Everyone experiences stress at some point. But "African Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic Whites." Some stressors are short-lived, like dealing with traffic or feeling anxious before a test, while others are long-term such as caring for an aging parent. A little bit of stress can be good for you and even life-saving in certain situations (e.g., the fight or flight response). However, too much stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, as well as many other problems. It is important to know your mental and emotional limits and to find healthy ways to cope. Journaling is a great way to blow off some steam.
Writing in a stress journal can help you manage pressures you may be dealing with and allow you an opportunity to do some soul-searching. Journaling helps you understand why you respond the way you do to life events and how your thoughts affect your mood. “There is now strong scientific evidence to suggest that writing about emotional upheavals or conflicts in your life can improve your health and your outlook on life,” notes James Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book Expressive Writing: Words that Heal. “Even writing for as little for a few minutes a day for 3-4 days can be helpful,” says Pennebaker.
There is no right or wrong way to journal. Some people prefer beautifully decorated books with blank pages, while others use basic notepads with lined paper. For those who prefer computers, word processing programs like Microsoft Word or online journaling platforms like Penzu are good options. Additional methods for journaling include digital voice recorders and voice-to-text features on cell phones.
Here are three ways that journaling can help with stress.
1. Relax, Relate, Release!
For many people, journaling is cathartic. It relieves tension and makes daily battles seem more manageable. “When you get your thoughts out, you feel better,” says Angelita Jacobs, MSLLP, an African American behavioral health therapist in Michigan. She recommends journaling as a way to address the three Rs. First, it helps you relax because you can clear your mind. Second, it helps you relate to your emotions and identify areas in your life that are causing joy or pain. Third, it helps you release stressful and toxic thoughts.
2. Problem Solving
With journaling, we are able to document the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our lives — the areas that need attention and solutions. For example, when you go through a bad break up, sometimes you forget the things that made you leave the relationship or the positive qualities of the person that you loved. Journaling helps us remember, organize, and contextualize our thoughts. As a result, we are better equipped to make good decisions and to understand the reasons behind those decisions.
3. Staying Positive
When things go wrong and stress sets in, we often forget about the things that are going right in our lives. Journaling reminds us to count our blessings. It also reminds us of how strong we are and what we have overcome. It is easy to forget personal and public victories when we do not write them down. These victories can serve as motivation in challenging times.
Make the most of your journaling time by doing it every day at a set time, in a quiet place where you won't be disturbed. Commit to journaling for at least 15 minutes or 100 words a day. If you run out of things to say, it is OK to repeat what you have already written. Finally, do not worry about spelling, grammar, or finding the right words to describe what you are feeling. You can freestyle it or ask yourself certain questions (e.g., "How am I feeling? What's on my mind? What am I avoiding? What am I afraid of?")
It is your story. No one else will read or judge your thoughts. So you might as well be totally honest with yourself. Give yourself permission to be flawed and time to figure everything out. Your anxiety-free mind will thank you for it later.
Dr. Aisha Langford is a writer, speaker, and researcher with a background in public health and communications. Her research focuses on clinical trial participation, chronic disease prevention, and health literacy. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow with the University of Michigan Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine, and the VA Health Services Research and Development Service. You can follow her on Twitter @AishaLangford.