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Powerful Journaling for Coping with Mental Illness

Frequent psychological distress can be eased when we create a simple notebook or word document.

For people with a psychological malady, going through a ‘difficult time’ means more than simply being irked with stress and sadness. Our emotional volatility causes us to waver between frequent and debilitating extreme highs and lows. In order to cope with these feelings, we’re often led to self-harming on one extreme and the grandiosity of flagrant spending or outright risky and illegal behavior on the other.

Living lives where we constantly surrender to compulsion to feel better is exhausting. Keep in mind that while we are impulsive to the point of being problematic, this means that we are fighters. We will do anything to feel okay and while this can be dangerous for obvious reasons, we can use this quality to our advantage.

Imagine the powerhouses we could be if we used that resilience to build ourselves up.

For many years, I struggled with constant phases of relapse and recovery. My wellness had a shelf life of about six months tops before I again became consumed by anguish. I know many other people that live like this, and so it’s become my life’s mission to figure out how to stop perpetuating this cycle.

I’ve lived with BPD and varying degrees of invisible illness since I was seven years old. Nothing has changed my life like keeping an open mind has.

Following these two simple steps has been my prerogative for over a year now and has made life more bearable.

To successfully follow along if you so choose, you will need a piece of paper to exercise your mind by writing down some of these ideas in a way that is personal to you. I strongly suggest keeping a notebook — one that you can scribble in and frame each of these exercises to start off every day, whether good or bad. The best thing about this is that anyone with Microsoft Word or Google Docs can participate in this exercise and either easily delete their work or construct an entire chart of each day’s findings.

Keep a ‘growth mindset’ dialogue

A growth mindset means a deep-rooted belief that we can improve. We aren’t reliant on talent alone or luck — trial and error is welcomed. Here, failure and success are both useful outcomes. Here, we are always students. Imagine a world where you will improve as a person until the moment you die!

These ideas were fostered as part of research on education, but I find them to be incredibly useful in approaching my mental health because they enforce the idea that there is no such thing as “failure”: everything is a learning experience that I can hone into growth and positive change. To frame this way of thinking, I suggest writing down ingrained beliefs. These are often lies that we tell ourselves.

Old mindset: I am never going to get better.

Growth mindset: It’s going to take a lot of trial and error to live a happy life.

If you’ve got ten minutes, I highly suggest watching this delightful and informative TED Talk by the expert herself on how she applied this idea to help learners in classroom settings. Now, you can use it too, because you’re a student of the world who’s always learning from life’s experiences.

Try writing down some beliefs that you have about difficult situations or thoughts that regularly stifle your happiness and growth. Then, write down a ‘new mindset’ approach and compare the two ideas.

Validate your suffering on paper

The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that pain, misery, and suffering exist in life. No matter what your religion is, this is a fact that exists for everyone. We cannot change this fact.

Oftentimes, we invalidate our suffering by telling ourselves that we are selfish for being upset. We tell ourselves that someone else has it worse and that we have no right to have negative feelings. This causes us to ruminate, and so our problems do not receive closure in the way that they would if we addressed them head-on. Sometimes we even allow other people, like family or friends, to diminish us and tell us that our feelings are invalid.

For this exercise, write down some things that are making you suffer. This could be anything from money woes to interpersonal problems with a family member. It could even be something that’s ailing you physically.

Old example: My finances are upsetting me and I feel like I never make enough money… but I shouldn’t be upset because my bills are paid.

New example: Money is stressing me out. It’s normal to not want to live paycheck-to-paycheck.

As you write, dwell on each bullet in your list for a moment or two and then write down why it’s okay that these things are making you suffer. Note how normal it is to be displeased, and note, too, how it isn’t the end of the world.

Now is not the time to create a solution, but instead to simply acknowledge what’s going on in your life in an organized way.

After this, you’ll be ready to take care of those problems in a nurturing way. Now that you’ve seen your problems summarized into small sentences, they look real, don’t they? You’ll also notice that they don’t look so upsetting in your own handwriting. Each problem now has become able to be a learning experience instead of a parasitic intrusion.

You only need five minutes per day to improve your life

We can all agree that the way we think matters. While we cannot will ourselves to perfection, managing our thoughts can make or break whether or not we stay grounded through the many strenuous situations that life throws at us.

Journaling like this every morning is a step to add to your routine that will only take five minutes because it requires more reflection than actual writing. (We can silently reflect while we do other things and use this list for more than just the time we’re looking at it).

I think of this as a form of meditation and mindfulness without the discipline of bowing one’s head and conjuring nothingness. Our minds are filled with cluttered thoughts, and these exercises help to make something of the mind’s messes.

No matter who you are and no matter what you’re going through, I know that you deserve to give yourself these five minutes of self-devotion. Although no one can promise you happiness, it is your birthright to try and find it.

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I write about all kinds of human experiences big and small.

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