Writing and Mental Health
May is Mental Health Awareness Month
I have been writing almost as long as I've been reading, and putting pen to page is one of the best ways I know to maintain mental health.
At the beginning of fifth grade, my teacher Ms. Albertson introduced me and my classmates to the idea of Warm-ups (a clever term to help us forget we were actually working, writing creatively), and I have carried this practice with me throughout my life. We students were required to purchase a spiral notebook, which Ms. Albertson kept locked in her cabinet. Each morning when we arrived at school, we would retrieve our notebooks, take them to our desks, check the chalk board for the day's prompt, and begin scribbling our morning Warm-ups. We were not allowed to stop writing until Ms. Albertson's signal, which meant we had spent at least 15 minutes writing. When she said, "Stop," we would return our notebooks to the cabinet, where they would be waiting for us the next day.
The daily writing prompt on the chalkboard might be about anything:
What would you do if you had one million dollars?
If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?
How would you describe the color blue to a blind person?
What do you wish you were better at doing?
How do you think your life might be different if you were born in 1832?
What is your greatest fear?
Ms. Albertson wasn't grading on whether we wrote complete, grammatically correct sentences; she only cared that we wrote from the time we arrived in our seats until she said, "Stop." We knew she read our words, though, because she would react with comments and questions when she reviewed our work each week.
The day we were given the prompt, "What is your greatest fear?" I wrote about being afraid of my parents getting a divorce. Although they appeared happily married at the time, my sensitive nature had picked up on the trouble brewing that would eventually split them up ten years later. Ms. Albertson surfaced my anxieties about their marriage to my parents, and I recall being a little tongue-tied when my parents asked me about it. I blushed, didn't know the right answer, only that I wanted my parents to stop asking me questions I couldn't answer: Why would we get a divorce? What did we say or do to make you think such a thing?
My mom and dad were worried about being good parents, concerned about my sense of security, and probably had the best of intentions behind their queries, but I had no words to explain my intuition. I like to imagine Ms. Albertson intervened on behalf of kids with much worse issues than mine, and I'm betting she made a difference for many of them.
From Required to Voluntary to Life-Saving Practice
During my most angst-ridden pre-teen and early adolescent years, my journal was my refuge, my opportunity to work out my own confusion and feelings about my changing body, mind, and world. Many of my worst impulses were diverted to the pages of my journal, where I could follow them in my imagination, think about them, and reflect on possible outcomes, all from the comfort and safety of my bedroom. While I can't say my teen years were drama-free, I'm certain the level of drama was diminished by my writing outlet.
In my early thirties, journaling again took on a crucial role in my mental health. First, I was introduced to The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. By artist, Cameron means anyone who wants to live, work, write, or do anything more creatively. Her principal assignment for anyone who wants to learn this path: daily journaling, which she calls morning pages. Cameron maintains the daily practice of writing as the first activity of the morning is necessary for living the creative life.
Throughout my first marriage, my commitment to journaling varied according to the number of hours I worked, the control tactics of my spouse, and my level of depression. Reading The Artist's Way inspired a renewed commitment to make time for myself to write every day and sparked me to pursue creative writing again for the first time since college.
In my mid-thirties, journaling actually saved my life. I had been in an abusive marriage for years, and my journals were both what kept me going and a catalyst for changes. As the final summer with my former spouse came to a close, while I was experiencing severe hypertension that was unresponsive to medical interventions, I took stock of the nineteen years leading up to that point. It was all there on those pages: the records I kept of countless arguments and battles for control; the endless cycles of love bombing, devaluing, blame, punishment, and making up; the ongoing gaslighting, verbal abuse, and intimidation. When I looked at the big picture, I couldn't deny the patterns I found in the pages of my journals, and this gave me a grounding in my reality as well as the courage to realize I had to get out or risk an aneurysm, stroke, or even death.
Journal Writing is Backed by Research
Research confirms my early journaling experiences were indeed good for my mental health. The University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia reports that writing in a journal can help people deal with depression, anxiety, and stress. To read the full article on the benefits of journaling and their tips on how to journal, click here.