“The difference between despair and hope is just a different way of telling stories from the same set of facts.” ~Alain de Botton
When I was told that the man I loved had a terminal illness, I instinctively reached for my journal. When I was asked to evacuate my home ahead of a category-5 cyclone three short weeks after his funeral, the first thing I threw into the back of my car was a large box with my journals.
That was nearly a decade ago.
Last month, when I stood in front of the empty shelves at my local supermarket, I was surprised to be instantly back in the grip of the fear and panic I felt during the crisis I had braved almost a decade ago. So I did the most logical thing. I took a deep breath, located the stationary aisle—which thankfully was still fully-stocked—and I bought myself a large new notebook.
The next day, as the world prepared to go into lock-down, I missed the chance to return to my partner and my home in Vietnam.
Depression and anxiety promptly came to visit, threatening to turn my self-isolation into another painful chapter of my life. But I know that I am more resilient than I think I am, and I instantly turned to my number one coping strategy. I opened my new notebook and started writing my Covid-19 journal.
This is a challenging time for all of us, and we are all affected in different ways by this global pandemic. I don’t know how my partner and I will cope with the challenge of having to conduct our relationship across closed borders, via Zoom and Messenger, with no certainty when we might see each other again.
But I know that writing will be there for me, as it has been during every crisis I have been through. Regular journaling has trained me to be my own therapist. Writing things down is an act of self-care. It’s like opening the door to my heart to see what’s in there and allowing myself to sit with all of it.
Writing through the grief of my husband’s death and the aftermath of a natural disaster, I learned that we can cultivate resilience by allowing ourselves to experience our feelings, both good and bad.
As I learned the hard way, writing builds resilience because it allows us to process, release, and make meaning of challenging events and complex emotions.
Writing things down during a crisis is not only helpful as a way of processing and releasing our emotions—it is also a way to document what is happening as it unfolds.
This strange and unprecedented moment in time sometimes feels like the world is collectively writing a new chapter. There is the official narrative, there is an abundance of alternative narratives floating around the internet, and then there are our personal narratives and the ways we as individuals cope with this crisis.
Our memories will fad —though we’ll probably always remember that toilet paper was the first thing that ran out during a pandemic—but by keeping a diary and writing things down as they happen, we create a record of this unique historical moment.
Writing is also a way to enter the creative flow, which is a great antidote to feelings of stress and anxiety. When we become absorbed in the process of writing, we momentarily step out of the chaos and the grief around us and into a safe zone of calm and flow.
For many of us, self-isolation brings loneliness. Writing can be a great companion in times of loneliness. My diary has always been my best friend during difficult times. Writing can also be a safe place to retreat to for those of us who are assailed by a sense of cabin fever as members of a household suddenly have to live in close proximity with each other 24/7.
It’s easy for conflict and irritation to arise in confined living environments. I think of my diary as my sacred space where I can say things I don’t dare to say out loud, where I can vent, rage and reflect and most importantly, where I enter into a dialogue with myself.
Here are some suggestions for starting your own Covid-19 journal:
1. Write about how you feel right now.
Allow yourself to give voice to feelings that you might be holding back for the sake of protecting others or because you feel ashamed.
Write about what feels particularly hard about this crisis. Begin by brainstorming words that describe your emotional state right now. Think of it as making an inventory of the feelings in your heart. You might even find that you feel stronger and calmer than you thought you did.
2. Write about a time when you overcame a crisis.
Remembering a time when you were resilient and got through a difficult emotional turning point will help you to believe in your own strength.
Bring to mind a significant difficult emotional experience. Make sure it’s something in the past that you can safely write about.
Begin to write about the experience in the first person. Bring the experience alive by giving concrete sensory detail, i.e. what smells, sounds and tastes do you remember? Maybe you want to make reference to the weather or the color of the car you drove. Use word pictures to get back in touch with the feelings you had during that time.
3. Write a diary.
Writing a diary about the current pandemic can be as simple as writing about your day. You may write about the things you did and did not do, the people you interacted with, the things you ate, the words you read, the news you watched, the things you did to care for yourself or the ways you allowed the news to affect your anxiety levels…
Write about anything you’d like to capture about this day. This could be a simple brain dump. Or you could focus on the quirky things that happened today. The things that only a month ago, you couldn’t have imagined doing right now – things like having virtual sundowner drinks or virtual cups of tea via Zoom with your best friends.
If you’re writing first thing in the morning, you might write about your dreams, the quality of your sleep, or about the day before.
Be sure to include sensory detail to bring your world alive, i.e. write about the flowers that are in bloom right now, the smells during your daily walk, the noises that you can hear through the thin walls of your apartment etc.
You never know, your Covid-19 diary may become the foundation of a memoir or something to leave behind for the grandkids.
4. Write to practice self-compassion.
In times of crisis, when we experience suffering, fear, or anxiety, it is important to give our hearts shelter. Self-compassion can help us feel less vulnerable and disconnected during this time of self-isolation. It’s also a great way to silence the voice of the inner critic who will be quick to tell you that you are poor at home-schooling or that you are a bad partner.
Think of self-compassion as being like a warm embrace. Or as expert Dr Kristin Neff says, like speaking to yourself with the same care and kindness you would use towards a good friend.
Write for ten to fifteen minutes about what you need from yourself right now to feel less vulnerable, less cranky, less anxious… or whatever you may be feeling right now. Another great way to use writing as a self-compassion practice is to write a letter to yourself from the perspective of a good friend, assuring you that whatever happens you’re loved and cared for.
5. Write a gratitude journal.
Gratitude is a secret superpower that helps to build resilience and happiness. Too often we focus on what we lack—and right now we lack a lot of things that we used to take for granted only a short while ago. Gratitude is a way of looking at what is abundant and good in our lives, despite the current crisis.
Writing a gratitude journal can be as simple as listing five things you are grateful for at the end of every day: your warm bed at night, access to drinking water, having a shelter etc.
Try to be more specific than just saying “I am grateful for my bed.” Tell your diary why you are grateful for having a bed, why you are grateful for the job that sometimes overwhelms you, or the kids that drive you mad during this pandemic.
A good way to get started with a daily writing practice is to do a short meditation to settle your mind and to get into stillness. Then set the timer on your phone for ten to fifteen minutes and simply write without stopping to think or edit, trusting the pen to lead the way.
I’ve kept a journal from the age of eleven, which makes me a seasoned diarist, yet during the current global crisis I am often feeling unfocussed and unmotivated.
I tell myself that that’s okay, it’s part of the process of adapting to our new normal. But I always try to capture my new normal, even if I only write a quick list of things that stood out for me on a given day. It’s a way to stay connected to my inner voice and to write this new chapter one page and one breath at a time.