I looked up from my diary, my face streaming with tears. “This is supposed to be therapeutic,” I thought to myself. “Why am I feeling so much worse than when I started writing?”
If this is something that you resonate with, then it may be time to reframe how you are approaching your journalling. For myself, depression meant that I would only see the negative perspectives of all my daily happenings – or that I would make something up that was negative about it and focus purely on it. So then, naturally it would follow that when looking back at my day, it became difficult to write about anything other than what had been running through my head the whole day – the negatives. Writing only solidified the negativity in my own head.
I know for a fact that many people out there journal more or less like this:
As you can see, although my account of the events at the time may have had a hint of truth (that I found it hard to get out of bed), the actual truth from that day was that I did eventually get up, even if only to feed my dog and wash my face. I also sent an important email that day even from my bed and in a depressed state. But when I journalled in this way, my cognitive distortions: filtering, black and white thinking, overgeneralization, (misguided) fortune telling, and magnifying/minimizing all came into play. (Note: I will write a future post about cognitive distortions with some examples of each.)
Essentially, I filtered out all the good things that happened, and amplified the negative things while assuming that it will always be this way and that it meant I was definitely a failure.
So what is a better form of journalling? Though I do not completely discount the possible therapeutic qualities of ranting into a diary in the traditional form, I think that for those of us who are suffering from depression, the main or even supplemental form of journalling should be activity tracking.
What is activity tracking?
While traditional journalling is more like an internal dialogue (or some find it helpful to pretend the diary is someone external), activity tracking is more like a report to Mr. / Ms. Literal. It looks something like this:
As you can tell, the key is simplicity and a short-form style. For myself, the specific format I decided to use is the amazing bullet journal style (see the official website here). Bullet journalling has changed my life completely, and I highly recommend looking into it for anyone (not just those who are mentally ill). There are many more uses for bullet journalling but I just extracted a simpler form of the main technique for our purposes. In the future, I will write posts about other ways I have used bullet journalling to support mental health.
Why is this helpful?
Activity tracking is different from traditional journalling in that it requires the analyzing of facts, instead of interpretations. The trouble with depression and indeed many other mental illnesses is that cognitive distortions often twist our version of the events when we reflect on the past. Bullet points remove the interpretations and list the bare bones, without all the cognitive distortion.
For myself, starting to make a habit of journalling like this everyday as events occurred helped me a lot during my recovery process from depression and social anxiety.
It aided me in seeing that some of my overgeneralizations, including the thought that I do nothing everyday and thus I am unproductive and a failure, was factually incorrect. Looking back, I see that some days I was more productive and others less productive, but no day passed with me listing absolutely nothing that I can consider even a small accomplishment.
In the same way, my fortune telling was diminished, as I could no longer say that things will never change and that I will always have horrible days like what I was experiencing on April 19th. The facts are in my journal – seeing that I have had plenty of amazing days past April 19th and therefore, factually speaking, it is not accurate to say that things will never get better.
I encourage all of you to try activity tracking if you are having trouble attuning your thoughts to the positive with the traditional method of journalling. A good rant every now and then can be good for you, though, so don’t take this to mean that you should never use the traditional method of journalling!
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),