How Journaling Helped My Mental Heath (And How It Didn’t)
TW; This post is about my experience with depression and anxiety, and mentions suicidal thoughts.
In early 2019, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It was no coincidence that it cropped up when I became pregnant—it’s incredible how pregnancy changes the body, and it also has a tremendous impact on the mind. Perinatal depression and anxiety completely changed my demeanor. Where I was once enthusiastic about work, creative pursuits, exercising, and taking care of myself, I found myself listless, plagued by spiraling negative thoughts, trying and failing to cope with panic attacks, and lost the will to live. I didn’t want to exist, much less get out of bed, leave the house, or do anything productive.
The only thing that remained constant—besides continuing to care for my beloved dogs through my apathy and anxiety—was journaling. Since I had made a habit of journaling for the last several years, I was able to write, even when I didn’t want to make art, work on my creative business, or see other people. For World Mental Health Day 2019, I want to share the ways that journaling helped my mental wellness—and how it ultimately couldn’t replace professional mental health services for me.
Journaling Slows Down My Racing Thoughts
As I type out this blog post, my thought process is forced to slow down, and when I write, it’s even slower. For me, anxiety produces overwhelming, racing thoughts—overlapping layers of thoughts that all branch off and spin out of control. When I write, it’s like those thoughts are forced into a bottleneck, and I can parse through them to generate something semi-coherent. It’s a comforting, albeit brief, respite. I often turn to my private journal (the one I never post on the internet) to quell the storm of thoughts that overwhelm my mind.
Journaling Helped Me Identify Negative Thought Patterns
I have posted videos where I flip through my other journals (like my art journal, memory journal, and bullet journal), and it’s usually quite a pleasant experience. However, when I went back and read through my private journal earlier this year, I realized that a gradual but significant change had taken place. My entries used to be about memories, events, inside jokes, ideas, goals, with a few rants or sad laments peppered here and there. However, during this time period, every single entry for several weeks in a row was filled with negative thoughts about myself, and contemplation about nonexistence and suicide. Seeing the evidence in writing made me realize that I was depressed after being in denial about it for quite some time.
When Journaling Wasn’t Enough—Beyond Self Help
Journaling (and meditation, exercise, spending time in nature, being around animals, socializing, eating a well-balanced nutritious diet, developing a “positive outlook”) is often lauded for being beneficial for mental health. I do agree with that. What I don’t agree with is the notion that these things can replace therapy or medication. Before I sought professional help, I had absorbed the stigma that seeking mental health services was a sign of weakness from my family, culture, and society at large. Although most people reacted with support for my decision to start therapy, I did receive pushback from a few family members who didn’t understand why it was necessary and insisted that I just needed a change in lifestyle. Well, guess what? All of those things that I listed at the beginning of this paragraph? I embodied all of them and still got hit with debilitating depression. All of the self care, self love, and self healing that I’d been practicing in my journal and in my day-to-day life wasn’t enough. It was time to seek help.
Journaling Made Therapy More Productive
The first time I went to therapy, I was wracked with anxiety. I imagined countless scenarios of what the hour-long session would be like. I made up hypothetical conversations where I would anticipate what the therapist might ask and the various ways I could respond. I’d actually written out what I thought I should say in my journal and brought it with me to our first session.
Turns out, it was really helpful to come prepared. My journal became a useful tool for all of our subsequent sessions. I would write after I got home from each session to process everything that we worked on; sometimes, I’d jot a few things down during the session too. I’d write down things that I wanted to discuss in my next session. I truly believe that this expedited the process.
Of course, it’s not about speed; it’s about healing… which takes a different amount of time for everyone. But I’ll be really honest about the financial aspect of this experience. Although I am privileged enough to have decent insurance that partially covers mental health services, I still had to pay a pretty hefty copay each time, so I was determined to make every minute of my sessions as productive as possible. I was also just so tired of being depressed—I wanted to feel whole again, and I wanted it to happen sooner rather than later. Being prepared and doing the work outside of therapy sessions was integral in making that happen for me; using my journal helped me stay on track with my mental health journey.
Journaling Encourages Mindfulness
Part of my healing process included mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy. I think of it as trying to reroute the thought roadways that my mind is used to taking, which leads to unhelpful roundabouts (a negative mood spiral) instead of somewhere I want to be. Changing my thought processes and emotional reactions was a lot easier said than done. For me, I found it much easier to sort out those “thought roadways” when they were laid out on paper instead of trying to do it all in my head.
Tracking Mood and the Side Effects of Medication
I started therapy with the resolution that I wouldn’t go down the medication route, because I was pregnant, and I didn’t want any side effects to pass on to my child. However, after about two months of therapy, I was still having panic attacks and a few bad lapses that were terrifying for myself and my husband. I decided to ask my therapist about medication, because I just wanted relief. Something was obviously going on biologically in my brain that cognitive behavioral therapy alone wasn’t able to resolve.
I wrote down all of the qualms and questions that I had in my journal to present to my therapist. Together, we made a pros and cons list of starting an antidepressant that was known to be safe for pregnancy and examined the effects of depression and anxiety on mother and baby. Ultimately, I decided that my debilitating mental state was causing too much harm to my pregnancy (not getting enough nutrition and exercise, increased stress and cortisol levels, etc.) and that it would be worth trying a low dosage of an antidepressant.
Medication can take up to six weeks to become effective, and there are signs to look out for in case there are any side effects or negative reactions. I used my bullet journal to track my mood, noted anything that seemed out of the ordinary, and also marked when I took my medication in a habit tracker every day, so I didn’t forget a dose. I continued to write down my stream of consciousness in my journal as well. The progression of my mental wellness as time went on was striking. After six weeks, the combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication not only made me feel less anxious—I actually felt better than I did before pregnancy, before I ever suspected that I might be depressed.
For some, journaling can be an effective way to practice mindful, self-guided healing. For others, journaling won’t replace professional mental health solutions but may be beneficial as a supplemental tool.
If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or any other form of mental health issue, my heart goes out to you; know that you are not alone. If you feel you need help with your mental health, please check out the resources below.