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Could Keeping A Diary Really Help Combat Student Mental Illness?

28/10/2016 12:37

When I think about why, at 8 years old, I decided to start a diary, my memory comes up a little foggy. I remember the book belonged to my great grandmother, it was a bland affair with some nondescript water color of boats adorning the front cover and plain white pages inside. Yet, for some forgotten reason, my young eyes saw it as distinctly desirable, enough even to risk parental condemnation, lift from her bedside table and keep for the next 12 years as my very first diary.

Over this time my avid diary writing has provoked many a conversation amongst my friends. Many have admitted to trying to start only to have given up after a summer, quickly disheartened by the intimidating amount of effort it appears to take to document your entire life. In reality however, keeping a diary can be simple and is a worthwhile investment in yourself, your memories and possibly, your mental health.

Last year a report by the National Union of Students (NUS) published a survey that revealed eight out of 10 students (78%) have experienced mental health issues. More recently, in August, YouGov released data claiming one in four students in the UK suffer from some sort of mental health problem, the most common of which are anxiety and depression. Finally and most concerning, 54% of students do not seek help or support when symptoms show. Sadly these figures are not so surprising. With mounting debt and slimmer chances of employment adorning our futures, these figures correspond with an increasing amount of harsh realities.

How can journalling help?

The theory is that 'expressive writing' reduces the prevalence of intrusive thoughts about negative events and concerns. It can also improve working memory which, in turn, has the potential to liberate cognitive resources for alternative mental activities such as coping more effectively with stress. Psychologists Klein and Boals conducted an experiment to prove this theory, an experiment for which they used undergraduate students as their test subjects. They found that, after only three 20 minute expressive writing sessions over the course of two weeks, there were in fact modest increases in working memory and a decrease in 'intrusive thoughts' in the minds of the students.

As a tool for combatting mental health, journalling works as a healthy outlet for emotion crucial for dealing with anxiety, stress and depression. When writing, we unconsciously prioritise our concerns and are thus able to work on gaining perspective on our fears and concentrating on the root of developing stress or anxiety levels. Furthermore, a diary can act as a way to monitor symptoms on a day to day basis, to observe triggers and start to control them. Finally, journals serve as an opportunity to practice self assurance and are a wonderful platform for forging decisions and weighing up the consequences of our actions.

How to get started

The most important premonition about Journalling I would seek to dispel is that there is a 'right way' to do it. Personally, my style changes as often as I have in 12 years. For instance, I no longer write my entries addressed to 'Britney', a personification of my diary modeled on my childhood idol. Nor do I write every day or expect to capture every event. Often my favorite entries to read back on are the ones which resemble a Virginia Wolfe like stream of consciousness with no real reference to what I did that day but to ideas I had or decisions I need to make. Diaries have so much more value than simple time capsules. Every major decision I have made, confusion or conflict I have grappled with can be found between those pages and I like to think that in part, because of this process, I am a far more calm and open person, confident with my decisions and aware of my feelings.

Of course however, it's hard. As students we are not always blessed with ample amounts of spare time and the worst thing would be for guilt over neglecting your journal to constitute just another fountain of stress. To combat this, I would suggest following a few simple rules.

. Multitask - Sitting at another desk to write may not seem like a relaxing way to spend an evening so, be flexible. Write as you eat, write in bed. Take yourself out for coffee or to the garden and stop thinking about it as a chore.

. Don't just write - Including pictures, tickets, drawings make a journal something you'll want to go back to and not abandon. Take some pride in it, it's going to have a very important reader in decades to come.

. Write anytime, in any state - Reading back entries written whilst intoxicated is not only hilarious to re-read, it's also a great outlet for feelings which may be otherwise expressed in texts to inappropriate people...

. Take it traveling - Long flights, bus rides, lazy beach days. Documenting your adventures is a great way to pass the time and remember hectic amazing trips which often feel like a blur as soon as you touch back down.

. Don't give up - So you don't immediately feel better after writing, no one is pretending that journalling is a 'cure' but it is a process and a practice worth investing in. University is stressful but it's also a time you should try to to enjoy, a time you're hopefully not going to want to forget.

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