“I need space,” I said looking at the critically low storage left on my phone. The main culprit being my photos — nearly four-thousand of them to be exact. It’s been worse, however. I vaguely recall that at one point my phone had ten-thousand photos! Let’s face it, we’ve all ran into this dilemma at one point or another. The right solution for me ended up being copying all of my photos to an external hard drive. The process was surgical: quick, sleek, and fancy.

Why use an external hard drive? Many reasons. Firstly, the process is convenient; Having everything in one place with quick access rocks. It also has a sentimental aspect to it. When we think about the cheesy moments in our lives, it sure is nice to travel down memory lane by simply connecting a drive to our computer. Finally, and most importantly for my cause, I got the space I needed on my phone! All in all, I knew this process was right for me.

I was sitting on my office chair, mid-transferring my photos, when I was reminded of something near and dear to my heart: journaling. Journaling and transferring photos to an external hard drive are essentially similar processes. When you journal you are conveying information from one place to another, namely from the mind through the pen and onto the paper. Probably because I journal consistently, I can oftentimes feel the flow of information coursing directly from my mind to the paper.

I cannot understate enough what journaling has done for me. Frankly speaking, it has helped me with the most difficult aspects of my life. What we so often try to ignore — our most difficult thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; our shadow self — I can harmlessly lean into via journaling. After journaling on these difficult topics I feel like I have been dipped into a material that simultaneously hardens and softens me; I have grown in resiliency and vulnerability. Because of this, I have no doubt in my heart that I can rely on journaling as a life-long tool for happiness and health.

At this point, you have questions. Not to worry, for I have answers. Before we embark on this journey, however, I must add a few notes. Foremost, journaling is not a cure-all. Journaling is a private, intimate experience — this is simultaneously its purpose and limitation. We cannot practically expect to lean on ourselves all the time. We have to rely on our support network, also. This may look different for everyone, and sometimes it means that we have to seek out professional help. There are currently some barriers in the way of this help, however. Most notably access and stigma. Ultimately, not everyone has the same reach to these resources nor does everyone feel it appropriate for themselves due to the perceived wrongness of talking about our mental health. Fully exploring this topic requires another written piece of its own. For now, it is suffice to say that understanding ourselves at our best and worst cannot be a process done by ourselves.

Now: unclench your jaw, drop your shoulders, and take in a mindful breath. We are ready.

Imagine that you are a pot of water — Slosh. Now, place yourself on a stove — Clank. Turn on the heat — Tsk-tsk-tsk-WHOOSH! Slowly, your water heats up, and eventually it comes to a full boil, steam and bubbles galore. Now, turn off the heat and watch your water resettle.

Much like the pot of water, we are being affected by our environment all the time. What is around us affects almost everything about us, all the time. Sometimes this effect causes us to feel good like when you go outside on a clear, sunny day. Other times, this effect causes us to feel like living is impossible. Ultimately, the information from our environment elicits reactions in our bodies outside of our control.

Our bodies respond to our environment in three principal ways: through our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviors. In Trauma Treatment Toolbox for Teens, Hallet and Donelan offer an easy way to understand the difference between the three: for thoughts we say “I tell myself…”; for feelings we say “I feel…”; for behaviors we say “I do…”. Try identifying your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

We can imagine that every time we are in an environment, our body is responding through our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Some environments elicit stronger reactions in us, much like how heating the water in our pot causes it to come to a rolling boil.

It seems that if we can control every aspect of our bodies’ reactions, we could achieve personal happiness and health. Imagine, for example, that I could capture the activity of the pot of boiling water at any given moment. Imagine that I could understand what’s happening to every water molecule, at any given time ever. Impossible. Similarly, the control we could exert over our bodies’ reactions to its environment is limited by our perception. Our brains, no matter how advanced in comparison to other life, are limited in their perception of the experience process (Figure 1).

Figure 1. (top) Experience Process. How our environment shapes our experiences. (bottom) Perception. Limited by our brain’s capacity, we are naturally unable to understand every aspect of our experiences. Journaling, however, gives us the chance to expand our perception by understanding the bigger picture of our experiences.

Ultimately, control over our bodies’ reactions is futile. Perhaps we are thinking about control in the wrong way. What if we were able to control the stories we tell ourselves? In essence, the stories of our experiences. What are the stories I tell myself? Cue Ctrl by SZA. Perhaps there is something more to control than we believe. Journaling allows us to discover more.

When we journal, we are exercising our brain’s ability to understand the whole gamut of the experience process. Each time we journal, we discover new aspects of our experience process. We suddenly remember more and more — where we were, what we did, how we felt, what we learned, what we saw, etc., etc… By writing, we allow ourselves the ability to explore our experience in different ways. We are forced to think about every aspect of our experience, thus we write better narratives. We practice asking better of ourselves by breaking the shell of complacency. With practice, we get better at journaling and ultimately, understanding.

Journaling isn’t supposed to be a perfect, exact science. It’s all what you make of it and that is what is most important. By journaling, we write and make our own narratives — the purest form of control one can attain in life. Journaling is a powerful tool, and it must be wielded responsibly. The one rule of journaling you are held responsible for is summarized in the phrase “Honesty is the best policy.” You owe it to yourself to live a narrative that you feel captures your honest truth.

Some Journal Prompts:

For what am I grateful? How has this gratitude changed over time? What do I want the future of this gratitude to look like?

What brings me grief? How rational is this feeling of grief? Will this grief persist and what can I do to take care of myself as long as it persists?

What am I dreaming for in the future? How rational is this dream? What are small steps I can make towards my dream?

U.S.-Latino; East End Houstonian. I am fascinated by myth, symbol, nature, and truth. Always an oxford comma.