By Chris Croll
When this period in history is over, future generations will ask us what it was like to live through quarantines, lockdown and social distancing. Most of us will quickly forget (in fact, many of us cannot wait to forget). Capturing our thoughts and feelings in a journal not only records rich details about what life is like during this historical time, but the mere act of writing could make us healthier in the process.
Regular recording of our thoughts and feelings on paper has been shown to offer a host of health benefits, includingstrengthening the immune system, lowering blood pressure and improving sleep. Some studies show that free form writing like journaling can alsoboost mood, enhance our sense of well-being, improve working memory and reduce symptoms of depression. One study even showed that, for teens, writing down thoughts in a journal every day isjust as effectiveas cognitive behavioral therapy for reducing symptoms of depression. And journaling a whole lot cheaper.
Keeping a journal tends to also make usmore self-aware. Documenting our thoughts helps us detect unhealthy patterns and allows us to see where we get stuck in our mental narratives. With regular journaling, it is easier to notice if we are ruminating about something – or someone. Having greater awareness of these patterns naturally leads to setting goals which we know increases our sense of control. A greater feeling of control in one’s life has been shown to significantly reduce one’s anxiety.
So why does this simple act of daily writing benefit us in so many ways? Journalinguses both sides of the brain simultaneously. The rational left side of the brain is occupied with the mechanics of writing while the right, creative side of the brain has free reign to wander through thoughts, emotions, memories and unresolved inner turmoil. This creates a phenomenon known as active meditation where, similar to sitting meditation, we can clear out any destructive energy and achieve mental peace. For those of us not designed for the stillness of traditional meditation, the flow of writing can help us achieve a similar level of calm.
How often do we need to write—and for how long—to achieve these benefits? Experts say every day for 20 minutes is ideal. If that seems daunting, remember that it takes 21 days to form a new habit so if you start by writing 10 minutes a day and work up to 20 minutes each day, by day 21 you should already feel the benefits of your new healthy habit.
Now might be a good time to encourage your children to journal every day as well. They may want to read about what their life was like during the COVID-19 pandemic when they get older. Journalingcould even be an activity your family does at the same time each day as a period of quiet reverence and reflection.
For those just starting out, here are a few tips on how to journal:
•Try to write with pen on paper as opposed to typing on a computer; if writing is not easy for you, consider typing your journal or even dictating your thoughts using voice to text
•Pick a time of day that is convenient and unrushed and try to write at the same time every day
• Write in a space that is free from distractions
•Keep your journal private; write for your eyes only and do not worry about grammar, spelling or punctuation. You do not even have to write left to right, top to bottom on the page. Write sideways or diagonally if that feels right. I have written entire journal entries in French, my second language, just for fun
•You can write in a fancy book or on loose-leaf paper; whatever feels ‘special’ to you
•Give yourself a few minutes to reflect on what you have written after you finish each day
As far as what to write in your journal, you can record daily events, celebrate your wins, express gratitude for what is good in your life, write a list of questions you’d like answered by the universe, write letters to people that you never intend to send, make lists of why you love your friends or anything else that comes to mind. There are no rules or limits.
While you are journaling, consider making note of how COVID-19 has impacted your life. One day in the not-too-distant future, you may look back at these journals and be grateful that you captured what you were thinking about in the year 2020. Hopefully you’ll do so as a healthier, happier you.
[Chris Croll is a writer, community activist and former member of the Loudoun County School Board (Catoctin District). She lives in Leesburg with her husband and two children.]