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How Journaling Can Help You Process Anxiety


It’s easy to succumb to feeling overwhelmed right now. With so many experiences colliding—the stress of juggling more than I already thought I could with work and life, the thrill of the can-do American spirit; the fear of the unknown; the joy of seeing good governance in action; the anger of seeing bad governance in action; the pain of knowing people are suffering immensely; the guilt for feeling tucked in safe in comparison; the suspicion it will all fall apart—exhaustion and burnout quickly hit me.

After logging in many more hours of screen time than normal, and reading thousands more words on world events than I would normally find applicable to my life, I realized, after the kids were down one night, I hadn’t jotted a word down about it yet.

Survival is important, but so is taking a moment to digest. I was at a crossroads; I could continue binging on more anxiety-inducing content beyond what I can control, or I could sit down and listen to my thoughts for just a sec.

Research Finds Journaling Helps Us Process Things

It’s hard not to go through this period of unavoidable and life-changing difficulty without moments of stunned realization of what matters most to us. Many people, particularly the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, are facing the possibility of suffering or even death.

Even for those who don’t have as much likelihood of dying, just hearing about deaths around the world or in neighboring states is enough to make us stop and think about what it all means. The Harvard Business Review recently published an article explaining the emotional discomfort many of us feel, even if we’re not at as much risk, is grief.

Drawing from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, Scott Barinato explains: “There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s Acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.”

Writing thoughts helps us avoid going in unproductive circles of anxiety, which can further reduce the negative effects of stress when we don’t need more health risks.

The benefits of writing one’s feelings have been substantiated in research for a long time. In 2013, Scientific American reported on a study in New Zealand where researchers found writing about difficult life events helped people recover from injury faster.

The study’s co-author Elizabeth Broadbent said at the time, “We think writing about distressing events helped participants make sense of the events and reduce distress.” Scientific American added that possibly the faster healing time was due to the journalling increasing the quality of the participants’ sleep, which in turn helped their bodies heal faster.

These findings were echoed in a recent New York Times article highlighting the value of stopping to think, and process our thoughts in writing, even during what seems like “mundane moments”: “Introspective writing can help reduce blood pressure, increase immune function and mitigate impacts of stress, depression and diseases ranging from to irritable bowel syndrome and breast cancer to asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. But its most enduring value lies in self-discovery: We unearth ourselves through the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

Barinato touched on this in his Harvard Business Review article on the stages of grief. He went further and suggested a sixth stage of grief beyond acceptance, which is to find meaning. This is perhaps where the greatest, if least measurable, value of journaling lies these days.

Finding Meaning in Overwhelming Times

In her 2017 book “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters,” author Emily Esfahani Smith describes how finding meaning is a key to living well, and a part of that involves reflecting on our lives and writing a narrative. The first step is to stop and reflect.

“Human beings have a need for meaning,” Esfahani Smith said in an interview for Scientific American. “We’re creatures that seek meaning, make meaning, and yearn for meaning. The question is—how can we lead a meaningful life? The route to meaning lies in connecting and contributing to something bigger than yourself—and not in gratifying yourself and focusing on what you, yourself, need and want, as the happiness industry encourages us to do.”

What we’re denying ourselves in these filled moments is reflection. “Leading a meaningful life requires being reflective, being present and aware of others, and being of service to others,” Esfahani Smith says. We’re less equipped to reflect if “we’re walking around with headphones on, lost in our own little worlds, and constantly checking our phones for updates or filling our minds with dribs and drabs of meaningless stimuli.”

What Esfahani Smith referred to as meaningless stimuli back in 2017 may seem more like important stimuli considering the Wuhan flu crisis connects important safety updates with daily news. But there are ways to decrease the toll of all this information on our minds, health, and meaning.

We can share the news-following chore by assigning a day to a different person in our family or among a group of friends. Or we rely on helpful services like Verily Magazine’s “Keeping Calm During COVID-19” e-newsletter, which gives daily updates on the most important information, alongside positive contributions of levity and suggestions on how to find meaning in these days—the idea being to spare readers the pain of reading 100 articles and updates when one email can simplify it.

Many have said we’re living through history in real time, and it’s true. We don’t really know what we’ll be facing next week, or the week after that. While that can be terrifying, there surely is meaning in the both the mundane and the historic moments.

If we record what it’s like to experience these early weeks of COVID-19 in the now, not only can we share it with future generations, we can also look back and remember more clearly what we went through, maybe with some more meaning attached to it. Maybe even with gratitude.