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To manage coronavirus stress, experiment with a tried-and-true strategy

Expressive writing can benefit both physical and mental health.

A black-white Victorian painting of a woman sitting and writing something down

Studies consistently show that one of the best ways to deal with overwhelming emotions is to find a healthy way of expressing yourself. And presently, people are overwhelmed. According to a recent joint Washington Post-ABC News poll, 1 in 3 Americans describes the virus outbreak as causing “significant stress.”

Faced with an invisible foe, it’s easy to feel like there aren’t enough opportunities to manage that stress. Experts agree that a positive choice you can make to manage stress is through journaling. If it sounds too simple, then you’re underselling how hard it can be to transfer the glob of feelings in your brain into words on a page.

Adriel Boals is a psychology professor at the University of North Texas who has studied the effects of expressive writing. He tells Inverse that the basic tenet of all forms of psychotherapy is that “if something is bothering you, and you keep it bottled up inside, it is going to eat away at both your emotional health and your physical health.”

There is no pill or surgery that can correct this, Boals says. Instead, the best solution is to find a way to express what you’re feeling in a healthy manner. This could manifest as therapy, talking to a trusted friend, or journaling. “Just getting your thoughts and feelings out on paper can be extremely cathartic,” Boals says.

Andrea Niles is a clinical psychologist who has also studied the effect expressive writing has on health.

“Journaling is a very good strategy for managing stress during this difficult time,” Niles tells Inverse. She notes that expressive writing can benefit both physical and mental health.

“Not only can it help you manage your stress, but it could boost your immune functioning, too!” she says.

So, can journaling be as simple as making a list of what you did that day? Boals says that’s a start. People can start with the type of journaling that is most comfortable and take it slowly. Getting some things out and on paper is better than keeping them bottled up.

“If you are able to delve a little deeper, then do that,” Boals says.

It’s important to reflect on both things that are going well and things that may be more challenging, Niles says. Because it can be difficult to stick to this kind of practice, there are digital tools designed to help. (Niles is the director of science and research at Youper, an emotional health app that in part guides people in journaling.)

"It is not a weakness. It is a part of the human condition."

Journaling can help people process stress because the act of organizing that anxiety into a story format can make your stress feel more manageable. It can also give you some much-needed clarity.

That clarity might help keep your head above water. Stress can impact our ability to stay focused and do our best work. But we’re living in extraordinarily stressful times, and it’s no surprise that a news headline or a tickle of the throat can send a reasonable person into a spiral of worry and anxiety. (Though quarantine has come with some upsides for some.)

“I think it is important that we all understand that we are going to be cognitively compromised during this time of uncertainty and worry,” Boals says. “It is not a weakness. It is a part of the human condition.”

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