Journal writing is one of several self-help techniques that those with anxiety can use to manage their symptoms, including worries, negative thoughts, and compulsions. It’s a simple technique but one that has been through consistent research and has a profound positive impact on the lives of those struggling with all types of anxiety disorders.
Whether you have an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety or social anxiety, or you experience mild anxiety from time to time but still want to address it, journaling is for you. Most people have experienced a greater degree of anxiety in recent years, so whether or not you have an anxiety disorder, you may already know just how confused and uncomfortable anxiety can make you feel.
In this article, we’ll dive deeper into what journaling for anxiety is, the benefits it offers, and how you can start this mindful approach to healing and recovery from today to help you manage anxiety and prevent it from negatively impacting your life.
What is journaling? And how does it promote better mental health?
Journaling is the practice of writing consistently over a period of time to express oneself freely and gain personal insight. As an adult, you might be averse to the idea of journaling because you associate it with the preconceived image of ‘keeping a diary’ and consider such behavior exclusively for adolescents. For your own sake, let go of all preconceptions you have about journaling and begin afresh. This is a healthy and adaptive coping method for various mental health issues and can offer profound and lasting benefits for those who practice it consistently.
Mental health benefits of journaling
Journaling benefits all of us, whether we have mental health concerns or not. It’s a great way to get your thoughts, feelings, ideas, and inner voices on paper, from which place you get to look at them more objectively than if they remained inside.
Also known as reflective writing, this practice can help you develop the self-awareness and insight to not only manage mental health symptoms but prevent issues from coming on in the first place. Through writing and reflecting, you might observe patterns of thought and behavior that show you where you’re stuck or what you’ve been heavily focused on. It also helps you broaden your perspective and improves your decision-making skills.
In the context of mental health issues and particularly depressive and anxious feelings, journaling can offer significant insight. Through consistent practice and mindful reflection of what you’ve written, you can come to a clearer understanding of your anxiety triggers, complex and hard-to-articulate emotions and feelings, deep fears and worries, and your own unique perspectives – all of which can shed light on how to move forward and approach your anxiety in a healthy way.
Research shows that journaling offers a broad range of both mental and physical health benefits, including but not limited to:
- Improved stress management
- Increased self-awareness and insight
- Emotional release
- Improved mood
- Improved working memory
- Stronger immune system
- Improved intra- and interpersonal relationships
- Improved decision making
A study published in the academic journal JMIR Mental Health reports that a specific type of journaling known as positive-affect journaling (PAJ) led to reduced symptoms and severity and improved overall mental health in participants. According to the researchers, ‘PAJ was associated with decreased mental distress and increased well-being relative to baseline. PAJ was also associated with less depressive symptoms and anxiety after one month and greater resilience after the first and second month, relative to usual care.’
Later in the article, we’ll further explore PAJ along with other types of journaling that can help you manage stress, challenge negative thoughts, and improve your overall quality of life.
How does journaling work?
Journaling for anxiety is about a lot more than simply putting pen to paper. There are neurological mechanisms at play when you engage in expressive writing that not only offer relief from anxiety symptoms but also help you forge healthier neural connections in the brain. By engaging the task-based analytical left hemisphere of the brain, while simultaneously engaging the creative right side of the brain, you increase activity in the prefrontal lobe, the area of the brain that can rationalize and help us understand that we are safe.
How to start journaling for anxiety
Don’t filter yourself
In day-to-day life, many of us apply a filter or censor to what we say and how we express ourselves. This is particularly the case for those of us struggling with anxiety and its associated fear of judgment or shame.
Honesty and authenticity are key to effective journal writing. Remember that your journal is for you and you and you alone. You don’t have to show or justify its contents to anyone. This is a space for you to express your unfiltered authentic self. By practicing uninhibited self-expression, you give yourself a chance to develop profound insight into your thoughts, feelings, desires, and motivation, fears, and joys.
Write down your stream of consciousness
Among journaling’s many benefits is its ability to shed light on your deepest thoughts and feelings, those of which you may not have been entirely aware of previously. Many people are reluctant to begin or feel lost about what to write about, but you don’t need to write about anything specific to reap the benefits. To begin with, simply put pen to paper and start writing down whatever surfaces in your mind. It doesn’t need to be coherent or readable – just keep writing about anything and everything that comes up. It might feel strange at first, but this practice will help loosen up your mind, and you may notice that within a few minutes, your writing will flow more naturally.
If you’re stuck on what to write about, use journal prompts. These are questions and ideas that give you a starting point from which to begin writing. Examples of prompts for journaling regarding anxious feelings include:
- The last time I felt anxious, what made me feel safe and calm again?
- A compassionate letter to my mind
- A compassionate letter to my body
- Things I’m grateful for
- Give your inner critic a voice, then challenge it
- What are my strengths?
Consistency is key to success. That’s true in your personal life and in business as much as it is in journaling and other anxiety and stress management techniques. Find time every day, or at least one to two times a week, to write freely in your journal, and add a few minutes to reflect on what you’ve written.
If you’re just getting started with journaling, you don’t need to write for hours at a time. Begin with five to ten minutes a day of uninhibited self-expression. The more you write, the more you’ll like to begin to enjoy the process, and the easier it will become to spend more time on it. You might find that you soon start to enter a natural flow state and even find yourself writing for 20 to 30 minutes at a time.
There is no right or wrong way to journal, so don’t pressure yourself to write a masterpiece. Again, your journal is for you and you alone, so whether you write in five minutes or fifty minutes is up to you and what you need from that experience.
Focus on gratitude
Journaling is for you only, which means you can write about whatever you wish. Still, it helps to be mindful of the content of your journal. You might be tempted to write endlessly about your fears, insecurities, and all the reasons why you feel anxious, but it’s wise to do so in moderation.
Getting your negative thoughts out most certainly helps, but studies have found that journaling with a more positive orientation – known as positive affect journaling – can have a significantly greater effect on mood and sense of well-being than negative affect journaling.
In the study, one set of participants were asked to journal exclusively about stressful events and trouble experienced during the week, while another set was asked to write about positive experiences and moments of gratitude.
Other self-help techniques for anxiety
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions worldwide and causes significant distress and deterioration of mental and physical and health in those affected. Fortunately, great strides have been made in the field of anxiety treatment in recent decades. A wealth of anxiety treatments are available and have consistently been proven effective in symptoms reduction and management.
Some of the most effective treatments include psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and exposure therapy. In clients with PTSD, EMDR has been found to be highly effective. In addition to therapy, several prescription medications are available for those suffering, such as benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Professional treatment can go a long way in helping those suffering from anxiety, but in addition, most practitioners recommend the application of positive psychology self-help techniques such as creative expression, grounding techniques, and mind-body approaches. Journaling is one of the most effective self-help techniques for anxiety, but others that have also been proven effective include:
- Deep breathing
- Yoga, tai chi
- Mindfulness techniques
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Dietary changes
- Regular exercise
Journaling is an evidence-based tool for effective anxiety management. If you’ve never journaled before and you’re not sure where to begin, follow the advice above. The process might feel strange at first, especially if you find yourself struggling to think of something to write, but have patience with it.
Remember that there’s absolutely no pressure to write anything and that whatever you do write needs no judgment or critique. A journal is a safe space to process your thoughts and move forward on your healing journey.
Remember that as much as journaling can help, it’s important to reach out to a therapist or counselor if your anxiety has become too much to cope with. Effective, evidence-based treatments are available and have given many people a chance to overcome their anxiety.