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Applying expressive writing to COVID-19-related stress

This pandemic has been wild. 2 years into it and we still aren’t quite out of it yet. Not only were we unprepared for this novel virus, but we were also very much unprepared to deal with it for this long. Of course, the experience of this pandemic varies from person to person, but, at the end of the day, we are all going through it. It affects our work, our mental health, our relationships, our immediate lives, and our future selves.

Can we just take a moment to appreciate this is really a huge event that shouldn’t just be passed up? Why should we act as if this was nothing and go back to normal? Do we even want to go back to pre-pandemic life?

Regardless of what the future holds, we can do things, even small things, to get us into a better place for that future. Expressive writing can do just that on 2 levels: it can decrease negative feelings and it can increase positive feelings.

What I want to do here is talk through expressive writing in everyday life so you can see if you think this would be worth it for you!

First and foremost, try to remember a few things while or after you write. No one else will see this, so really let go. Don’t care about structure, tone, spelling, anything other than getting your thoughts and feelings out. The other thing is to remember that you are talking about negative things so you’ll likely feel more negative than usual. This will only last a bit, but just be aware it does tend to happen and it’s normal.

Here are some situations you may have especially felt during the pandemic and some writing prompts for you to try to help move through these situations in a healthy manner.

-You got into an argument with your partner or a family member because not enough personal space/boundaries; you are all in the same house all the time after all.

1. First, try not to problem-solve. Just give yourself space to write about your emotions. How does it make you feel when they intrude? Are they clingy? Do you feel like you want to tell them off? Are you irritated because they can’t control themselves? What is it? And how does it make you feel? Just focus on your emotions for the next 15 minutes. Once you start writing, try not to stop and think too much. Write whatever comes to mind.

2. If the first session of writing wasn’t enough, maybe try another to just get out more emotions or thoughts about the situation. Really allow yourself to express your emotions.

3. Now, try to look at the situation from a different perspective. It could be you in the future, it could be someone else you really respect, it could even be a higher spiritual power . What would they say about the story? What do they see? Is it different than what you are seeing?

4. Can you rewrite this narrative all together? You had your perspective, and now you have seen another perspective as well. Perhaps through writing both of these perspectives, you can now rewrite, reframe, and reclaim what is actually happening in this story the next time you think about it. Try doing that here.

This set of 4 prompts should all be 15 minutes each spaced out by a day. Hopefully by the end of it, you can find some peace about your annoying partner.

-Your child is being a brat.

It happens. They are children. This can manifest in many ways, whether that is that they are refusing to eat the food you cooked or don’t want to clean up after themselves. Breathe. They are still learning. It’ll be alright, but maybe some of these prompts will help.

1. Let’s first imagine that a friend of yours is going through the same thing. Night after night, their child is a brat. Even more so than before the pandemic. They come to you because they are upset, irritated, and sad. What would you say to them? Let’s have you write a letter to them (that you won’t actually send). What advice could you give in a respectful way? Could you also encourage them to be proactive about this challenge? Is there anything they should forgive themselves about? How could you say these things to them in a thoughtful way? Feel free to write until you can satisfactorily end this letter.

2. Let’s try to reevaluate your current circumstances with a fresh perspective. What can you release? What can you let go of? Outdated beliefs? Maybe a toxic relationship? What do you no longer need? What can you let go of to allow yourself more space and feel a little lighter? Can you forgive yourself for anything? Please write for at least 15 minutes.

-You aren’t able to find employment. We’re in a pandemic!

Before I say anything else, this does not reflect an inability on your half. The job system and economy during this time has been atrocious and it really seems like we don’t have resources to back us up. So, what can we do, at least for now. At some point a job will be necessary, but if you aren’t mentally in the right place, how can you approach the strain of job hunting? Here are some prompts for that.

1. People are amazing. There is so much we are all capable of. We can see it in others (e.g., someone who gives their life for someone else or even something less drastic like donating money). When confronted with challenge, we all rise up to meet it. But, it can be hard to remind ourselves that we are capable while stressed out. What are your personal strengths and resources? How are you actually prepared for all of the stress of not being able to find a job during the pandemic? What strengths can you fall back on? How can you help others with your unique gifts and traits? Try to write about this until you have written a letter you are satisfied with.

2. Try writing a letter to someone else. We all have issues we are going through. What can you say to someone you know that is going through a hard time? How can you imagine the world to look in a year’s time? How do you think your strengths might help bring about that world? Try to write out these statements using “I am”. And if 1 year doesn’t make sense, you can choose another time frame. Let’s write for 15 minutes here.

-You ended a romantic relationship. This was common and still is common during this pandemic.

Many people realized their current partners were not their forever soulmates, and that is great, but there are still negative repercussions of doing something like breaking up (even if it was the right choice!). In this case, we can focus on the positives within the negative, or silver linings.

1. Seeing positive aspects doesn’t minimize the negative, what’s difficult, or even heartbreaking. However, it can help us find meaning in these trying times. It can also give us a sense of control over our situations. What has this break-up been like for you personally? And what unexpected gifts came from this break-up? Do these positives reach beyond you and even into the local community or the world at large? Please write about this for 20 minutes.

2. When positives happen (and they do even if you can’t always perceive them right away), we can also savor them, regardless of how significant or insignificant the positive event was. This means we can prolong the feeling and even intensify it willingly. What is an event or series of events that was positive for you in the past few weeks? Write about your experience of it. What made you smile? How did you feel? What else was happening in your environment? Did you share this moment with anyone? No need to overthink anything here. Just try to appreciate it for what it was for about 20 minutes.

-You have anxiety. Whether this is diagnosed or just intense feelings of anxiety, it doesn’t matter. A large portion of society has had increases in these feelings and that is all valid because of the pandemic.

When feeling anxiety, it is really hard to step away from those feelings. They can be so consuming. Hopefully these prompts can help you remove yourself from the feeling and really start to put it into context.

1. This pandemic isn’t over. That is reason enough to have anxiety; there is an unknown future out there. It is a lot easier to talk about things we have already finished going through compared to things we are still going through. And, you have definitely gone through a lot already. What have you learned so far? Do you recognize what is important and meaningful about your life? Talk about those things. Were there shifts in how you think about people, yourself, religion, and health? Talk about those. Maybe you can even recognize your personal growth. How else would you like to continue to grow? For 20 minutes, try to talk about these things.

2. This was and still is an intense period in our lives. It is a moment in history. Previous generations have had their own moments in history and from those moments, they have imparted wisdom to us. If we could write to someone younger, like a child or grandchild, what would we tell them? What wisdom do you want to tell them? What has this experience taught you? What world do you think is possible knowing all we have gone through? What do you love and value? You can write this as a story or maybe a letter, whatever works for you. Let’s try this for 20 minutes.

Hopefully this gives a good sense of how to use expressive writing in your own life. There are plenty more examples I can provide if you find this helpful!

For now, I hope you go easy on yourself and take a moment to really let it sink in what we have been going through the past 2 years (and also well before that as well). We are not just robots.


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