Life is a journey. For some it's like travelling along a quiet road on a balmy summer's day when it's not the school holidays. For others though, it's more like a motorway at rush hour on a rainy day in winter. For most of us, it's generally a mix of the two. And just as life's journeys are different, so are the coping mechanisms of the travellers.
We're not all happy-go-lucky souls that sail along smiling beatifically at white-gold wheat swaying in the fields; some of us are stressed, lip-gnawing balls of frustration hunched over steering wheels glaring at the stationary Eddie Stobart in front and pointlessly ducking every time a 747 swoops overhead. We're all different inside, but we don't look different. The happy-go-lucky soul probably has one head and the usual number of limbs; but so does the ball of frustration. If you're physically hurting, the world can usually see, because your wrist's in plaster, or you're in a wheelchair. If you're mentally hurting it's not quite so obvious.
Fortunately, the state of one's mental health is not the taboo subject it once was. And that's good, because we're getting to the stage when a person can admit to suffering from anxiety in the same way as somebody else can admit to suffering from asthma. They're both potentially life-changing, but one is apparent (whipping out an inhaler and taking a blast) and the other is not (unless you count bitten-to-the-quick fingernails).
So what can you do to improve things? Well, why not treat conditions that basically originate in the brain with a solution that originates from the same place? Why not re-train your thought processes? Create a diversion towards a quieter road that meanders along the coast when it looks like you may be about to be drawn into the pit of a roadworks-pocked motorway?
Try journaling. Many swear by it, and it's not hard to see why. Earlier this year, Helen - of Journal With Purpose fame - dropped into Cult Pens Towers to introduce us to the benefits of journaling. She kindly dropped in again more recently, specifically to show us how it can help improve our mental wellbeing. She has found the whole concept of journaling indispensable; it forms an incredibly important part of her day, and has been instrumental in improving her outlook on life. There to listen to her words of wisdom were Amanda, who goes white and starts shaking whenever she mislays her journal; Mel, from WHSmith who has written blog posts on journaling; Louise, otherwise known as Calligraphy Girl; James, who took up journaling after Helen's last visit; and Erin, a stray student who turned to journaling when the thought of spending the summer at home with the family threatened to be a little overwhelming, and happens to be related to the sixth member of the gang (me - Anna).
Such a simple concept, journaling is basically the act of clearing all the stuff out of your head and putting it down in black and white (or purple and orange, or in the form of drawings or diagrams… we'll get onto that later). Clearing your mind helps you focus on what's important, which leads to improved mental health, and - so studies have shown - better physical health as well. All you need is a notebook and a few pens, and a bit of time (but don't panic, it doesn't have to be a lot!)
So how do you do it? How do you start a journal and therefore your journey to better mental health?
With a notebook of course! There are so many notebooks perfect for journaling out there, but don't let sifting through them stress you! Just remember that you will almost certainly need more than one, because once you've filled the first, you'll need another. But what should you look out for?
Good paper is a must, particularly as many journalers like to use fountain pens or watercolours, and not all paper can stand up to this. Helen particularly likes Rhodia notebooks: she says the paper quality is outstanding, and stands up perfectly to all types of ink. It also has the added benefit of being very smoooooooth!
You can, of course, use any ruling you like, but many swear by the dotgrid layout, because it doesn't matter if you're writing, drawing, or creating tables and charts. The dots are there to guide rather than dictate.
Many journaling notebooks have numbered pages, plus a customisable index or list of contents, and some have removable pages or pockets attached to the back cover for loose bits and pieces. If you like a bit of structure these types of notebooks are invaluable. Rhodia Goalbooks fall into this category, and are available in a massive range of colours. Also, the covers are so tactile you will probably find yourself stroking them. Don't be embarrassed: stroking a dog is stress-relieving, so why not stroke your journal? Clairefontaine's Age Bag notebook is also a strong contender, and many journalers - including James - find Atoma notebooks brilliant because of the fact that you can extract pages and then put them back in again. Leuchtturm1917make a vast range of notebooks in many different sizes including B6 (a little shorter and slimmer than A5), plus a notebook specifically for journaling - their Bullet Journal. You'll be able to read more about how to use these types of notebooks in Ryder Carroll's The Bullet Journal Method. He invented the whole concept of bullet journaling, and has revolutionised the way many people organise their lives.
You'll also need something to make a mark on those pages, and what you choose really depends on how you want to fill in your journal. Do you want to stick to just writing? Do you want to illustrate it? Will you be including graphs and tables? How about a bit of calligraphy? What about including photographs? A pencil is a good start: you can use it to create banners as well as drawings, and you can get rid of mistakes very easily! Then you can go over the pencil marks with Sakura's Pigma Micron pens, or Staedtler's Pigment Liners, which both come in a range of tip sizes and colours. Enhance titles or prioritise things to do using the Gelly Roll pens to make things stand out (literally, in the case of the Soufflé!) Use mt tape to create borders or fix photographs. You'll need a ruler, but why not have a wavy one instead? And then there are coloured pencils and highlighters and… and… I could go on, but it's probably easier if you have a look here instead.
So, now that you have the physical tools, what do you do next? Remember that there are no rules; your journal is for you, and you can do whatever you like, in whatever way works for you. Journaling is not just a means of recording aspects of your life, it also provides a chance to be creative, which has a positive effect on mental wellbeing. Your style can be as simple as a cheese sandwich, or as much of an assault on the senses as a pair of seventies' curtains. You can aim to be the next Picasso in your illustrations or settle for being a keen amateur. You can have just one journal, or you can have several, in different sizes and colours, to suit whatever it is you need each one for. You can stick to a single ballpoint and bargain basement paper (although we hope you won't!) or you can make choosing a lovely notebook and a selection of different pens and pencils the first pleasurable step in your journaling career. But whatever you decide to do, Helen has a few really useful pointers.
Evenings are when Helen makes time to update her journal; she finds it a neat way of ending the day well, by ticking things off her To Do list and adding to her Gratitude Log (we'll tackle that a bit further down), and then planning the next, which ensures she starts off on a positive note. It's a strange thing, but humans seem to be programmed to focus on what went wrong, instead of what went well: probably originating from when we lived in caves and a single mistake could mean being trampled by a mammoth. So it's important to give yourself a pat on the back for every positive aspect of your day - perhaps by compiling a 'Reasons to be Proud' list - and acknowledging that while other things may not have gone according to plan, in the words of Scarlett O'Hara, 'tomorrow is another day.'
The human brain is a marvellous thing; it's very good at retaining things, but sometimes it's too good. You need to remember, for example, that you have an eye test next Monday at four o'clock, but you don't actually need to have the fact bouncing around inside your skull ALL THE TIME, particularly if it's interfering with your attempts to prioritise what you have to do today. Journaling takes the stress out of this. By noting appointments in your journal you effectively remove them from today's list and put them on next week's (or the next day's, or even next year's - it's up to you). And you won't forget them, because your journal is there, right by your side, to remind you.• … And when to do them
It's not just future events that clog up your mind either; it's often stray thoughts. Things that have an annoying habit of popping into your head just when you least need them to. 'Was I too blunt when I spoke to Emily this morning?' or 'I said I'd ring Mum last night and I didn't.' Or fixating on the fact that you spent two hours on Instagram when you'd actually planned to do something more constructive. The sort of things that don't really have a concrete solution but which do need managing. This is where journaling becomes more than just a diary or a To Do list. You can design it so that you can track things like mood, habits and productiveness, and get a pattern of when is the best time to do certain things. If it turns out that you're not the happiest of chappies in the morning, then it's probably worth taking people to task in the afternoon, when you're more likely to be reasonable. Likewise, if evenings are usually filled with trying to cook dinner and supervising homework, then it's probably not the best time to agree to ring your mum, especially if she's a bit of a chatterbox! If you fear you're succumbing to a social media addiction try setting aside a time when it's OK to indulge.• Goals to aim for
Set goals, but be realistic, or you'll only set yourself up for failure. But don't make them too easy or you'll never step out of your comfort zone! Quotes are a fantastic way of motivating yourself, whether they originated with Marcus Aurelius, Mother Theresa or Madness, whatever floats your boat. You can create a single page for quotes, or just slot them in at points in your journal where you feel they'll be the most inspiring. Ryan Holiday's The Daily Stoic is packed with words of wisdom and its companion, the Daily Stoic Journal is great at getting you into the daily habit of journaling. You can also refer, of course, to your album collection (that's if you have one; if you're a young thing you may need to look to the internet - or your memory - for lyrics).
If you're having trouble focusing, Helen has found that having a Vision Board is an excellent way of reminding yourself of your goals, particularly useful when you're flagging, and feeling that you're not achieving as much as you'd like. A quick glance at a picture of your dream house, or a photoshopped pic of yourself accepting an OSCAR may be all the boost you need to keep calm and carry on.• Reasons to be cheerful (with apologies to the late great Ian Dury)
So… the Gratitude Log. When Helen decided to start compiling one, she admits to feeling a bit of a twit. But now she tries to list something every day for which she feels grateful, even if it's something quite simple like the sun coming out at lunchtime. She's found it especially important on days when she feels that absolutely nothing has gone right (and we all get those days!) The harder you find it to add something to the list, she says, the more you should look for it. And when you locate that (perhaps only single) good thing, you'll feel so much better!
Look back on what you've done and congratulate yourself. You may not have achieved world peace (though you can always add it to your Vision Board) but by using your journal you are learning how to put things into perspective, how not to sweat the small stuff and - as Helen puts it - investing in your happiness. Aim for being the serene soul sailing along in the sun, but accept that sometimes you'll be the ball of frustration ducking the 747s.
18 September 2018