When stress causes mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression, many people find relief from therapy. For example, of the roughly 30 percent of Americans who saw a therapist during the pandemic, the vast majority (86 percent) said therapy helped them, according to a 2021 survey.
Therapy isn’t for everyone, though. Depending on where you live, it may not be an option. Even remote therapy can be prohibitively expensive, especially if you are on a tight budget or have limited insurance coverage. This is where journaling may be an aid, either in conjunction with therapy or on its own, in relieving stress and stress-related mental health symptoms.
Centuries of Writing to Cope
Long before “stress” and “therapy” even existed as concepts, there was writing. Journaling and letter writing helped people deal with the vicissitudes of life. Grief. Heartbreak. Chronic illness. Hardship. Long separations. Written expression helped many people face, process, and move through these stressful experiences, often emerging with more insight and resilience.
Journaling for Stress Relief
Today, journaling provides these benefits and others, even for those who may not see themselves as writers. Stress reduction is one such benefit. The following prompts are for those new to journaling who’d like to explore how it might relieve stress….
“Can’t Help but Smile When.”
It can be harder to smile during high-stress periods, yet being able to smile and laugh is a powerful buffer against stress. This exercise builds self-awareness and engages these important coping tools. Not everyone knows they have a sense of humor or what makes them smile.
Jotting down a list can be an eye-opening process of self-discovery. You’ll also be able to refer to your list when you need some fast stress relief: old pictures of your kids as toddlers; YouTube videos of puppy dogs; fart jokes; a certain friend; or your favorite “Saturday Night Live” episodes. Just the process of making this list may cause you to smile.
“This One Thing Today”
“While I can’t change my situation today, if I do this one thing it will be a step in the right direction. This one thing is….” Spend some time journaling a response.
When life is stressful, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. There are so many tasks and deadlines in the days ahead that we can feel as if we are at the beck and call of these external pressures and forces. This sense of not having control over one’s life is a defining feature of stress. The less control a person thinks they have over their life, the greater their stress levels.
Of course, there are times when major life changes happen that we cannot control or change. We may lose a job and our health insurance. We may lose a loved one. Recognizing this reality, we still can find agency, which in turn can reduce our stress—hence this prompt.
Your answer can be whatever you need to do today to help you feel like you are moving in the right direction. Maybe it is a workout or quality time with a friend or family member. Maybe it is completing divorce papers. Doing this one thing reinforces the truth that you have power and agency and can move through even very stressful situations.
Inner Child Dialogue
Start a dialogue with yourself about what you are feeling in the moment. Using language that a kindergartner understands, ask yourself what your body is feeling. What are you thinking? What emotions are you feeling?
Next, take an inventory of your inner child’s needs: Do you feel safe and secure? Do you feel held and supported? Do you feel heard and understood? If the answer(s) is “no,” spend some time asking your inner kindergartner what they need to feel safe and secure, held and supported, and heard and understood.
Set off a “gratitude bomb,” as some have called it. Research has found that a simple, daily exercise of writing down three things you’re grateful for lowers stress, inflammation, and depression, and increases optimism.
In addition to this easy daily routine, consider a longer gratitude bomb session focused on whatever is most stressful. Jot down thoughts as they come, even those that may not seem grateful initially.
Say, for example, that single parenting and the pressures of a full-time job are causing stress, and the thought comes, “I have no free time or life, because I’m a single parent and work full-time.” Take a moment to revisit this thought and ask what you can be grateful for in your circumstances: “I am grateful for two wonderful children who I get to spend time with and love,” “I am grateful that I have a job that allows me to provide for my children,” etc. You may be surprised at the length of your list of things to be grateful for.
How Writing Can Help Change Responses to Stress
Though stress is inevitable, we can choose how to respond to it. This response can either worsen or lessen the perceived stress.
Journaling can help individuals work through difficult and painful emotions, let go of negative or unhelpful thoughts, embrace a more positive outlook, and develop greater clarity about next steps. In that process of self-expression and self-discovery, many find more purpose, meaning, validation, and self-esteem.