This Feel-Good Habit Sometimes Makes Me Feel Bad

woman writing in a journal

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Keeping a journal can boost happiness — until it starts stressing you out.

I would like to be the kind of person who journals first thing every morning.

Instead, on too many mornings, I wake up annoyed and a little paranoid several minutes before my alarm, pawing clumsily around my nightstand for my phone. In the few seconds before I make contact with the outside world, I allow my sleep-addled brain to catastrophize: Has my phone died overnight? Maybe it’s already 10am on the East Coast, and I’ve slept through half of a crucial meeting. Or, if it’s a day I have my daughter with me, I’ve set our entire morning back, the gate will be closed by the time I drive over to her school, and then I’ll have to endure the series of guilt-inducing robocalls and automated emails reminding me of her tardiness. (Neither of those scenarios have yet occurred, but that doesn’t stop me from imagining them in great detail.) 

On those mornings, I could take a few minutes to write, and begin my day with quiet self-reflection. But by the time I’ve dragged myself from the comfort of my bed, I’ve usually lingered too long to engage in anything so indulgent. 

But I moved from the Northeast to the Southwest coast six months ago, and that intense transition has awoken in me a desire — maybe closer to a compulsion — to be more cognizant of where I am. Not just geographically: I mean where I am, a reckoning with my present that requires stillness, intention, and radical self-honesty. And I have yet to find a better vehicle for this exercise than journaling. 

This should come as little surprise: There are reams of scholarship linking the practice of writing as self-expression with improved mental and physical health. One such 2018 Cambridge University study reported as much, citing “expressive writing” as having both short- and long-term benefits, a few of which include improved working memory, improved mood and affect, reduced blood pressure, and feelings of greater psychological well-being.

When I’m able to write, I try to employ some sort of ritual or uniformity in my practice. My journal, a soft seafoam green inlaid with images of golden crystal formations on the cover, has a date marker at the top of every page. I begin each entry with the time, and then go. If it’s the morning, journaling typically comes after I’ve lit a candle and named aloud my daily affirmations. In the evening, I’m quicker to cut to the chase, just cracking it open and starting to scribble. I don’t think too hard of an opener — I just write the first thought that comes to mind and continue. Sometimes my musings take the form of long chunks of text without breaks; sometimes all I can manage to create are lists; other times it’s just a series of short paragraphs, my mind working so quickly all I can do is jot down one idea before I’m jumping to the next. There are poems and hasty asides relegated to margins, quotes from books I’m reading, and catalogs of things I bought that day (and their significance). The constant, in this wildly varied practice, is that once I start going, I’m nearly guaranteed to write more than I originally intended.

I’ve been a diarist since the age of seven, and I still have a few of my old notebooks, brimming with musings alternately petty and insightful. I take little pleasure in rereading past entries, though I can reliably expect a few small jolts of realization whenever I do. I’m proud of these records, however embarrassing their contents; I am glad that they exist, that I can come so close to rendering something as ephemeral as memory into a tangible object, pages of ink-blotted perceptions to flip through years and years later.

Sticking with that practice is another thing entirely: I struggle with consistency, and the stakes grow higher with each passing year. As I age, I accrue objects, money, people, places, responsibilities, regrets, and obligations. There are times that I feel paralyzed by the weight of everything I’m expected to hold at a given time — and an electrifying sort of dread when I remember that it will only ever become heavier. Adulthood, I continue to learn, is just constantly looking for someplace to put down my stuff, even if just for a little while. Writing helps me do that. But I’m tired of my axis tipping so often, slipping out of balance because I’ve neglected my own methods of self-preservation. 

Ever since I was a child, I’ve pictured the passage of time as a scroll that slowly unrolls, growing flatter as the year continues. Now we’re here at the beginning of a year — the start of another planetary rotation — a fresh page. I recognize the cheesiness inherent in the “New year, new you” mindset, but in my heart, it feels correct. Even if only psychological, I’m grateful for the empty quiet of a new year, so fresh that the scroll is still tightly furled, waiting.

Regardless, those new mornings keep occurring, and that’s a cause for gratitude, whether I’ve beaten my alarm clock or not. Cold and dark, and quiet with promise, however tired I feel. If I just remember to reach for the fact that I have a fresh opportunity to restart, even if I’m grappling it with unsteady fingers, I can always find it again. Another morning. And another. This time, I can do something differently. It takes intention, which is its own kind of labor. And when my pen hits the paper, honesty is all I can muster. This morning, I did it: I opened my journal and wrote. Tomorrow morning, I will try. And again, and again, letting the time unfurl, weighted with the next promise I make to myself. Just to try.

Carla Bruce is the Director of Publicity at One World and Roc Lit 101, and is based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Guernica, Real Simple, and elsewhere. You can find her online @carlawaslike.