If you’ve ever talked to a health professional about your anxiety, they probably mentioned journalling. That’s because there have been a number of studies that demonstrate how useful regular journalling is for managing stress, anxiety, and depression – and it’s something that anyone can do, which doesn’t cost a lot of money or take up a lot of time.
How you journal depends entirely on your needs and preferences!
Want to focus on the positive? Try gratitude journalling – every day before you go to bed, write down three things that have happened that day for which you are thankful. Sometimes, this can be the big stuff (the war is over! I got married! Brooklyn Nine-Nine was renewed!) and sometimes it’s the little things (I woke up feeling peaceful, I found my lucky pencil, the way my cat stretches and yawns is cute). The idea is that we spend enough time and energy worrying about all the bad stuff (apparently something like 80% of automatic thoughts are negative!) so by investing time in noticing and being thankful for the good stuff, we build up our resilience and regain some control over our reactions.
Not a words person? Try colouring! You can buy colouring-in books and journals, simply print pages off the internet, or create your own drawings – then sit down and focus all your attention on the act of creating art. This is mindfulness in practice: engaging the senses of your body, focusing on the moment, making time. If anxiety is worry about the future or past events, then mindfulness is a solution that brings you to the present, meaning your brain has less ability to give anxiety space.
Can’t stop worrying about a particular incident? Try a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy trick – the thought record. Write down the context of the worry: what happened, where, when, with whom? Describe how you felt, and on a scale of 1-100%, how strong those feelings were. Think about facts that support how you’re thinking about that incident – remember, facts are externally verifiable evidence, NOT judgements or personal interpretations. What things might contradict the thoughts you’re having? How could you think about this incident in a different, more balanced way? Finally, rate your mood again to see whether this exercise helped. You can find a basic Thought Record Template here (PDF).
Do you lie awake at night, thinking about all the things you have to do? That sort of rumination builds anxiety up, making it more and more difficult to get to sleep! One of the best tips for dealing with it is to keep a notebook by your bed, and make lists of the things you’re worrying about. Tell yourself that once it’s written down, it’s dealt with for now. The next day, you can work through the list at your leisure. If you’re a stationery addict, there’s a huge range of day planners available to make this easy and enjoyable.
One new type of planner is the bullet journal. These have been around for several years now, and are terrific for people who are prone to writing to-do lists on every scrap of paper they have, as well as people who like beautiful stationery, arts & crafts. Bullet journalling is exactly what it sounds like – instead of writing diary-style entries, you make bullet point lists and can use symbols, grids, diagrams and all sorts of creative ways to track items. There’s a huge fanbase around bullet journalling, so if you become obsessed, there are plenty of like-minded people to share and create with. Try searching #bulletjournal on Instagram!
Okay, I hear you say, it’s 2018! Who still uses pens and paper?? Well, I have good news – there are more journalling apps for your devices than you could ever imagine. A really simple, mental health focused one is “What’s Up?” – available on both Android and iOS. Along with tools for managing your calm, coping strategies for managing your thoughts, and information on a range of mental health issues, What’s Up also has a diary section to help you log your day, habits, and more. If you’d like to try digital colouring-in, take a look at Colorfy for Android and iPhone. Both of these apps are free, but there are also paid apps with more in-depth options, if you decide that the digital life is for you!
If you’re keen to give journalling a try but don’t know where to begin, try these writing prompts:
- What made you feel joy today? What made you feel sad? What made you angry? What other emotions did you notice?
- If you had to write a letter to someone in particular, what would you say to that person?
- Describe what your anxiety would look like if it was an external object. What does it sound like? Smell like? Taste like? If you touched it, what would it feel like?
- What advice would you give your past self?
- What is your favourite memory? How does it make you feel?
- If you could paint a picture of your dream life, what would that picture look like?
- Do you have a hero? How would they deal with the life problems that you’re experiencing?
- If something bad happened today, write about how you’d encourage a friend if they had gone through it instead of you. What would you tell them about themselves? How would you build them up?
- Make a list of the people you can contact when you’re feeling down.
- Make a list of things you can do to distract yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
- What inspired you today? Write down a quote or a story that gives you hope.
Final thought – don’t censor yourself. This is your personal journal – spelling and grammar are not important. How other people will perceive you is not important. Let your emotion flow out onto the page. Promise yourself that for at least this journalling time, you will practice self-compassion and self-kindness. Remember: you are stronger and more capable than you realise.