Journaling to Cope With Anxiety

Journaling is a highly recommended stress-management tool. Journaling can help reduce anxiety, lessen feelings of distress, and increase well-being. It's not just a simple technique; it's an enjoyable one as well.

There are many ways to journal and few limitations on who can benefit. You can begin journaling daily, weekly, or on an as-needed basis when stress gets to be too intense, and you can choose the journaling method that works best for you.

One way journaling can relieve stress is by helping you work through anxious feelings. Left unchecked, anxiety can lead to stress and rumination. Some of the roots of your anxiety can be minimized through a bit of focused examination.

Journaling can be a powerful tool for examining and shifting thoughts from anxious and ruminative to empowered and action-oriented.

Journaling to Challenge Anxious Thoughts

Journaling

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The goal of this process is to get your worries on paper so you can break the cycle of rumination, challenge those thoughts, and come up with ways to address them. Here's how to start.

Write Your Worries

Start by journaling for five to 15 minutes, and write about whatever is on your mind. Keep going until you feel you have written what needs to be said but haven’t delved into rumination.

Describe the events that are currently causing difficulties for you. Keep in mind that with anxiety, sometimes it isn’t what is currently happening that causes stress, but the concerns you have about what could happen.

Write about what is happening right now and make a note that what is really stressful for you is the possibility of what could happen next. This realization might bring stress relief in itself!

Reread and Re-Think

As you review what you've written and reflect on your concerns, explore your options. Could things be different? Is there something that you could do to change your circumstances right now—or to change your thoughts about your circumstances?

Ask yourself questions like:

  • How likely is it that this will happen? How do you know? Are you sure?
  • If what you fear does occur, could it be less of a negative experience than you think it would be? Could it be neutral or even positive?
  • Is there a way you could use your circumstances to create a better outcome? Could you use what you have available to make the best of the potential changes? Is there a change that could occur (or that you could create) that would be even better?

Challenging your thoughts can help you relieve anxiety. It helps you see that things are less likely to happen than you think, or they are not as bad as you think they could be.

Think Differently

For each fear or concern you have, try to write at least one way (but preferably more) in which you could think about it differently. Generate a new story for yourself, even a new set of possibilities. Write these next to the fears that are in your head right now.

It can also be helpful to examine your cognitive distortions to see how you might benefit from changing habitual stress-inducing thought patterns.

Recall Your Strengths

Think about the biggest challenges you’ve faced and overcome. Looking at your strongest, wisest moments, do you think you could use that same strength and wisdom to prevail in this potential challenge as well?

What do you think you could learn from it? In what ways do you think you would gain strength as you face these new obstacles?

Thinking about your strengths and your best moments can help you to remember that, while you may not enjoy your current circumstances, you have the strength to handle what comes. You may find new strengths you didn't know you had!

Consider a Plan

Assuming what you fear did happen, what would you do? You don’t have to create a full plan, just try to jot down the resources you would utilize and the next steps you’d take.

Thinking through your plan takes away the fear of the unknown. If you know that you would have the resources available to you should you need them, your mind is more likely to stay away from the worst-case scenarios (toward which we all sometimes gravitate).

Decide How to Prepare

Come up with at least one thing you can do right now that would prepare you for what you fear. Perhaps you could:

Putting your energy into a plan can help you move out of a place of anxiety and toward a place of empowerment. Even if you don’t need them, you have resources that can help you in your life right now (plus, you’ve distracted yourself in the process).

Freewriting

Freewriting involves writing down your thoughts, whatever they may be, without censoring or editing them. The purpose is to explore your thoughts and feelings and to uncover the wisdom and understanding you already possess.

To begin:

  • Set a timer. Choose a time limit that works for you (and if you're unsure, try writing for 15 to 20 minutes).
  • Write everything that comes to mind. Avoid the temptation to edit yourself. Write down precisely what you're thinking, regardless of how strange or silly it seems to you—and write it quickly so you don't have a chance to censor yourself.
  • Don't worry about grammar or spelling. Freewriting can lead to more typos and misspellings—and that's alright. Don't interrupt yourself to correct mistakes; just keep writing.
  • Write until your time is up. If you've run out of things to write about, write about that feeling, or keep writing a repeated phrase until something new comes to mind.
  • Reread your entry afterward. As you do, look for opportunities to gain insight from yourself. You may even write down a few sentences at the end of your entry recording the things you found compelling or surprising.

During this practice, you may find yourself delving deeply into a single topic, or you might jump around from thought to thought. Both of these outcomes can offer important insight into what (and how) you're thinking.

Using Journal Prompts

If freewriting sounds intimidating, using a prompt can give you a concrete place to begin. You can choose to write with a prompt occasionally or each time you journal, and you can even revisit the same prompt, which may bring about some interesting insights into how your thoughts have changed over time.

You can come up with a list of prompts yourself based on the issues you'd like to focus on or problems you'd like to solve. Or, if you're currently working with a therapist, you can ask them for their ideas. You may even want to pick up a journal with prompts to help.

Keeping a Thought Diary

Keeping a thought diary (or thought record) offers you a way to notice your thought patterns and track how they change over time. Commonly used as part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), this exercise asks you to write down your beliefs and then think critically about them.

To get started, create a document or journal page with five columns:

  • Case: In this column, note the current "case" or situation you find yourself in. Explain it briefly, like "Starting a new job," or "Had a disagreement with a friend."
  • Feeling: Here, write down the feelings you're experiencing as a result.
  • Thinking: Note what you're thinking, and do so authentically. As you record more thought diaries, this is where you'll notice your thinking patterns and see how they change. In the example of a disagreement with a friend, your thinking may be "They won't want to talk to me anymore," or "They dislike me now as a result of our fight."
  • Illusions: This is your opportunity to think critically about your beliefs. Here, you should identify any illogical ideas that are present. Try to take an evidence-based approach; though you may feel anxious about an event, ask yourself if your anxiety is warranted given the facts.
  • Reality: In this column, write down more a realistic outcome of your case. If you're basing your thoughts on what you assume another person is thinking, for instance, what's a more realistic approach you could take?

You may find that keeping a regular thought diary is a helpful habit, or you may use this method on an as-needed basis to manage anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

Journaling can provide you with a tool to help you through situations where you need to manage anxiety and stress in your life. However, some issues require more help than an article can provide.

It is important to seek help if you need it, such as by talking to your doctor or a counselor. You can also find help dealing with symptoms of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and panic disorder.

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