Sunday 25 February 2018

'I've written my way out of every crisis I've ever had'

Bridget Jones sought solace in her diary, but does the rise of online sharing spell an end to this cathartic act? Tanya Sweeney reports on why journalling is essential for bringing balance to our time-poor, tech-rich lives

Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones

She may be lingering over the backlit screen of an iPad rather than putting pen to notebook, but Bridget Jones is still the world's favourite diarist.

However, while Helen Fielding's fretful creation is a step out of time with modern-day 'diarists' - who catalogue their lives through social media posts - mental health experts say humans are doing something essential when they turn to diary writing, or 'journaling'. They contend that the process is intrinsic to well-being.

In recent research, brain scans on volunteers showed that putting feelings down on paper reduces activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for controlling the intensity of our emotions.

Recent US research found that, despite the advent of Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, 83pc of girls aged 16 to 19 archive their lives in a private notebook. Over 75pc of those surveyed admitted that they worry about sharing their thoughts online, while 95pc claimed that they keep their most personal emotions entirely offline.

Author Sarah Maria Griffin says she has kept a diary "more or less since I could write".

"I've written myself out of every internal crisis I've ever had, every heartbreak, every hard decision comes from working it all out on paper, like a puzzle," she says.

Today, Griffin says that social media has made her more aware of how vital expressions of private thoughts are. "There's a real difference between writing yourself into existence online and writing to yourself in private, just listening to your own thoughts. There's a power in that privacy," she says.

In 'Let It Out: A Journey Through Journalling', writer Katie Dalebout exposes how journal writing was a prime way of finding purpose, healing herself and creating the life that she wanted.

"I began journalling and feeling my feelings that were driving me to these obsessive and addictive behaviours around food," she has said. "Eventually I realised it was my feeling of not feeling good enough that led me into deep self-hate which turned into my eating disorder.

"I'll sit down with my journal and figure out exactly what is going on and why I feel so darn triggered and off," she said. "Then from that I'll be able to tell what I need."

According to Dr Harry Barry, author of 'Flagging Anxiety and Panic', when we are ruminating in our heads our emotional mind is "too strong and overrules our logical brain, so we get stuck with negative thoughts churning round and round in our heads".

This is particularly so if one is anxious or depressed. "When we write it down on paper when journalling, our rational brain can now get a look in and we can see how irrational on occasion we can be in our thinking. We can with journalling both challenge and problem-solve our difficulties," he says.

Yet diary-keeping isn't always about pouring out emotions. Some diary keepers simply want to have a chronicle of their lives.

Writer Rob Doyle began keeping a diary as a way of recording the places he visited and people he met while travelling. He says he uses it as a memory aide, rather than as a process of working through emotions.

"It was never a 'dear diary' thing where I discussed my emotions or something like that; it was more factual. I wouldn't have the motivation to sit and write my emotions down. It's not a macho refusal of admitting to an emotional life. But a lot of Irish men would probably think, 'why would I grapple with my inner feelings?' I have a huge collection of notebooks where I jot ideas down, but they're all scattered to the wind by now."

For a handful of Ireland's writers and high-profile figures, the habit of keeping a diary has carried them through life. Others dropped the habit in their teens as other pastimes took over their lives. Have they lived to regret it?

Lisa Cannon, TV3 presenter

"I kept a diary from an early age, and dipped in and out of it. Sadly, I stopped keeping a diary around the age of 18. I discovered college and going out, and lost the will to write things down in it every night.

"But life got in the way, and I have to say I really wish I'd kept going. It's really nice to look back on those old diaries now. If I'd been brave enough to keep one through by working life and college life, tat would have been absolutely amazing to have."

Alan O'Mara, former Cavan footballer & Real Talks founder

"The first time I really start keeping a diary and recording my thoughts and feelings was back in 2010 when I was recovering from groin surgery and getting ready for the new football season. It let me track my progress in a clear, precise way because dealing with serious injuries can be a really difficult time for a sportsperson. I kept up the habit and later that year my diary had transformed into a self-therapy piece as I was consumed by depression. I found the process of writing the diary entries and then the book extremely cathartic.

"While tapping at the keyboard or scribbling on a page, there were a few lightbulb moments when I sat back and said, Oh, that's what was going on there'."

Alan's book 'The Best Is Yet To Come' is out now

Denise McCormack, 'Red Rock' actress

"I kept a diary when I was younger and it was pretty sporadic. It was like an appointment book that I wrote in. It's funny reading it now because it's like listening to the sound of your own voice.

"My god, I was emotional as a teenager, and you really do purge yourself in a diary. I remember feeling so self-conscious and self-aware, it's actually quite harrowing to read. You'd love to put your arms around that child and give her a big hug. You'd love to say to her that it doesn't matter what people think, that they're too busy in their own lives to be thinking about you."

Sarah Webb, author

"The earliest diary of mine that I can find was one I kept when I was 11, and it was mainly a sort of travel diary. A lot of writers have this compulsion to keep diaries. It's how we make sense of the world. I was guilty of over-analysing everything. It's good fodder, especially when you write for teenagers.

"In my twenties, my diaries were interesting but quite sad. I was unleashing everything I felt about leaving college and finding work when you're not sure who you are or what you're supposed to be. I still keep a diary, although I don't write in it every day. I'd use it as therapy, to work out a knot I'm worrying about. To this day, I still keep lists of every book I read or movie I see."

Sarah's book 'Aurora & The Popcorn Dolphin' is out now

"There's a real difference between writing yourself into existence online and writing to yourself in private, just listening to your own thoughts. There's a power in that privacy."

Irish Independent

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