Journaling to reduce COVID-19 stress

Journaling can help you organize thoughts, clear your mind, facilitate problem solving and gain perspective.

Closeup of person's hands as they write in a notebook, with a pencil in one hand and a coffee mug in the other.

There are many benefits to journaling. It is an often studied, evidence-based strategy for reducing the effects of anxiety from difficult emotions, whether they stem from stress-inducing times like a global pandemic or simply everyday life. People use journaling in different ways and for different reasons. Some people track their food intake to lose weight or use it to combat depressive symptoms, while others turn to journaling to keep a historical account or record of their lives for themselves, or to share with others. In addition to journaling for these reasons, journaling can be an effective stress reducer. 

Given the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a lot of stress to go around. Participants in Michigan State University Extension's online social and emotional health and well-being classes share repeated accounts of the effects of stress such as social isolation, loss of routines, fear of contracting the virus, job loss and economic strain, the inability to plan for the future, increased childcare responsibilities and navigating online education for their children. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), more than a third of Americans reported having symptoms of anxiety and/or depression in July 2020, an increase from 11% in the first six months of 2019. Furthermore, NCHS reported that an online survey of 5,400 adults in late June 2020 found 41% had struggled with a mental or behavioral health problem since April 2020 including anxiety, depression and increased use of drugs or alcohol to deal with difficult feelings.

To reduce stress and improve mental and emotional well-being, keeping track of our thoughts, feelings and experiences can help us experience several benefits:

  1. Journaling provides clarity. Journaling is one of the best ways to clear your mind and get in touch with your thoughts and feelings, forcing you to focus on your internal awareness of the present and process your experiences. By gaining this focus, you can obtain clarity around what is most important. One question to check in with yourself and record as you journal is, “How am I doing today physically, emotionally and spiritually?"

  2. Journaling can reduce stress by serving as an escape or emotional release of negative thoughts and feelings. A 2011 study highlighted the positive impact journaling had on adolescents who struggled with worry and self-doubt before test taking. In this study, ninth graders were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was instructed to write expressively about their worry and feelings related to the exam for 10 minutes prior to the start of the exam, while the other group of students was told to write about which questions they thought would be on the exam for 10 minutes prior to taking the exam. The study found that those who expressively wrote about their feelings in their journal outperformed the control group who wrote only about test content. This turned out to be especially true for the students who identified themselves to be anxious or suffering from test anxiety. 

    Release negative thoughts by asking yourself and releasing on to paper, “What are the words I can write to express and describe how I’m feeling about things right now?”

  3. Journaling can help improve physical health. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) found that patients struggling with a chronic illness who kept a journal about their thoughts experienced fewer physical symptoms than patients who did not journal. The researchers followed 88 patients with a variety of chronic illnesses including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and fibromyalgia and asked them to journal for 15 minutes, 3 days a week for the 12 weeks of the study. When compared with the group that did not participate in the journaling intervention, the researchers found that the group of patients that wrote about their thoughts and feelings exhibited reduced mental distress, anxiety, and perceived stress; greater perceived personal resilience and social integration; and fewer days on which pain inhibited usual activities.

    While journaling, ask yourself, “What am I doing to take care of my physical and emotional well-being during this time?”

  4. Journaling helps with problem solving. Writing down your problems can inspire you to reflect on or about possible solutions. Amid evolving responsibilities and pandemic stressors, journaling can help us prevent losing track of our goals. Here are some questions to consider when you’re feeling overwhelmed:

    "What is the one thing I can accomplish today?" Think short-term and observable, such as cleaning out the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink or making an appointment to get a flu shot. 

    "What is one thing I can accomplish this week or within the next month?" Think longer-term here, such as cleaning out all the closets in your home or scheduling dental check-ups for you and your children for the next six months.

  5. Journaling can help with keeping things in perspective. During particularly stressful times, ask yourself and record in your journal, "What thoughts and feelings am I experiencing that are triggering my stress right now? Where and to whom can I go to for support if needed? What do I have to be grateful for in my life?"

Journaling is most effective when done consistently. To get started and to maximize the mental health benefits, commit to it on a regular basis. It’s important to find a routine that works for you, whether it’s once a day, once a week or twice a month. While we can’t control many stressful situations, developing a journaling practice can help us better manage our thoughts and feelings to experience greater well-being no matter what life brings our way.

Michigan State University Extension offers a variety of online classes to help people improve their resilience to stress, such as RELAX: Alternatives to Anger, Stress Less with Mindfulness and Powerful Tools for Caregivers.

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