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Journaling Helps Us Cope With the Coronavirus

People who are under stress can use this as an escape

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On May 8, Dayton, Ohio teacher Staci Shockley-Matthews, writing in her journal, struggled to express her feelings about the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t even know what to write,” Shockley-Matthews wrote. “I don’t have words to express how I’m feeling. I want to cry but my heart feels small and hard. I want to scream but my voice is tired, literally tired, and as a result feels constricted shut, refusing to attempt sound. I want to hit someone but I don’t know where to start and wouldn’t know how to stop.”

She was one of more than 900 people who have signed up to keep a journal of their thoughts and emotions during the pandemic for the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s History Museum’s “Women Writing History: A Coronavirus Journaling Project.”

“Many women are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and we know, whether they’re essential workers on the front lines or caregivers at home, that their voices would be critical,” said Jennifer Herrera, the virtual museum’s vice president of external affairs.

Micro & Macro

The museum isn’t alone. Historians and mental health experts increasingly are urging people to keep a pandemic journal, either in writing or recorded audio, video, or still images. Historians want to capture this moment for posterity so that people in the future can experience the pandemic through firsthand accounts. On more of a micro-level, psychologists say writing down our thoughts and emotions during such a traumatic time can serve the journal owner’s more immediate need to not only survive the pandemic but to do so with better mental health.

In fact, journaling can help us sort out situations and emotions that we’ve never experienced before because we’ve never lived through a pandemic like a coronavirus, said Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, and author of The Mental Health Journal for Men.

“Journals help us clarify our feelings, organize our thoughts, and even plan for the future if that’s how you choose to use it,” Howes said. “They are a safe place to express the grief, anxiety, anger, and occasionally, joy, as these feelings arise.”

For posterity

Anthropologists Kate Mason, of Brown University, and Sarah Willen, at the University of Connecticut, have launched The Pandemic Journaling Project, in which they have invited people to submit written or recorded journals. Submitters, about 400 of whom are journaling now through the project’s website, will remain anonymous and their journals will be released as a historical archive in 25 years.

“We think it's critical that historians who study this pandemic in the future understand what a wide range of people living today are going through,” said Mason, assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “Alongside journal material, we will also preserve demographic and health information, including information about COVID exposure and mental health. We think this is extremely important for understanding and hopefully addressing the massive inequities in how COVID is affecting different populations.”

Tips & Advice

There are many great user-friendly mobile apps for journaling, such as top-seller Day One, which can be used with iOS or Android. Like many apps, Day One offers a basic service for free and a premium option that costs money. The premium service lets you create different journals within Day One for every aspect of your life.

For those new to journaling, Howes said it’s important to start small.

“It’s tempting for new journalers to try to write pages about their feelings and experiences each day, but then fizzle out quickly, as journaling begins to feel like another job,” Howes said. “Grab a blank journal, or open a file on your computer, or buy a journal with prompts that encourage reflection, and write as little as you want, starting with about 10 to 20 minutes. If you catch the journaling bug, go ahead and keep writing, but don’t put pressure on yourself to write your memoirs.”

It's About You

Howes also stresses the need to remember that you’re journaling for yourself. Some people start a journal believing it will be read by a wide audience one day, and then they get trapped with writer’s block because they’re wondering what to produce for their audience, Howes said.

“Just write for yourself,” Howes said. “Misspell words, use poor grammar, write fragmented sentences, because who cares? The act of writing this out is more important than the finished product if there even ever is one.”

Finally, Howes says new journalers should be patient. Most people won’t feel a rush of relief or be impressed with themselves every day they write but they do see benefits over time.

 “With some practice,” Howes says, “you will know yourself better, have better access to your thoughts and feelings, and will find your journal to be a little sanctuary of peace in a chaotic world.”

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Journaling Helps Us Cope With the Coronavirus