When I was a kid, I received a small, dark blue diary with a tiny gold lock as a Christmas present. I wrote about my pets, my friends at school, and the vacations my family took together. Years later, when I first got sick with Lyme disease as a teenager, it felt natural to keep a log of what I was experiencing. Soon, I found it to be invaluable.
I was able to share my detailed personal experiences with my doctors, and I could also look at my own wellness more objectively. I became more adept at making connections between things like what foods I ate, how much activity I did, how well I slept, what stressors I had, and what symptoms I experienced. I began to understand that everything in our bodies — and lives — is connected.
For example, I found that I had more energy and less joint pain when I didn’t eat beef, so I cut that out of my diet. I also noticed that I felt best when I had solid, uninterrupted sleep, and found using a white noise machine helpful. I also switched to using fragrance-free products and discovered that I had fewer headaches.
Keeping a health journal allows you to have certainty that you’ll remember details about your well-being. It can be tempting to think that you can rely solely on the power of memory, but later find it difficult to recall specific details. The only way to be certain to remember things accurately and easily is to record your thoughts and experiences in a tangible form.
If maintaining a health journal appeals to you, here are some tips for getting started.
Decide on a method of journaling
While some people find keeping a health journal online to be useful, I like to use a paper datebook. It provides organization, and just the amount of space I need. Some people may prefer to use online apps like Care Clinic or websites like Penzu to log their health data — or even something as basic as Google calendar. The key is to select a method that you will use on a regular basis.
The goal is not necessarily to write pages and pages of notes, but rather to highlight key pieces of information you can reference later. If writing is not your forte, you could record videos or audio memos.
At one point, I drew pictures of my body and noted the points that were the most painful. While my sketches weren’t exactly museum-worthy, they served a purpose. I took the drawings with me to my doctor and showed them to her — she immediately understood and offered insights into why those particular areas were hurting. It was easier for me to communicate this way, and useful for her in diagnosing me.
Get into a ‘judgment-free zone’ mindset
It is important to write without judgment — and to remember that no one else needs to see your health diary but you — unless you choose to share it. It is not about feeling shame if you decide to have an extra piece of chocolate cake, or guilt if you’re tired because you stayed up too late watching Netflix. It’s about understanding that there are things we have some control over in life and things we don’t.
I’ve found it useful to break down wellness into categories like rest, nourishment, relationships, stress, exercise and spirituality. Doing this helped me to highlight where my strengths and weaknesses are. I find this practice to be empowering because it means I am approaching my wellness proactively and with curiosity.
Bring your journal with you to your doctor visits
Doctors place a high value on data. They take your temperature, blood pressure, and pulse rate and record the information because it helps them draw conclusions. I learned that if you’re experiencing a health issue, keeping a record of symptoms prior to a visit can show the data you’ve collected. It may reveal patterns that a doctor can better discern and offer insights into.
On more than one occasion, that was my experience. For example, showing patterns of temperature fluctuations showed that my thyroid needed to be checked to rule in or out any problems with it. I’ve become a more active partner in my healthcare.
Remember it is a “safe space”
If you’re experiencing an issue that you find troubling or difficult to talk about, writing about it can be cathartic. When I was experiencing bad headaches and cognitive problems as a result of Lyme disease, I didn’t understand what was happening. Much of my identity had been wrapped up in excelling intellectually in school. When I suddenly couldn’t remember things I had just read seconds before, I felt stressed and ashamed. Being able to write honestly about my struggles provided a release that allowed me to cope with my reality from a place of strength.
While keeping a health journal is not something I necessarily do every day, it is a part of my self-care routine. I find it both empowering and reassuring to be able to look at the nuances of my health both from both a detailed close-up and “big picture” approach. Sometimes, the path to our greatest wellness is found in the details — or right there on the page.