Journaling can provide space to explore difficult emotions and figure out what you’re feeling. Elsa Arnold is an activist for YoungMinds – the charity that helps young people get the mental health support they need – and an avid journaler. For Mental Health Awareness Week, we asked Elsa about her journaling process, the impact writing has on her mental health and her top tips for putting feelings on paper.
Do you journal or do any writing exercises to help with your mental health?
I like to use writing to express myself when I’m struggling to explain my thoughts to people. Keeping a journal or writing down my feelings helps me get my thoughts out of my head, and makes them more visual so that I can understand them better. My brain often feels very clouded and overwhelmed, so being able to write down what’s in my head really helps me to clear it and separate my thoughts.
When and why did you start journaling?
I started writing to try and explain how I felt to other people and to communicate my own ideas and thoughts better. I am really self-conscious about how bad I often am at articulating myself, especially when it comes to my emotions. It can make me feel frustrated and stuck because I don’t know how I can explain myself to people. Sometimes it feels like we’re expected just to know how to tell someone how we feel. After a lot of conversations with my therapist as a teenager, I can tell you that they are incredibly hard for me. Not because I don’t want to have them, not even because I feel awkward, but because I just don’t know how.
The pressure of needing to find the words immediately makes me stressed and often means I end up saying nothing. Journaling gives me time to think. It lets me go at my own pace. Writing helps me feel more in control, more able to process my thoughts and manage my life when it feels chaotic and difficult.
What are your journaling habits? What do you do exactly?
I enjoy freewriting, where I don’t necessarily think about what I’m putting onto paper but just continue writing whatever comes naturally. This feels like the most authentic way for me to get my feelings out without overthinking, which I spend most of my time doing! If I’m overthinking, then I am overanalytical with what I’m writing, even if I’m the only one who will ever see it. Non-stop freewriting also helps to get me in a headspace where I am judging myself less. It sometimes comes out in a bit of a “brain dump” which is very therapeutic for me!
I really found joy in writing when I began writing blogs about my experiences, to help other people. It was something I started as a way to talk about my own story, and I always hoped that my writing would benefit other people in some way. At the time I had never spoken about my story openly, so I was very nervous about writing it down. As time went on, I began to notice how writing really made me feel. It ended up not just being about sharing my story and offering advice, but about helping me better understand myself. I write as thoughts, words and new ideas come into my head. The more I do this, the greater the benefit.
How has journaling helped you?
I think journaling and expressing yourself through a piece of paper holds so much power. For those of us who do struggle to find the right words sometimes, journaling can provide the opportunity to find those words at your own pace. Some days it could be five minutes of writing, it could even just be a sentence, but being able to see a thought written down changes how I think about it. It gives it more meaning. Meaning that I can work with, rather than something that’s jumbled in with everything else and I can’t quite pinpoint.
Equally, the thought or feeling might be a deep, significant one, or it might not. One thing I’ve learnt when it comes to journaling and writing is that it’s best when you don’t overthink it. Some things that come from it might seem more meaningful than others. It could be about an experience you had, something you’re struggling with or is troubling you. But it could equally be about how much you enjoyed your sandwich at lunchtime, or about your favourite colour. Sometimes journaling isn’t about solving problems, but it’s about giving your thoughts another space to be, and taking the time to be with them.
What would be your journaling tips to others?
When I first started blogging, someone told me not to force myself to write if nothing was coming naturally. They said this to me because I was doing exactly that. I was forcing myself because I knew it could make me feel better, but I was also getting irritated with myself because some days I just couldn’t do it. Nothing would come. I hold that bit of advice with me all the time now, and would pass it onto anyone who is thinking of starting journaling or anything similar. Whilst it can be a great tool sometimes, if it feels like a chore, or something stressful, then it’s okay to take a break. Try something new, maybe even change the environment you’re writing in – the outdoors can be a great place for journaling too. It’s totally fine to dip in and out if that’s what works for you. It’s a personal activity and the process will look different for everyone, so don’t compare your way to anyone else’s. My biggest tip is there’s no right or wrong! Do what works for you, what comes naturally and what feels good.
If Elsa’s tips have inspired you, you can try journaling in your own notebook. For a little more guidance, you might like a wellness journal or gratitude journal. And if you or someone you know needs mental health support, our charity partner YoungMinds can help.