At the time of this article’s writing, the world is embroiled in a historic viral pandemic the likes of which we’ve only seen once or twice in human history. Almost overnight, the foundations of many of our lives have fallen from under us as we’re fighting against the waves to stay afloat.
While for far too many of us that battle is being fought materially, we are all fighting the battle mentally. Indeed, there has never been a bigger focus placed on mental health & anxiety as we globally combat such unprecedented times.
In the face of such unpredictability, the best thing you can do is go back to the fundamentals.
So much is made of complex coping strategies, medication and advanced psychological techniques. Of course, all of these options offer extremely cogent solutions to mental health complexities – however, many people jump straight to advanced solutions before setting their foundations in place.
In this article, we’ll discuss one of the most foundational techniques used for aeons to deal with stress & anxieties for as long as humans have had the written word – journaling.
The Proven Benefits of Journaling
Although journaling has become a hip phenomenon over the past few years, it certainly isn’t anything new. Some of the earliest evidence we have of diary-ing comes in the form of Ancient Japanese travelers and greco-roman philosophers like Marcus Aurelius. Considering the lack of physical evidence prior to that period, it’s fair to say that personal journaling has long been a tradition throughout human history in dealing with the challenges of life.
While we’ve always had a millennia of experience reflecting on the positive benefits of journaling, modern science is now offering very compelling evidence to back up our personal experiences. Study after study after study confirm the benefits of journaling, ranging from routine mental health concerns like depression, anxiety & stress to extremely complex situations like substance-abuse inmate therapy and postpartum depression.
In this article, we’ll dig through the different ways you can use journaling to approach day-to-day mental health challenges – common situations which can trigger bouts of anxiety and depression that can often be fixed with just a page of writing a day.
Journaling for Stress from Change & Transition
There are milestones in life which the vast majority of people will go through (and experience stress throughout). From starting a new job, to having a child, to getting married or going to college, times of massive changes in lifestyle are almost inevitably accompanied by stress and anxiety. This is particularly true when dealing with situations that require a lot of buy-in and interaction with others.
The reason change is stressful, is that you often lose your foundation. Moving to a new city, starting a new family, transitioning to a new job, etc. all involve an extremely rapid shift from a routine that you’ve likely become accustomed to. It’s the disruption of routine (which essentially puts on your brain into a somewhat muted state of constant fight-or-flight) and the situational insecurity which generally leads to stress.
Journaling offers an extremely cogent form of relief to the stresses of change via 2 primary methods:
- Satisfying your need for continuity in your routine.
Maintaining routine is one of the best things you can do when navigating a period of change, but it’s often the hardest. Most of the things which compromise a routine – what you eat, when you eat, your workouts, your sleep schedules, etc. are typically the first to fall by the wayside during a moment of change.
Journaling is one of the simplest routine tasks you can continue even in times of great change. Getting into the habit early of journaling for 10 to 15 minutes a day becomes an extremely easy habit to continue regardless of where your life change takes you. It’s among the easiest of habits to squeeze into, regardless of your lifestyle, which makes it ideal for offering some semblance of grounding when variances in your new life become unbearable.
- They offer you an opportunity to reflect on the changes.
One of the hardest parts of dealing with new and extreme change is the lack of internalized reflection. It’s rare that you have time to just sit down and think about your life, which essentially makes you an audience member, observing your body and lifestyle dramatically change before your eyes.
Journaling offers an extremely important period of reflection in small doses every day, offering a subconscious reminder that regardless of where you are in life or what’s changing, the foundational you remains the same. It’s essential to give your brain that reassurance so it doesn’t get lost in the changes.
Journaling for Stress from Adversity
The great eastern philosopher Al-Ghazzali used to say that a life without adversity wasn’t a life worth living. Indeed, adversity in life offers us the most potent opportunities for self-reflection and growth. However, when knee-deep in a difficult life situation (i.e bullying, breakups, etc.), it can be difficult to see the forest from the trees and reflect in a neutral way.
Once again, journaling offers 2 fundamental strategies to help cope when going through adverse life scenarios.
- Journaling helps you keep perspective.
It’s extremely easy during times of adversity to pigeon-hole all of your thoughts and focus on the one negative stimuli in your life, while ignoring all the rest. Journaling gives you an opportunity to remember and be grateful for everything else in your life, reminding you that a) the adversity you’re facing isn’t the only thing in life, and that b) everything is temporary. A daily 10-15 journaling session therefore helps you keep your head above water during times of great adversity.
- Journaling helps you reflect on the adversity.
When you start seeing adversity as less of a wholly unfortunate scenario, and more as an opportunity for growth and change, journaling goes from being a simple tool for venting to a powerful tool of guided self improvement. Taking time every day to reflect on what you’re learning while going through adversity is one of the single most impactful things you can do to continue the fight.
As Winston Churchill said, if you’re going through hell keep going – journaling offers you an opportunity to remind yourself of that every day.
Journaling for Stress from Uncertainty
We touched on routine earlier – sure enough, the disruption of routine is one of the most primary sources of contention and stress in most people’s lives, so it’s unsurprising it appears as the cornerstone of another area on this list. Major uncertainty in life is a common source of stress. This can mean everything from environmental/societal uncertainty (i.e political upheaval, economic crisis, etc.) to personal/existential uncertainty (everything from reflecting on one’s spirituality to a career crisis).
While the previously cited point of maintaining routine is essential, another massive benefit that journaling offers during times of uncertainty is a cogent opportunity to break down otherwise abstract decisions into actionable ones. The stress of major uncertainty in life often comes from just how insurmountable a problem might seem – one of the best strategies for dealing with situations like these is to break them down so your brain can process them effectively.
Journaling every day is the single best tool at your disposal to always ensure you stay ahead of the big problems. It offers you an opportunity to write down your daily thoughts and revelations in navigating uncertainty, and contextualize it against the facts and thoughts you’ve already had. This process – particularly when done daily – ensures that you never start to feel overwhelmed.
One way to look at it, is that a daily journal can essentially be a cheat sheet/study note for your current crisis of uncertainty – refer back to it anytime you need to retrace your steps and get a summary of your thoughts and decisions so far.
Journaling for Stress from Grief
The areas described above can be relatively common for most people, and while difficult, are usually rather well understood in terms of coping strategies. In other words, when faced with stress from uncertainty, for example, you likely already have an idea of how you might tackle the problem – journaling, therefore, can act as the final piece in your mental health care-package, so to speak.
The last area for major stress, however, is a bit different – grief. Events of grief typically succeed events of great and unexpected loss. Whether the death of a loved one or abrupt financial calamity or anything in between, grief as a result of sudden loss is typically responsible for the most sudden and jarring moments of stress in a person’s life.
The type of stress that comes from these events is particularly disruptive compared to the other examples as a result of 2 primary properties: they are unpredictable and overwhelming.
As such, stress from grief is particularly difficult to counter because you’re often unprepared for it. Standard mental health coping strategies fall apart because the event can be so jarring – sudden grief can knock you out of your routine abruptly, while simultaneously eliminating the support systems (whether emotional, financial or both) which you’d traditionally fall back on for support. It’s particularly easy during times of grief to spiral.
Journaling offers a very unique benefit during times of grief: normalcy.
When spending day after day and hour after hour ruminating over deep, dark sadness or massive concerns in your life, there’s often nothing better than spending 10-15 minutes focusing on the small stuff. Unlike other scenarios, don’t journal exclusively about your grief – journal about the simple stuff. Journal about the nice coffee you had. Journal about the beautiful weather. Journal about the outfit you bought. Use your journal as an opportunity to step away from your grief – if only for a few minutes, every day.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. A life that deals with change and goodness must deal with friction along the way, and the stress generated from that friction is natural. While the world of mental health treatments (particularly CBT and medical intervention) have come a long way over the past few decades, it’s essential that they aren’t your only approach – indeed, it’s important to build a foundation for your mental health rooted in daily habits.
Arguably the most powerful regular habit you can have is journaling, particularly when combined with mindfulness and daily moments of gratitude. Journaling offers you a daily anchor in keeping on top of your life and not becoming overwhelmed. Whether dealing with the intense stress of grief from powerful loss in your life, or simply managing latent stress from a busier-than-average month at work, a daily journaling habit can offer a foundational pillar in your personal care and response strategy.
It’s important to start small – just start spending 5 minutes every day or every other day jotting down thoughts in a journal. You’ll slowly start to notice yourself naturally writing about and untangling anxieties in your brain. Forming a habit around this tendency will inevitably lead to a powerful journaling habit that naturally becomes a bedrock in your daily life, and one of your most powerful preventative motes against becoming overwhelmed.
If you often find yourself becoming overwhelmed by life, start journaling – it’s the simplest, easiest thing to do to improve your mental health and natural coping strategies.