Our survival instincts mean that we focus on the negatives in life because they’re a threat, but writing down the positives could bulletproof your brain
The pen is mightier than the word, because without the pen the word can, it turns out, be pointless. Mental health experts agree that writing down your thoughts can make the difference between coping with life and going into freefall – so your wellbeing is in your own hands.
‘There’s a recognition now in psychology that thinking about a problem doesn’t help, and may actually be counterproductive, but that talking about a problem can help and writing it down is even better,’ psychologist Dr Rick Norris tells RISING. ‘That’s because sight is the dominant sense and things become clearer when we see them written down.
‘Thoughts are like a bowl of spaghetti,’ he adds, and it can be difficult to see how the different strands relate to each other. ‘Writing those thoughts down allows you to isolate them, work through them in order, copy and paste them and come back to them over time.’ Here’s how…
1. Step Out Of Yourself To Get To Know Yourself Writing a journal every day can help you develop a more analytical mind and increase your empathy for others, both of which are important for your ability to control your mood and self-esteem. ‘I work on an exercise with clients called Insight and Causation, where you take a situation and write down what’s happened,’ says Norris. Let’s say it’s a relationship break-up that’s causing you stress. Write down chronologically what happened from when you met the other person – but do it in the third person – so ‘Rick met Mary on this day. Rick did this, Mary did that,’ and so on.
‘This helps you to see things from everyone’s point of view and can give you an insight into why things didn’t work,’ says Norris. ‘It also allows you to look at the circumstances, rather than just the faults of the two people involved, and will give you a more balanced view.’
Writing can encourage the body to produce endorphins, just like exercise
2. Get There By Deciding Where You’re Going Going back to the idea that sight is the dominant sense, you’re more likely to set out goals and work towards meeting them if you write them down and can see them. ‘Set a timeframe of two years and work backwards,’ says Norris. ‘Where do I need to be after six, 12 or 18 months to get to where I want to go? What are my goals for the next month? Break your goals into small chunks – we’ll call them milestones – and it’s easier to go back and assess your progress when they’re written down. Did I get to where I want to be? What will take me to the next milestone?’
3. Life Is A Game, So Keep Score So is the point to ‘purge’ your past, or shape your future? A journal can help you do both. ‘Writing down your thoughts can help record patterns and trends in mood and behaviour, especially if you give each day a score out of ten,’ says Norris. ‘That gives your thoughts objectivity. What was the difference between a four and an eight? Maybe on the day you scored an eight you were more active, so you realise you need to introduce more exercise or activity into every day.’
If you’re going to make comparisons, make positive ones and compare you with yourself, not with others. ‘Other people’s progress is irrelevant to you,’ says Norris. ‘But don’t just concentrate on the lovely things, like taking in a show or going for dinner. Say you had a difficult meeting with a colleague or boss in which you were calm, dignified and professional. You should remember it as a positive. Who cares that they went off on a rant if you dealt with it really well?’
Write down three positive things about your day and replay them like a DVD
4. Get Scribbling For Endorphins It’s well known that exercise can enhance your mood – they don’t call it the ‘runner’s high’ for nothing. Surprisingly the same thing can happen when keeping a journal. ‘Writing can encourage the body to produce endorphins, just as exercise does,’ says Norris. ‘I have clients say to me, “I can’t keep a diary – I don’t have time and can’t be bothered with writing.” In that case, write down three positive things about your day. Replay them like a DVD as you write them down. Thinking positively can produce neurotransmitters in the brain that improve mood. A mental workout stimulates positive thoughts just as much as a physical one.’
5. Filter Out The Negative Positive thoughts can have a snowball effect, and you can train the brain to filter out negative thoughts – but it takes effort. Let’s say you were driving to work and someone cut you up at a junction. You take that negative thought with you and carry it round. When you get to the same place the following morning you remember that this is where you were cut up.
‘The next day, at the same junction, someone lets you out. You forget that in seconds,’ says Norris. ‘Your brain filters out the small positives because it thinks they’re not important. This is a survival mechanism – your brain makes you aware of a threat or danger and is more likely to remember big negatives than small positives. Keeping a diary can change that.’
WHAT NEXT? Write a journal for at least 21 days, even if it’s writing down those three positive things. ‘That’s how long it takes to form a habit,’ says Norris, author of Think Yourself Happy. ‘These things can be small and seemingly insignificant, but they help to train the brain. It was a sunny day; the woman in accounts smiled at you; your favourite song came on the radio. The idea of “smell the coffee, taste the coffee” is really apt here.’
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.