amsterdam during WWII. I remember reading her journal, published posthumously [1], as a young mother and, like countless other people over the last several decades, how moved I felt by this girl’s endearing innocence and her bright spirit. At the time, I was also keeping a journal, like I did during several periods of my life (including a journal containing a succession of romance disasters as a teenager, and one as an adult dedicated to a small baby girl I lost during the second trimester of pregnancy). I always encourage my patients to do the same and I have often written down my dreams, which turned the pages packed with words into another journal soon enough. 

About a month ago, I went back to reading my journal from a time when my middle son, now Anne Frank’s age, was born. I remember very well how writing this journal, listing the books I had read, the movies I had time to enjoy, my oldest son’s adorable quotes and all the emotions felt made me live with intention. Because such an approach makes each moment count. I also realize how powerful rereading it so many years later is. It feels like a lifetime ago. I revisit a younger version of me, which allows me to have a different take on certain occurrences that I didn’t think much of at the time. But with my broader perspective, I can connect the dots. It is also a great exercise on self-compassion, seeing that by simply taking the time to write the imperfect (but no less eye-opening and rich) moments, and juggling all my responsibilities as a mother away from my birth culture and a physician, I was trying my best, and in doing so, I was already working at leaving a kind of legacy to my children. My life, our life together, were after all, their roots, and their life. 

When I made reading a few entries of this journal my new bedtime routine weeks ago, I also started writing another journal. Journaling is like parentheses to each day: writing the recent past, the past of the day before, in the morning, and reading a more distant past at night. I wanted to put pen on paper every day in a more narrative format in addition to my compact notebook. It is less fragmented than random reflections or ideas caught on the fly. The continuity of it provides some comfort and grounding. The journal has even become a loyal, non-judgmental and silent companion I always look forward to having a talk with over breakfast, sitting outside and feeling connected with nature.  

When we write down intimate details of our lives, we cultivate self-honesty, since a journal is generally intended to its writer’s use only. We cannot escape from our own flaws. We are invited to look at our own truth each moment. We are reminded of who we are. The rawness and the spontaneity of this form of mental purging and also sharing to our future self, if anyone, makes this process beautiful. It anchors us in our truest selves and facilitates self-reflection. Using self-deprecating humor encourages maintaining this honest perspective on ourselves and it can even be therapeutic, liberating us from the need to identify with a distorted, embellished, fake image of ourselves. It helps us accepts what is (in us, and eventually, in our lives). In her book “The Artist’s Way” [2], Julia Cameron recommends a morning routine consisting of uninterrupted, non-censored writing called “morning pages”. She says this process improves mental clarity and creativity. It can overlap with the process of writing a journal. 

A friend of mine, Diane, also artist and meditation teacher, offers a course called “A Year to Live”, and she recommends journaling to the students as they learn to live their lives with more ease and compassion, while accepting with equanimity our own mortality and the death of others [3]. 

In therapeutic settings, we are finding more benefits to narrative approaches including using the written word to heal. As such, therapeutic journaling is an internal process of using the written word to express the full range of emotions, reactions and perceptions we have related to difficult, upsetting, or traumatic life events [4]. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I developed a gratitude practice in the form of a journal. Self-expression is important to process difficult emotions but also bringing the positive into our awareness and reframing the mind towards what goes well to tap into this inner source of abundance called gratitude. I made sure to write everything I could think of that elicited feelings of gratefulness in me every day. And it almost became second nature. Gratitude journal interventions have been proven to increase well-being [4]. It is a highly portable, free and beneficial practice, both for the person who is grateful and the person receiving a thank you letter, for instance. It can be done in any setting, it boosts a sense of awe and freedom, and it can have synergistic effects when practiced with others such as during team meetings as an ice breaker. 

After several years of working with survivors of trauma and incorporating narrative approaches, I discovered that writing improves self-awareness, mood regulation, insight, self-compassion and a better access to awe, gratitude and a sense of agency. I believe it helps restore wholeness and reclaim one’s power, therefore stepping out of the victim role, by discovering one’s voice.  

Having a writing routine might feel a bit suffocating or constraining. But it should not be tyrannical. There have been times when writing everyday didn’t happen. I had forgotten due to a major change in the routine like traveling in a different time zone, becoming ill, or simply lacking the time to sit down to write more than a few lines. It is still worthwhile to do whenever one can. It can also consist of a short poem, or even a collage since images are worth a thousand words. It should be inviting, not rigid. On the contrary, there are no rules. No one will do a grammar check of this very intimate writing. Yet, with regular practice, writing skills, including flow, spelling, expansion of vocabulary and accuracy of grammar can also improve, which makes this another appealing intervention for the elderly dealing with cognitive decline. 

And this is one of the many things it is never too late to learn. As we age, we might not have the mental flexibility of our youth, but we do have the advantage of doing things less automatically, therefore, more intentionally. 

After a month of daily, consistent journaling, I feel like life is happening more intensely at times. As I am connecting more authentically with myself and other people, laughing to tears as we tease each other, and rediscovering sublime details of the natural world, such as the soft clicking sound of the stem during strawberry picking, the wind dancing with the leaves of trees that seem to have grown exponentially in my native town, or the fact that squirrels at my mother’s house are black instead of the brown ones where I live, I observed that stretching these moments with ink on the page is increasing my capacity for mindfulness and therefore, mindful, grateful and peaceful living. 

 

Sources: 

1.Frank A. Journal de Anne Frank. Calmann-Lévy, Le Livre de Poche, Paris, 1950. 

2.Cameron J. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York, Tarcher Perigee, 2016 

3.A Year to Live – Sacramento Insight Meditation (sactoinsight.org)

4.Mirgain SA, Singles J, Therapeutic Journaling, VA Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, 2016, updated 2023  https://www.va.gov/WHOLEHEALTHLIBRARY/docs/Therapeutic-Journaling.pdf 

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