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Reduce Stress and Anxiety Levels with Journaling

Writing about struggles and feelings may help you cope with the global pandemic.

areebarbar/Adobe Stock
Source: areebarbar/Adobe Stock

Stress and anxiety levels are high as people across the globe cope with illness, death, isolation, and job loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is no magic eraser for those difficult feelings, there are steps you can take—even while stuck at home—to help relieve anxiety and improve your mental well-being.

One proven coping mechanism is journaling. A significant body of evidence demonstrates that recording thoughts and feelings on a regular basis helps people identify and process negative emotions, and ultimately alleviate anxiety.

A broad review on the topic was published in 2005 by Australian researchers. They looked at the body of evidence on a practice called “expressive writing,” which entails writing about the effect that traumatic events have on physical and mental health. Their paper included a meta-analysis of 13 studies that found expressive writing carried a health benefit similar to other psychological interventions, such as talk therapy.

On the whole, the researchers found that expressive writing led to reduced blood pressure, improved immune system functioning, fewer visits to the doctor and shorter stays in the hospital, improved mood, reduced symptoms of depression, improved memory, and more.

The authors offered potential explanations for why expressive writing is so powerful. It may help people to confront emotions they were avoiding and cognitively process what’s happened to them. There is also some evidence that revisiting difficult emotions in a controlled way can help people move past those emotions.

Since this initial review, studies have found more evidence that expressive writing works. A systematic review by researchers at the University of Minnesota looked at interventions that helped improve the mental health and social-emotional functioning of youth who are refugees, asylum seekers, or immigrants who experienced war trauma. They found that opportunities for creative expression such as writing or drawing enabled the youth to process their trauma and develop social-emotional skills. A randomized controlled study of older adults with ongoing medical conditions and anxiety found that journaling helped to decrease their mental stress load and increase their overall well-being. And a study of undergraduate nursing students found that students who kept journals about their clinical experience had less anxiety about caring for patients.

The evidence is clear, but what to do about it?

Enter Janis Whitlock, a research scientist at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research who studies adult and adolescent mental health and well-being. When schools and businesses shut down in March, Whitlock saw an opportunity to capture people’s experiences during this historic time and help them cope with the trauma and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whitlock launched a journaling project, Telling Our Stories: In the Age of COVID-19. The project is open to anyone who wants a consistent way to document their thoughts and feelings about the pandemic. Participants have the option to include their submissions as part of a larger research project.

The project asks participants to log how they are feeling and answer questions about how the crisis is impacting them, their use of social media, and whether they have found any “silver linings.” Participants receive a daily e-mail inviting them to write new journal entries, and can write as often as they wish.

Whitlock plans to use the entries to create a snapshot of society’s collective experience at this time. Future research from the project may document the day-to-day impacts of policy interventions to ultimately help inform policy responses to future pandemics.

“These are snapshots of our life in a time that is absolutely unparalleled,” Whitlock said. “What are people’s stories about how they coped, how it changed life, where they found hope?”

The take-home message: Writing down your experiences and feelings is an evidence-based strategy for coping with anxiety and negative emotions during this crisis.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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