Many people are journaling to help with anxiety in the coronavirus pandemic

Stuck indoors during lockdown, Miami resident Sullyng Ceballos missed the clarity that long walks gave her.

“Usually, whenever I’d feel stressed or had a lot of things on my mind, going outside would help drown the thoughts out,” says Ceballos, a 28-year-old attorney, who had begun working from home in early March. Miami had just reported its first Covid-19 cases, and Ceballos was in the high-risk category. Her employers encouraged her to take all precautions.

A couple of weeks into the After, with nowhere to go but the inside of her own head, Ceballos decided to process her emotions on the page instead. She started journaling for the first time. “It was the only way for me to really express myself,” she recalls. “I’m an attorney so I’ve legal pads all over the house. I just picked one up and started writing.”

About 9,000 miles away, in Bangalore, Janani Vaidya dug up a once-discarded diary.

“I was picking up more projects and getting busier, and a couple of months into the lockdown, my mental health was taking a pretty drastic hit,” says Vaidya, who felt overwhelmed and jittery, and exhausted by “waking up every morning feeling like I was drowning.”

Desperate to find an outlet, Vaidya began journaling in June. “Consistency is not my forte, so I didn’t tell myself that I would do it every day,” they wrote over email. “I just left the journal on my desk as a reminder, and it’s a thing I go back to almost every day. … This is the longest that I have kept going back to it.”

Like Ceballos, Vaidya found that the process gave them a sense of calm and clarity, despite whatever fresh chaos was unfolding outside.

It’s a popular sentiment. Since cities worldwide began sheltering in place one after the other, there has been a rise in the number of people taking up journaling — trying it for the first time, or returning after years. The reasons have been many: boredom, an outlet for stress, the need for structure, or simply to document a very odd, very complicated moment in time. Every other Zoom workshop seems to focus on some version of “creative journaling.” Online groups dedicated to the hobby are being swarmed with posts from beginners.

“I think journaling is like going through a closet bursting with clothes. Before you can even begin cleaning it, you have to dump all the stuff on the floor and just look at it. That’s what you’re doing in the beginning,” says a reply to a newbie’s post in the journaling forum on Reddit. “So don’t worry about doing it right/wrong, your goal is to just look at your thoughts laid out, instead of it being cramped up in the head.”

A bunch of first-timers have posted on the subreddit, among the many digital communities dedicated to journaling, over the past few months: asking for advice, swapping stationery recommendations, and coming back to share updates on how it’s been working for them. Suggested prompts help on occasions when the days seem to have mashed together into one gray blob, a frequent experience during lockdown.

Some go all out with the washi tape and colored pens and Leuchtturms; others stick to good old-fashioned “streams of consciousness lite” in exercise notebooks. There are detailed descriptions of the day, habit trackers, and mood logs, and then there are entries like the one posted by a journaler struggling with depression:

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5.21pm. I ate.

There are plenty of places online besides forums for journalers to swap ideas and learn from one another. Journaling workshops — paid and unpaid — via Zoom have flourished. Ceballos participates in twice-a-week sessions organized by an online community called Goddess Council, where members get journaling prompts — a helpful tool for beginners and the experienced alike.

As a result of this uptick, stationery companies have reported a bump in journal sales. “We’ve seen a significant bump in sales of journals and notebooks over the last 4-5 months,” says a representative from the California-based company ban.do. “We’re up 37.5 percent [year-on-year] in the notebook/journal category.” New York-based Peter Pauper Press has seen increased sales in dot-matrix format journals, as well as oversize and book-bound journals, says the company’s sales director, Claudine Gandolfi. “Those are generally used by dedicated journalers, not someone looking for a notebook.”

Journaling isn’t just a fun hobby — it’s a mechanism that’s frequently incorporated in therapy. It can be an important tool to explore inner conflicts, rant in a safe way, or figure out a difficult decision, says clinical psychologist Andrea Medaris. “During pandemic, I think maybe the most useful thing about journaling is that it helps create a narrative, a sense that life continues and that it is moving forward, even in a time of stuckness. It’s very easy to feel that time has paused, so making something that shows the progression from yesterday to today to tomorrow can bring a sense of hope and momentum.”

At a time when many of us have been feeling powerless, the very act of bothering to write down your thoughts is a way of telling yourself that you matter, adds Medaris. It “tells yourself implicitly that those thoughts matter, that your voice matters. That is doubly important in a time where many of us feel like our voices are insignificant.”

The first entry in Xochitl Estrada’s diary is dated March 19, 2020 — the day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was predicting high numbers of casualties from the coronavirus. A student research assistant living in Weslaco, Texas, Estrada was worried for the city’s large Latino population, which is socio-economically disadvantaged, she says, with limited access to medical resources. “I knew we would be in trouble. No one pays attention to this area of the United States. We are hit with hurricanes, and often do not make national news.”

The endless lines, empty shelves, and palpable sense of dread made Estrada realize early on that this was not going to be a simple epidemic. Wandering through the aisles among panicked shoppers, she recalled reading diary entries made during the Spanish flu, from her undergrad epidemiology classes.

“Those documentations are the reason we know so much about what occurred during that pandemic,” she says. It inspired her to start something similar of her own for future generations, “so that they may not forget this moment in history.”

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Every night, Estrada pulls out her quad notebook from Walmart, turns on the lamp, and documents the day in detail before going to bed. She carefully notes the changes she has observed around her — the panic-buying, universities shutting down, workers still needing to head out every day, the uncertainty of everything.

As part of this drive to document the moment, journaling projects and collectives are popping up as well. “More and more anti maskers are pissing me off. It feels like they only care about themselves,” says a September 14 journal entry by Steph. “Why do they think it’s okay to protest but Black Lives Matter protesters are ‘thugs’ and ‘doing things the wrong way’? Why is it okay to protest wearing a mask meant to protect the public from a deadly illness but not okay to protest for the right to live?”

Steph’s entry is among those from the “Archiving Covid-19” class at Rutgers University in New Jersey, started by writer and professor Audrey Truschke. Each week, curated excerpts from journal entries by 13 students from diverse backgrounds are uploaded on the university website.

“It was a way to document history in real time. The pandemic is all around us, it’s so much a part of our collective experience,” says Truschke, a fifth-generation member of a family of dedicated journalers, who has also contributed entries to the Rutgers project. She has digitized a couple of her great-great-grandmother’s oldest diaries, spanning 1941-1945, and also uses them while teaching as an example of archival sources.

“Her diaries now live in a box in my grandmother’s closet. I don’t know why she started writing them, no one knows. Maybe someone gave her a diary? She has no explanation, just starts like, hello diary,” Truschke recalls.

Along with being a rich source of family history, the diaries have helped serve a higher purpose: proving everyone else in the house wrong. “It’s kind of fun — we definitely have had family arguments like, ‘Where were we at Thanksgiving of 1994?’ and everyone gets out their journals and you compare and then you figure it out.”

I found my way back to journaling myself in early July, a few months after lockdown had shuttered Mumbai.

My mental health had gone to shit. I had managed to recover from Covid-19 with minimal (as of now!) lasting damage, so I should have been positively writhing with joy. But it was a struggle to see much of a reason for optimism. Several of my plans for 2020 had not worked out, or been put in stressful limbo, due to the pandemic. I felt anxious and gloomy and unmotivated, and had no idea how to start getting life at least somewhat back on track.

One afternoon, after days of aimless doomscrolling and morose Mad Men marathons, I decided to attempt a bit of self-care by making a habit tracker in an old notebook — a tool I remembered from my first and only stab at bullet journaling circa 2018, otherwise known as the most productive two weeks of my life.

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This time around, I liked having a tangible reminder of things I was doing to look out for myself — starting with absolutely nothing more intimidating than drinking (or attempting to drink) two liters of water daily, moisturizing, having 30 minutes of no-screen time. I slowly upped the ante: cooking more often, 10 squats a day, making it to at least the second paragraph of a book before thoroughly abandoning it for Netflix. Soon, I had begun adding notes on my day, writing about whatever was bugging me or made me want to curl up into a very small ball. Having the words on paper somehow made the big fears seem smaller. They seemed manageable.

I’m unsure if I would count as a “dedicated journaler” yet, though I have been plenty surprised to find myself writing every single day. Of course, one of the entries just says “ugh,” but there’s something very peaceful about taking 10 minutes just to hash out whatever thought-jumble is clanging around in my brain, and for once, not have to stare at a screen while doing so. The other day I even attempted a (very rubbish) doodle.

Todd Smith is way more skilled at the art. The Buffalo resident and retail employee takes joy in creating lovely watercolor spreads of changing seasons in his journal. “I had never kept any sort of personal agenda or journal before in my life. Anytime I tried, I was noncommittal and would lose interest,” he tells me on Facebook Messenger. “But I’ve always been a big fan of art and kept seeing all these beautiful spreads people had created themselves and I wanted to emulate them. I wanted the creative outlet.”

Having needed to work through the pandemic, Smith used his journal to chronicle his mental health and create a quiet space that let him focus “mostly on trying to function ‘normally’ each day.”

I — and plenty of others — know exactly how he feels.