Crises like Covid-19, climate change and now Russia's attack on Ukraine have feeling more anxiety than ever before. Journaling about our anxiety may not solve the world's problems, but it just might help us sleep better at night.
I don’t believe the recent global crises have created anxiety in us. The anxiety was already there. We’ve just been holding it under the surface, much like pushing a rubber ball under water. It takes a lot of effort, and as soon as you loosen your hold, it’ll pop up where you least expect it. This is how we’ve been dealing with anxiety and other emotional upheavals like stress and overwhelm.
Attention to recent events has made us release the ball of anxiety, and now we’re feeling it. It’s also keeping us up at night because most of us have never been taught how to deal with it. We’re suppressing it with pills, ignoring it through work or denying it by binging social media. What we’re not doing is using the tools available to us, tools that can bring us relief from the pressures of life.
Journaling, even in times of crisis, is a practice that can help us come to grips with our own internal reaction (namely anxiety) to external events. In their book Opening up by Writing It Down, Joshua M. Smyth and James W. Pennebaker, the pioneer who brought us expressive writing, argue that by writing about our emotional reaction to events we “fundamentally alter the way it is represented and understood in our minds”.
So, by giving anxiety form, we’re better able to acknowledge it, thus taking the first step toward understanding it for ourselves, in our own words. With understanding comes meaning and then insight. Through this process, we’re able to release some of the negative energy accompanying emotions like anxiety.
Effective journaling is never about venting. According to Pennebaker and Smyth just venting about Putin’s actions, for example, without reflecting on our own feelings is unhelpful and may leave us feeling even worse.
Nor is it about ruminating. Effective journaling affords a space to observe anxiety and feel its effect in the body. Writing slows us down enough so that we may become mindful of our inner world. Done regularly over time, and without criticizing our thoughts or feelings, we learn to sit with the physical sensation anxiety creates. The more we do it the less its intensity, which enables us to breathe through, challenge, talk to, and release it. Pennebaker and Smyth concur that when journaling is done to acknowledge and validate our anxiety we can experience “fewer nightmares, sleeping pills and bouts of insomnia”.
Sometimes some of us need psychotherapy or anti-anxiety meds. Sadly, these treatments aren’t always available. Journaling is just a pen and a sheet of paper away. Better yet, we could try journaling with a friend and afterwards talking about the process.
I created my guided group journaling circles and courses to bring together like-minded who wanted relief from the emotional upheavals that life can bring. What started as a one-off session has transformed into an international community of savvy men and women who journal monthly so that they too can sleep better at night.