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Dear diary: why journaling should be your new habit

Local therapist Imane Dahmani explains the benefits of writing down your thoughts and feelings and how to get the most out of it

2 February 2023

Imane Dahmani

While many of us were familiar with the concept of keeping a secret diary in our youth, as adults, noting down our deepest thoughts can be more challenging. But whether it’s keeping track of your goals or dealing with a life event, journaling has wide-ranging benefits no matter how old you are. 

The writer Virginia Woolf famously kept a diary for 26 years, and of course, Anne Frank’s journal is impactful and essential reading (you can buy both at John Sandoe). Frida Kahlo’s diary, meanwhile, is as artful as you’d expect and Pablo Picasso was reportedly never without his notebook.

But what counts as journaling? And is there a way to do it ‘properly’? We spoke with local therapist and Rapid Transformational Therapy practitioner Imane Dahmani to answer this, and much more. 


What is journaling?

Journaling is a form of expressive writing, where you put your thoughts, emotions and experiences into words.

 Keeping a journal can take many forms and serve various goals, from therapeutic healing to sparking creativity. You can journal to stay in tune with your emotions, stay on top of your daily tasks, or track progress on specific topics you address later with a therapist or coach.

Its usefulness is extolled by historical figures, artists, entrepreneurs and self-help experts, who note how this practice has positively impacted their mindset, health and work.


Where should a beginner start with journaling?

The most important thing is finding the format and pace that work for you.

Buy a small notebook that you can take everywhere, and for the first weeks, aim for 15-20 minutes of writing three times a week. If that feels too much, simply reduce it. If a notebook is unpractical and it is easier to take notes on your phone or on your laptop because you feel that your words flow on the keyboard, switch to your computer. 

Also, you can divide your journal into three or four sections: daily tasks, work notes and random thoughts. When something comes to your mind and you feel there is more to say, simply journal about it.

But overall, choose the method that works and feels best for you. Creating time and space for expressing emotions is what truly matters.

And some will like the structure of allocating journaling time in their daily calendar, while others will prefer to go with the flow and journal whenever they feel like it.

Furthermore, be mindful that we live in a performance and productivity-obsessed society. Of course, that’s helpful when mapped to your goals, but they can easily turn into unrealistic expectations of yourself that lead to discouragement if you ‘failed’ to show up.  


What is your advice to those who are apprehensive of writing down their thoughts and feelings?

The best advice I have is to remember that you are not your emotions. An emotion is temporary, and the best thing you can do when experiencing a difficult emotion is to accept and process it.

When you make it real on paper, it prevents you from impulsively acting on it, and therefore, in your journal lies power, choice and freedom.


How do you use journaling in therapy?

When a client shares personal notes – whether that is a few words from their phone or pages from a diary – it strengthens the therapist-client relationship, making better progress towards positive results.

Journals can help people to process emotions more critically and objectively when discussed with a therapist, whether they are healing trauma, dealing with depression or other things. The ensuing conversations will help highlight patterns that will be used to build better emotional regulation and behavioural change.

What I really like about journaling is that it expands the process of articulating thoughts and feelings beyond our therapeutic sessions.


Are there different ways to journal? 

There are many ways to keep a journal depending on your desired outcome. And remember: there is no wrong way to do it.

Here are some of the most effective journaling techniques:

Free writing: writing whatever comes to mind – your honest thoughts and deepest feelings.

Morning pages: transcribing the thoughts that cross your mind first thing in the morning. Tip: keep your journal by your bed.

Gratitude journal: evening activity before bedtime, which involves noting down the positive things and people you are grateful for.

Bullet journal: sectioned diary to keep a weekly/monthly calendar for writing short and long-term goals.

Dream journal: writing anything you remember from your dreams, like scenes, colours and people.

Productivity journal: oriented towards professional development, organisation and goals.

Creative journal: sketches, collages and any other method of creative expression.


What is your preferred method?

Personally, I prefer free writing because it allows me to focus on the thoughts and feelings that I’m experiencing in that moment. And sometimes that means addressing something that makes me feel uncomfortable. I see journals as a place of freedom – your mind knows where it wants to take you. 


Do people need to do it every day to see the benefits?

Not always – you’ll get the biggest benefits from journaling in the moments when you need to do it most, like a busy period or a life change. But making it a habit and practice will certainly provide value. 

A good tip is to tag the habit of writing onto another habit that is already consistent in your routine, like drinking your morning coffee.


Should people put pen to paper, or does journaling digitally work too?

If you’re new to journaling, I suggest starting with handwriting. Most of us already spend a lot of time with screens.

Writing involves many senses: we touch and smell the paper, turn the pages, and see and hear our pen doing the writing. Also, handwriting is slower than thinking, which encourages the brain to be more engaged and focused.

Digital journaling can be helpful if you find it challenging to build the habit. Apps such as Reflection, Day One, Penzu and Daybook have interesting functions such as including photos, receiving notifications and reminders to check in, or making it easier to search for a previous entry. And you can often password-protect them.


What are the proven benefits of journaling?

The benefits are science-based and evidence-backed[1]. Several studies have concluded that it improves the general mood, reduces anxiety symptoms and increases perceived personal resilience.

When we start writing we open the gates of the mind, using words that resonate with our experience, thus creating distance from our feelings and emotions. 

For example, if you’re experiencing a low mood, transferring it onto paper can make you feel lighter, relieving an intensity that could otherwise lead to spiralling or emotional overload. 

Or, maybe there is more: a physical discomfort? A triggering conversation? In this case, journaling is an invitation for more exploration.

Another benefit of journaling is that it promotes mindfulness, which really anchors you back into the present moment.


Need a notebook to get started? There are plenty to be found in Chelsea at the likes of Smythson, Peter Jones, Anya Hindmarch and Papersmiths on Pavilion Road. And for little ones, why not get them started with My First Smythson?


Anya Hindmarch A5 Bespoke journal, £385
Papersmiths gratitude journal, £13
Smythson Chelsea happiness journal, £95
Smythson Soho Cosmic Travel diary, £195
Papersmiths sleep journal, £12.99
Smythson Dreams and Thoughts journal, £55

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