Crisis Journaling: How Daily Writing Can Help

In times of crisis, we often cast about for a new method of coping with emotional struggles and making sense of our lives.

As I write, we are in the middle of the unprecedented Coronavirus | Covid-19 global pandemic. As hard as this crisis is, there’s a coping mechanism that is healthy, beneficial and accessible to all of us: journaling.

How can keeping a “crisis journal” help me?

  1. In the present, by giving you a safe place to voice your thoughts and emotions today.
  2. In the future, as a fascinating reminder of what life was like, the good and the bad, with all of the uncertainty presented by this new disease.

Journaling imparts mental clarity and cathartic relief by putting thoughts, doubts and fears down on paper. You may not consider yourself the journaling type, but the benefits of journaling have been clearly established (see this HuffPost article).

Your Crisis Journal

We have lots of thoughts roaming around in our brain at any given moment in the day. Many of these we are not even aware of; these thoughts are like the background music of our mental well-being. Depending on one’s personality, these thoughts can veer in a positive or negative direction, but let’s begin by acknowledging that they are always there.

Our brains are never silent; there is always feedback, inspiration, dialogue and contemplation at play. If you are in the middle of a crisis (any sort of stressful situation), those background thoughts can reach a fever pitch! Rather than pretending they don’t exist or feeding off them by lashing out at the ones we love and live with, let’s bring them out in a healthy, helpful way by writing them down.

Here’s how to dive in with a minimum of fuss: To begin with,

Keep Your Journal Simple.

All you need is:

  • Pen
  • Paper
  • Daily Block of Time (5 minutes? An hour? This all depends on your circumstances. Keeping the routine, no matter how brief, is more important than how long you write.)
  • Your Phone In Another Room. Powered Off. Far, Far Away from You.

Lower the barriers of entry to journaling by keeping it simple. Don’t feel compelled to order a new journal and lots of new, shiny pens. Scrounge around for a partially-filled notebook or some copy paper. Even a daily series of sticky notes will work! In fact, if an entire blank page is intimidating, a little 3×3 sticky square may be the perfect space to begin with.

How do I Start to Journal?

Begin with stream of consciousness writing. Give yourself permission to write about whatever comes to mind. See this journal as less of a homework assignment (drudgery!) and more of an offloading of all the thoughts and emotions racing around your brain (relief!). Did a thought pop into your brain? Write it down, honest and raw. Those little spikes of pressure from all of your mental burdens lose their power when exposed to the light of day.

If you are writing this journal with an eye towards documenting a historic event (like a global pandemic, perhaps?), give enough detail to remember how you felt and what your daily routine was like, but don’t feel compelled to write everything that happened. Just grab a few events from your day that really lodged in your brain and expound upon those.

What Should I Write?

Maybe you are convinced that this is a great idea, but you’re still struggling with what to say or how to begin each daily writing. Here’s a quick list I compiled to help you put pen to paper.

Thirty Writing Prompts to Get the Wheels Turning:

I realized this event would be a crisis when… My favorite part of staying at home is… My least favorite part of staying at home is… This song will always remind me of this time… I really miss (person)…
I really miss (place)… I’m so grateful for… The first place I’ll eat when this is done is… I really appreciate this about my home… I really hate this about my home…
Here’s what a typical day looks like during this crisis… When this is over, I want to visit (place)… When this is over, I want to visit (person)… Before this crisis, I never would have… I will never take _____ for granted again. (explain)
I look out my window and I see My greatest fear in this crisis is… My greatest joy during this crisis is… My goal for today/this week/ this time is… I have loved reading ______
I have loved watching _____ I can’t believe ____ was always hard to come by My new favorite activity is… The food I ate a lot during this crisis was … Today I helped ____ with ____.
Today, I needed help with ____. A new habit I’ve picked up is…. I never thought I’d say this, but… I can’t wait to… I have learned ____ through this crisis.

What if I Hate to Write?

Let’s be honest: how often do you write anything? We text, we type, we hunt and peck letters on a keyboard, but few of us often grab a pen and write. However, the slowing down nature of writing long-form has a quieting, contemplative effect on our over-stimulated brains. It’s just what many a doctor would order.

Here’s my advice: Try it. 

Acknowledge that this whole journal-writing-thing is not your natural bent, and then commit to 14 days of writing, for a minimum of 5 minutes. And look, Cheater, don’t start the timer until you’ve sat down and actually put pen to paper. You can do anything for five minutes a day, I promise.

If you still really hate long-form writing after 14 days, look into some alternate forms of mindfulness/reflection logging. You could:

  • Vlog – Set that five minute timer if you must, but this time grab your phone instead of your pen and record yourself talking through the prompts instead of writing. Store all of your videos on a labeled thumb drive or some other digital storage system so you can look at them later. Don’t want to see yourself? Just make a voice recording on your phone instead.
  • Set a daily appointment to talk through the prompts with a friend. Maybe a new person every day, maybe the same trusted confidante day in and day out…just let them know this is important to you. You’ll get some social interaction, and the conversation may help your friend as much as it helps you.
  • Draw your feelings. Crazy doodles, word art, watercolors. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, give yourself permission to express yourself. Applaud the effort!
  • Mind map. Put your crisis in a bubble in the center of the page and draw radiating lines out from the bubble. Here’s a great tutorial from Lifehacker if mindmapping is something you’d like to try.

Can Journaling Really Help?

As you keep up with this new habit, you should notice an increased awareness of how you spend your time and how you are responding emotionally to your crisis. This heightened mindfulness will help you respond in a healthy way to hardship. 

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and realized something about yourself, your attitude or your situation as you spoke? Journaling is like that: it’s an aha! moment waiting to happen every day. And it’s a great way to just get things off your chest.

When I started journaling, I gave myself permission to write exactly what I felt, regardless of how appropriate or beneficial those feelings were. After writing for a month or so, I looked back on what I wrote and realized I spent most of my mental energy focusing on the negative. While it’s good to acknowledge those feelings, it’s also good to remember that you are not defined by your emotions. The first step in getting into a healthier headspace is bringing all those hidden thoughts out into the open.

Not only will this particular crisis journal help clear the air mentally, it can also be a personal, historical document that will help you remember what your daily life was like as you look back on this time in later years. Journals and diaries have always been such a great resource in understanding critical times in history. Why not add your voice today?

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