Rita Watson MPH

With Love and Gratitude

Four Reasons to Write What You Feel as a Coping Strategy

Acknowledging our feelings during stressful times can help us gain perspective.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

Rita Watson
Journaling captures feelings.
Source: Rita Watson

In early April of this year, the National Institute of Mental Health advised that “taking steps to care for yourself and your family can help you manage stress” during this pandemic. Sometimes the stress one feels is generated by fear, but it might also come from feelings of being isolated, trapped, or helpless. As such, “taking care” of oneself might involve a creative dimension that facilitates putting feelings into perspective. Here are four reasons, validated by research, to begin journaling or starting a memoir as a coping mechanism.

This week, I began to more fully appreciate the benefits of writing. My friend, neighbor, and writing critic had been struggling with symptoms of coronavirus. When the ambulance drove her off to the hospital, my head began spinning with feelings that left me nearly immobilized.

  • Writing can help you focus on putting your frustrations on paper and then trying to deal with them.
  • Writing can act as an opportunity to photograph your feelings.
  • Writing presents a sense of continuity so that each day has a distinct beginning, middle, and end instead of blending into the next one.
  • Writing can help bring to the surface emotions that are suppressed, which may explain why you might feel angry, tearful, or anxious.

When, why, and how to begin:

Each day we are reading examples of courage from health care workers, essential service workers, family members, and friends. This might be a time to acknowledge your own feelings. Documentation is valuable because we can trace our emotions, the highs and lows of the ways in which life is affecting us. If a memoir seems too overwhelming, a journal can be the inspiration that may eventually transition into a memoir. (See my earlier piece, "Mini-Memoir: Write Your Story in 40 Minutes.")

We learned from Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., Ph.D., of Monmouth University, that even during a gut-wrenching event—such as the ending of a relationship—journal writing helped.

“The increased positive emotions included feelings such as: comfort, confidence, empowerment, energy, happiness, optimism, relief, satisfaction, thankfulness, and wisdom.” (Lewandowski 2009).

How to begin:

Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Express the emotion or range of emotions on paper. And then explore why it is that you are feeling as you do. There are two ways to approach this:

1. You might be feeling a range of emotions because of the situation you are in, perhaps trapped in a home with too many children or a spouse you were hoping to divorce or roommates who are annoying.

2. You might be mourning the loss of someone very special in your life who has succumbed to the virus.

Here is the challenge—find something positive in either situation. Begin by expressing gratitude for a simple reminder of joy (Esposito-Watson 2019).

Writing to acknowledge your personal sense of loss:

We have all lost a sense of freedom, a sense of safety, and a sense of joy. Instead, we are too often filled with anxiety, sleepless nights, and irritability.

  • Begin by thinking of what it is that is troubling you most at this moment.
  • Write about a special place that you wish you could visit, but can't at present because you are stuck at home due to lockdown directives.
  • Describe the place that you wish to visit as if you were painting a picture. 
  • Who was with you when you visited the place you long to revisit today? Or were you alone?
  • Try to recreate the conversation you had or the words of those around you. If you were alone, describe the feelings you experienced during a happy place.
  • Remind yourself of how fortunate you are to have had such a memorable experience.
  • Finally, write one positive aspect of the situation you are in today and express gratitude. Just one word of thanks can become the basis for even more gratitude and positive feelings (see: "Four Steps to Gratitude in Good Times and Sad Ones").

Writing to honor someone lost:

  • Begin by thinking of the person you lost.
  • Write about a special time, place, or moment that you shared together.
  • Write about the feelings that the memory elicits. Did a smile come to your face? 
  • Describe the place. Was it in the country, the city, or out in the fields?
  • Listen for their words, the way they spoke. Recreate the dialogue.
  • Write about your anger at not being able to be at the side of someone you loved while he or she was dying.
  • Think back on the good times.
  • Explain why you are grateful for one happy memory that you will treasure forever.

The writing process is a way to survey our feelings, take hold of them, and move them onto a page. In doing so, we have a chance to explore these feelings. It is like photographing a room from different angles. The same room looks different depending upon our views. Let writing transform you and help you with the challenges you are experiencing. And be grateful that you are able to listen to the voice within yourself to help you attain a certain peace of mind.

Copyright 2020 Rita Watson

References

National Institute of Mental Health. Supporting Mental Health During Covid-19, April 3, 2020

Lewandowski, G. (2009). Promoting positive emotions following relationship dissolution through writing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 21-31.

Watson, R. E. (2019). Italian Kisses: Rose-Colored Words from the Old Country.  Mini-Memoir Writing Guide: Step-by-Step, (111-115)