Journaling to cope with anxiety can be an excellent therapeutic tool to combat that feeling of apprehension that accompanies you everywhere and often paralyzes you or considerably affects your quality of life. Putting in black and white all those thoughts that run through your mind generating tension and making you always fear the worst is a therapeutic strategy to better understand them, feel more comfortable with them and, ultimately, strip them of their power over you.
Writing about what you think and feel is like sitting down to talk with anxiety. It is likely that at first this idea will generate some rejection since normally what you do is try to escape anxiety, but that way you only end up reinforcing it. Instead, keeping an anxiety journal will help you get to know it and yourself better.
The anxiety journal, a tool to provide clarity
Journaling for anxiety is particularly helpful for a number of reasons. First of all, you can only write one thought at a time, so the process of journaling forces you to slow down your mind and allows you to focus on just one idea. This way you manage to filter your thoughts and learn to keep them under control, instead of allowing them to flow uninterrupted to fuel even more anxiety.
Simply focusing on an idea is usually enough to quiet the racing mind generated by anxiety. That acceleration prevents you from grasping the different thoughts and delving into them so that you can evaluate how much truth they contain, in a way that plunges you into a spiral of catastrophism.
Instead, journaling for anxiety gives you the chance to explore what’s behind your thoughts, rather than just feeling that whirlpool of apprehension and fear you get caught up in when you’re anxious. It allows you to stop at each thought so that you can identify the dysfunctional beliefs that are at its base and that end up fueling anxiety.
In this sense, a study carried out at Rutgers University revealed that writing about a particularly stressful and distressing failure is related to altered neuronal processing in the middle cingulate cortex, an area of the brain crucial for processing negative emotions and related to processing of information for decision making. Therefore, writing about what worries you or generates anxiety could cause changes at the brain level that help you process what happened and overcome it.
On the other hand, keeping an anxiety journal will help you get negative thoughts out of your head. Keeping this record will allow you to see your fears, insecurities, and irrational beliefs written down on paper, which can help you take the necessary psychological distance to recognize that they are maladaptive ideas and overcome them.
With an anxiety diary you can also track your symptoms. You can not only practice emotional ventilation by writing down everything you feel, but also keep a record of your experiences, which will help you better understand and accept them, so that they do not generate an exaggerated emotional reaction every time they appear.
With an anxiety diary you can even identify possible stress triggers, those situations that trigger anxiety that you probably hadn’t noticed before. Keeping a detailed record could help you detect patterns of reaction to certain circumstances so that you can avoid them or prepare to better face them.
In fact, a study published in JMIR Mental Health realized with 70 people with generalized anxiety concluded that “diary writing can be an effective intervention to mitigate mental distress, increase well-being, and improve physical functioning.”
What kind of journal for anxiety is best?
There are different types of therapeutic diaries and, although they can all help you express what you feel and understand what is happening to you, each one has different characteristics. In fact, you can even find pre-designed journals that will help you put a little order to facilitate therapeutic writing.
1. Free writing
Freewriting is simply writing down what you think or feel. It is not necessary to write something deep, but only what comes from your heart, without censoring or judging yourself. To start, you can set a time limit, such as 15 minutes a day.
During that time, write whatever comes to your mind, without worrying about grammar or spelling. Remember that it is a diary just for you. You don’t have to be perfect, sound good, or be socially acceptable. When the time is up, read what you wrote. The goal of this type of therapeutic journaling is to explore your thoughts and better understand how you feel.
2. Expressive writing
One of the most effective strategies for overcoming an emotional challenge is expressive writing, as it is a technique that involves writing down your deepest thoughts and emotions for about 20 minutes or so. Unlike freewriting, you need to focus on the problem: anxiety. Although you should not judge what you write but read it as if you were an impartial observer.
The purpose of this type of writing is to better understand your feelings and emotional reactions, especially those related to anxiety. In fact, expressive writing is very useful for dealing with the symptoms of disorders such as depression and anxiety as it helps people make sense of what they are experiencing from a new perspective.
3. Journal of thoughts
It is a cognitive behavioral therapy exercise focused on writing down your thoughts and feelings, but right at the moment you experience them or right after. The goal of keeping this type of therapeutic journal is to increase awareness of your thought patterns and see how they change over time. This way you can understand that if you don’t cling to them, they will go as quickly as they came, without causing you harm.
To start, you can create a page with five labeled columns: situation, emotion, thought, illusions and reality. Under the “situation” column you must write down the circumstance in which you find yourself. In the “emotions” column write how that situation makes you feel and in the “thought” column write down what you are thinking. Under the “illusions” column, write down any illogical ideas you have about that situation, and in the “reality” column, write down the most likely outcomes of the current situation.
Keeping a regular thought journal can help you manage anxiety. When you become aware of your thought patterns, you will be better able to weigh facts and evidence to replace harmful thoughts with more helpful alternatives that make you feel better.
In any case, the key to making your anxiety journal work is to develop the habit of journaling. Therefore, make sure to set aside a few minutes each day to take note of what you think and feel. It is also essential that you reread what you have written several times, even the pages of days or weeks ago and ask yourself questions that help you delve into your feelings so that you can better understand yourself and treat anxiety more effectively, allying yourself with it, instead of making her your enemy.
DiMenichi, B. C. et. Al. (2019) Effects of Expressive Writing on Neural Processing During Learning. Front. Hum. Neurosci; 13: 389.
Smyth, J. M. et. Al. (2018) Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Ment Health; 5(4): e11290.