Head to the self-help section of any bookshop, and you’ll notice rows of guided journals alongside the books aimed at boosting wellbeing. The production of them has boomed in recent years – from Fearne Cotton’s Happy, Calm and Quiet journals, that match her books of the same titles, to Michelle Obama’s Becoming having an accompanying diary. Looking at my bookshelf crammed with them, it’s fair to say they’re mostly marketed from women, to women.
Sam Topley is a man looking to break that mould and encourage more men to process their feelings through writing. 2017 was a transformational year for the now 30-year-old TV producer from Bermondsey: he decided to get sober. Two months quitting alcohol and drugs, he was at London Bridge the night of the June 3 attacks, where eight people were killed and 48 were injured.
“It was unreal graphic trauma and a night of pain,” says Topley, who managed to escape injury alongside his friends. He couldn’t talk about what’d happened for a year – “I couldn’t even begin to explain how I was feeling; I didn’t know my own story” – and found another way to cope with his thoughts: writing.
It began with writing down what he was grateful for, as recommended by sober support groups, as well as free-writing – the practice of writing your thoughts without stopping, and without regard for spelling or grammar. “It helped me be self-aware and get out what was going on inside,” he explains. “I began to clear the kerfuffle of words knocking about in my head. I started to actually have real conversations and it gave me confidence to be more open.”
However, it wasn’t until 2020 – when Britain went into lockdown and people started speaking out about their mental health and sharing tools to help – that he decided to share how journalling had helped him. “It was something I’d kept to myself,” he says. “But a lot of people were going through trauma and people were sharing what had worked for them. That was an exciting and great thing.”
“I began to clear the kerfuffle of words knocking about in my head.”
– Sam Topley
Topley started by sharing journalling prompts for friends, then eventually set up a Crowdfunder to launch a six-week journal – Dear Writer. The journal provides space to write in the morning and the evening with prompts including gratitude, free-writing, notes to self and weekly reflections. “It’s aimed at people who are new to writing,” says Topley, who wants to expand his range of journals.
“A blank page can be quite daunting. The journal guides a new writer through the page and helps them find what works for them. No one should feel there’s an incorrect way of journalling.”
Topley wants to make the conversation around mental health – and, specifically, journalling – accessible to everyone. And he’s not the only one. Iain Ross, 29, from Leeds, says journalling has helped massively with his anxiety. He tried to get into it before, but always worried about “not doing it right”. Then, when he was in therapy two years ago, his therapist encouraged him to try again.
“When I journal, it feels as though I’m physically moving my anxious thoughts out my brain and onto paper, freeing up space,” he tells HuffPost UK. “Seeing things I’m fretting over written down in black and white takes the power away from them. I might sit worrying for hours about a task I have to do, but as soon as I write it down, I can interrogate it and look at it in a rational way.”
When Ross first started journalling, he wasn’t open about it with friends. “I think because I didn’t really understand it myself, and felt like I wasn’t good at it, so kept it quiet,” he says. In recent months, though, Ross says he’s started telling his mates about it – and even advised others to give it a go.
“It feels as though I’m physically moving my anxious thoughts out of my brain and onto paper, freeing up space.”
– Iain Ross, 29, from Leeds
Lee Bear has been journalling for seven years. The 34-year-old self-employed artist from Chester started it to “get the stuff out my head and onto paper”, he says, where it would free up space in his brain for positivity. Two years later, he shared his coping method with a friend experiencing grief. ”They tried it and found it useful, I wasn’t embarrassed to share what worked for me,” he says.
When he saw a counsellor and shared that he did free-writing and journalling, they were amazed, he says. “I’ve picked it up and put it down over the years, but I know it’s a tool that works for me when I need it.
“Most of the time, I don’t read back what I’ve written or check for spelling or grammar, but just let the pen loose. But sometimes, I read back to make sense of things or identify routines or triggers to anxiety or low moods.”
Bear said the coping mechanism is something he shared with his mum after his dad passed away 18 months ago. “It was a good way [for her] to work off some of the anger, confusion and sadness,” he says.
Things have got a lot better with men being more open about struggling with their mental health, believes Bear. “I still think things could be better, but as a homosexual man I’ve witnessed heterosexual men share how they are struggling and it’s great to see those conversations take place, breaking down that barrier some males have around stigma and judgement.”
Like Topley, Bear has used his writing for creative projects and his zine, How’s Your Head?, is inspired by journalling and mental health experiences, especially within the LGBTQ+ community.
For many men, journalling is simply a way to stay motivated and thankful. Adewale Lawal, from Cambridge, frequently writes in a gratitude journal, which he says raises his energy levels to “remain in a positive state”. In recent years the 51-year-old has told his friends more about his journalling. “Most people my age come from a place where they don’t talk about their feelings,” he says.
“The more people that talk about things in general terms out in the open, the better things get. Talking about is a way to bring things out in the open.”
How you can benefit from journalling, according to Dear Writer’s Sam Topley
It helps process difficult emotions
You can work through daily stress and anxiety, leading to calmer days
You may find new words and ways of explaining things as well as being more honest with yourself
You can uncover creative ideas and solutions to daily challenges
It may give you a new attitude of appreciation towards life through a practice of gratitude
It can give you improved memory
I’ll give you an understanding of good experiences and success as well as bad ones, which helps build resilience and come back from failure faster
You’re likely to feel more mentally energised
You’ll have a better relationship with goals and intentions.