Keeping A Diary Can Improve Mental Health

We found a natural alternative to newfound stress!

With the world in literal uproar, Americans are facing peak stress levels. 

To learn just how deep this stress is rooted, the University of Connecticut just published a study to find out exactly how Americans are coping with COVID-19 stress. Turns out, the answer is “not so well.” 

“The survey showed that Americans have high-stress exposure from COVID-19 and that some demographic groups appear particularly vulnerable to stress effects. Reading or hearing about the severity and contagiousness of COVID-19 was the most common stressor, with almost 97% of survey respondents experiencing it,” the study concluded.

One researcher at the Colorado School of Public Health, Jennifer Leiferman, echoed these results, announcing the rates of depression her team has seen are much higher than normal.

“Leiferman’s team recently found that people in Colorado have, during the pandemic, are nine times more likely to report poor mental health than usual. About 23% of Coloradans have symptoms of clinical depression. During pre-pandemic life, five to seven percent of people met the criteria for a diagnosis of depression,” The Atlantic reports

It doesn’t look like COVID-19 is going away any time soon, or that the world is chilling out. So what are we supposed to do?

Researchers say keeping a diary may be the answer. 

Benefits of Journaling

Almost ten years ago, The Harvard Medical School released a study that claimed writing about your emotions may ease stress and trauma. In their study, the chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas Austin, Dr. James W. Pennebaker, asked 46 healthy college students to write about traumatic life events, or trivial topics, for 15 minutes. He called it “expressive writing.” 

He found that the students that chose to write about traumatic events visited the campus’ health center less frequently and turned to common pain relievers less often than the group of students who wrote about non-important topics. 

“More recently, researchers have evaluated whether expressive writing helps reduce stress and anxiety. One study found that this technique reduced stigma-related stress in gay men. Another found that it benefited chronically stressed caregivers of older adults. And a study by researchers at the University of Chicago found that anxious test-takers who wrote briefly about their thoughts and feelings before taking an important exam earned better grades than those who did not,” the article explains. 

The theory? Writing about your deeper feelings or traumatic experiences may help you better process and regulate your emotions. 

The Harvard article adds the disclaimer that expressive writing seems to work better for individuals that don’t suffer from ongoing mental health disorders, like major depression or PTSD. But for those of us experiencing an uptick in depression as a response to coronavirus, expressive writing could be an ideal exercise to feel better. 

The Power of Positive Writing

Another study published in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, wanted to explore the health benefits of diary keeping for mothers with children that have emotional or behavioral disorders. 

They asked 34 mothers to keep a “best possible self or gratitude journal” for six weeks, making entries at least three times a week. 

The results were really encouraging. 

“The findings… indicated statistically significant increases in optimism and gratitude levels after completing the writing intervention. The mothers commonly used coping methods for parental distress were emotion-and meaning-focused coping. The three themes of journal writing experience were positive thinking, emotional well-being, and mental health self-care,” the authors explained. 

They concluded that implementing a positive writing routine was a practical way to boost psychological well-being, and was an attainable practice for the greater population. 

Journaling can even be beneficial for health care workers, who are stressed to the max with hospitals at full capacity and PPE being practically non-existent. 

This study published in the Journal of Nursing Education and Practice recruited 66 registered nurses to take a journaling class. After the study ended, the authors found journaling improved their compassion satisfaction, burnout rate, and trauma/compassion fatigue. 

The study kept finding three common themes for nurses who journaled.

“Journaling allowed me to unleash my innermost feelings, journaling helped me to articulate and understand my feelings concrete, and journaling helped me make more reasonable decisions.”  

So Much To Do… So Little Time 

We know what you’re thinking. Sounds great, but who has the time? Well, according to these Swedish scientists, keeping a diary doesn’t need to be elaborate. 

They found that even bullet journaling, “writing lists of plans, things to do or to focus on in chronological order, as well as keeping track of achievements and lists of activities to complete,” did the trick, and gave participants in their study a sense of full control. 

So what are you waiting for?

Start coping with this newfound stress in a proven, healthy, and natural way. Take the time to write about some deep feelings, at least three times a week, and feel that stress melt away. Or at least ease up a bit. 

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