Scientific research has shown that people who keep journals experience enhanced mental and physical wellness. | Photo courtesy UTEP

Turning thoughts to words can overcome stress

As a master’s student at The University of Texas at El Paso, Lucia Dura, Ph.D., had doubts about her academic and career goals. She hoped to become a professional writer and work for nonprofits, but her faculty mentors encouraged her to pursue a doctorate.

The El Paso native was an overachieving multitasker whose schedule was filled with academic assignments, research projects and professional obligations on and off campus. She felt overwhelmed and was concerned about her time management skills.

Dura said she shared her anxieties with a campus counselor, who suggested she start a journal to record and explore thoughts generated by emotions or a stream of consciousness. Such purges of ideas often lead to structure and clarity of thought as well as reflection, organization, prioritization and self-examination.

Her process was to write whatever was on her mind first thing in the morning. It might be random thoughts or her academic insecurities. Transforming ideas to words made the concepts more manageable and gave her more control of what and how she felt.

“It was amazing,” said Dura, who earned her master’s degree in rhetoric and writing studies in 2006 and her doctorate in rhetoric and composition from UTEP five years later. “Once you write your thoughts down, you can focus on your actual work. The paper takes the weight off your shoulders.”

Life in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic generates numerous concerns that overlap many parts of our lives. College students, for example, could juggle numerous responsibilities beyond their academics to include jobs and family.

Other students may be out of work and must face the ramifications of that lost income, or live in a multigenerational household and must maintain social distancing at the sacrifice of a personal life. Those who decided to live at The University of Texas at El Paso in a time of the novel coronavirus may also have to deal with loneliness despite the benefits of technology.

Students who feel overwhelmed by the numerous changes in their lives may want to keep a journal, said Dura, an associate professor and director of the University’s Rhetoric and Writing Studies program. While not a therapist, she understands the therapeutic nature of writing and recommends it to many of her students who feel submerged by COVID-19.

“We’re on a rollercoaster right now,” Dura said. “One day you feel great and the next you’re scared, exhausted or paralyzed. Maybe you feel guilty because you don’t think you’re working hard enough. Finding balance right now is a challenge. I think right now anyone could be prone to anxiety in different manifestations.”

Craig Field, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, has researched how language can motivate changes in health behaviors and confirmed that “journaling” or “expressive writing” can enhance mental and physical wellness during stressful times.

He said factors such as the pandemic, online learning and even racial strife have led to uncertain times with increased stress and anxiety levels for many people to include students.

“Expressive writing is a simple exercise that has been shown to have profound impacts on our mental and physical well-being and ability to face life’s most challenging circumstances,” Field said. “It increases positive emotions and life satisfaction. By writing down our responses to simple prompts we can better understand ourselves and improve our lives and those around us.”

A 2005 study initially published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment stated that people who write about their stressful experiences often experience improved physical and psychological health.

Field said students who want to keep a journal should commit to write for 15-20 minutes at least four times per week to start. The topics could be whatever comes to mind. He said a good starter prompt could be the writer’s favorite childhood experience. In a COVID context, the theme could be how the writer overcame the virus in their lives. Students may want to write about their experiences with online education, or their sense of isolation on campus during a pandemic.

He stressed that the journal entries are for the writer’s eyes only so they do not need to concern themselves with spelling, grammar and punctuation, or mixing English, Spanish or other languages.

To gauge a journal’s success, writers should review their entries within a few days and ask themselves if they have a better understanding and a more positive feeling about what they wrote.

“That’s a good litmus test,” Field said.

He said some journal writers have shared that the process generates anxieties, especially when they work off more negative prompts. He said those students may want to contact UTEP’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office if those feelings continue. CAPS offers free services around the clock.

Laura James, Ph.D., CAPS outreach coordinator, said that she has spoken with many student clients during the past five months and COVID-19 comes up occasionally. She said that virus-related issues have pushed people to search for emotional assistance.

James, who has used journal therapy for about five years, said it often is helpful, but most of her clients would prefer to talk about the pandemic than write about it. They often express their fears of infection, family health concerns and struggles with isolation.

“When additional stress impacts your life significantly enough, it’s time to seek additional emotional support,” James said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications