Therapeutic Journaling: A Guide to Overcoming Anxiety in Uncertain Times
It seems like life as you know it has changed overnight. One day, you were going to work, restaurants, movies, and more. Now, you are sheltering in place, wondering if you or your loved one will develop COVID-19 symptoms. Your anxiety likely spikes when you do venture out to the grocery store, where you’re greeted with empty shelves and people wearing masks trying to stay the mandated six feet apart.
If you are feeling anxious, you are far from alone. The World Health Organization stated that the pandemic is causing stress throughout the world’s population (World Health Organization, 2020). Also, experts such as psychotherapist Kathryn Kinmond say that it makes sense that anxiety increases during a pandemic. The pandemic creates uncertainty, which makes people anxious (Sherwood, 2020).
You might feel like you are stuck in this storm of anxiety, but you can overcome it. Therapeutic journaling can help you gain control over the emotions you feel right now and overcome them (University of Rochester Medical Center , n.d.). Let’s look at how journaling can help you overcome your anxiety. Then, we’ll go over some tips so you can begin the process. It won’t be long before you’re ready to dive in and start journaling your way to better mental health.
How Journaling Alleviates Anxiety
Researchers have spent years studying therapeutic journaling’s impact on mental health, and the results are stunning. Study after study shows that therapeutic journaling has a positive impact on mental health. That includes anxiety, even when it’s the result of a pandemic.
As the chair of the psychology department of the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. James W. Pennebaker specializes in natural language and social behavior. He conducted a study that consisted of 46 healthy college students (Harvard Health Publishing, n.d.). The students were divided up, with half writing about trivial topics and the other half writing about traumatic life events. The students did this four days in a row for 15 minutes a session. Pennebaker followed the students for six months and discovered that those who wrote about traumatic events enjoyed benefits the other group did not. These students paid fewer visits to the campus health center, leading people to believe the writing had an impact on anxiety and other mental health symptoms. On a side note, the students who wrote about traumatic events also used pain relievers less often. Mental health problems can create psychosomatic symptoms. By dealing with the problem, mental health issues are less likely to manifest into physical problems.
Researchers have also discovered that expressive writing, or journaling, benefits caregivers who are chronically stressed and anxious test takers. These are just a few of the groups that have benefited from therapeutic journaling.
You probably wonder why this works. Researchers have found several ways that journaling benefits mental health (Maud Purcell, 2018). First, journaling allows you to clarify your thoughts and feelings. When you feel anxious, you often have lots of thoughts rushing through your head. Right now, the thoughts might be the increase in COVID-19 cases, the low stock at the grocery store, and the shelter in place orders you’re dealing with. That’s a lot to think about at once, and journaling gives you the chance to unpack everything.
Journaling also helps you release the intensity of the emotions you feel. When you put your anxiety into words, the emotion loses some of its power. Over time, you will find yourself feeling less and less anxious as you continue to journal. In fact, journaling has been found to reduce avoidant and intrusive thoughts that can overcome you when you’re anxious (CARPENTER, 2001).
Journaling also helps you solve problems and disagreements more effectively. When you’re anxious, it’s normal to take it out on others. Often, people take negative emotions out on the people who are closest to them. By journaling, you can solve the problems and emotions without getting into disagreements with the people you love. This will make your home and social life much more harmonious.
Finally, journaling helps you understand your thoughts. When you’re anxious, you often think things without even realizing it. This can lead to more anxiety that you are unable to pinpoint. Journaling helps you identify the thoughts that you didn’t even realize you were having, thus relieving some of the anxiety (Markway, 2014).
Let’s look at how this works.
Assume you walk into the grocery store and instantly feel anxious. Your heart starts racing and you notice a thin sweat appearing on your forehead. Your hands tremble and you quickly run to get your items, make it through the checkout, and finally end up in the safety of your vehicle.
You aren’t sure what made you so anxious, but you are relieved to get out of the grocery store and instantly dread the idea of having to go again. The thought of returning produces even more anxiety than the last visit did. That fear of the unknown begins to take over, and you decide to spend all your time at home, going without important supplies.
With a journal, you can unpack those thoughts that made you so anxious. You might not have consciously thought about them at the time, but with some journaling, you will identify them.
You might realize you thought things like:
- People are wearing masks. It feels like we are going through a plague. I don’t want to get sick. If I get sick, I could die.
- The shelves are empty. People are panic buying, and there won’t be enough for me. I need to hoard supplies, too, or I won’t have anything.
- Is that person coughing sick? Does he just have a cold, or is it something worse? How can I clean off the germs?
When you actually look at the statements that are running through your head, you can evaluate their merit and think of ways you can control what seems uncontrollable. You can also learn to reframe your statements.
For instance, it’s normal to feel frightened when you see people wearing masks. It does seem like something out of a movie instead of real life, and it can be frightening. However, you can reframe, so you say, “People are wearing masks so they don’t risk spreading the infection to others. I’m thankful that they are doing their part to prevent the spread, and I will do the same. If we all do this, we can lower the risk for everyone. This is the best way to stay healthy and safe.”
If your thoughts go to the empty shelves, you can reframe it to, “Some people are afraid and are hoarding supplies. I’m thankful that I have ample supplies on hand and for the deliveries that the stores are getting. Grocery stores have increased their deliveries to ensure that we all have enough, even with the hoarding. I will not run out of supplies. I do not need a month’s worth of supplies to stay safe.”
The coughing customer might be the most frightening of all, but you can still reframe it. Take your power back by thinking, “I will wear a mask and wash my hands when I get home. I am doing everything in my power to protect myself. I cannot make people with coughs stay at home, but I can limit my time outside and follow proper hygiene protocols at all times.”
These are just a few ways journaling can help you turn negative thoughts into something manageable. When you restore your power, you’ll be able to handle different situations that arise.
Journal Prompts for Managing Anxiety
If you are new to journaling, the idea of typing out your feelings can seem overwhelming. Where should you begin? The great thing about journaling is there isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. No one has to see it unless you want them to, so don’t hold back.
Still, you might need some help getting started, so you can use journaling prompts. These prompts are designed to get you to open up about what you’re feeling so you can get the ball rolling. The New York Times publishes a new writing prompt every day, and many are related to the pandemic (New York Times The Learning Network , n.d.). You can scroll through the prompts to see ideas.
If you don’t feel like looking for updates on the list, you can use some common coronavirus-related writing prompts. (Proulx, 2020). For instance, answer the question of how the pandemic has disrupted your life. Think about the thing you are missing out on, such as your social plans or vacations. Use that a springboard to write. You easily write for the allotted time about this topic alone.
You can also write about the impact the pandemic has had on your emotional and mental health. This is an excellent prompt for managing your anxiety. It will get you to really think about how your emotional state has changed in the last few months.
Another option is to write about the changes that are occurring in the world around you. These don’t have to be major changes, but they can be. You can write about seeing people wearing masks or businesses closing. You can even talk about the grocery shortages and how you’re limited to one pack of toilet paper. Simply think about everything you that see, and then get to writing.
Your anxiety might not be related to the current pandemic. There are some general writing prompts you can use when writing about anxiety (Sharon Martin, 2018). You can write about what you feel anxious about right now. What is making your pulse race or invading your thoughts?
You can also write a general post about what people or situations are stressful for you. Then, go a step further and ask yourself what parts of these situations lead to your anxiety.
Other ideas include:
- Coping strategies that you’ve used to deal with anxiety in the past.
- The likelihood of the anxiety-producing situation happening.
- How to turn your anxiety into something helpful.
You can also use writing prompts to help you focus on the positive. Spend some time writing about the positive things that happened during the day or some strengths that you have. You’ll find that writing about the positive can help you feel better overall.
Journal Exercises — Another Way to Write
You can also use journal exercises to get the ball rolling. These are similar to prompts, but some people prefer them due to the simplicity. With a journaling exercise, you know exactly what to do every step of the way.
If you want to manage your emotions, follow tips provided by clinical psychologist Beth Jacobs, Ph.D. Her journal exercises for defining and distancing yourself from emotions are spot on. (Tartakovsky, 2018)
If you use these exercises, you will find yourself in control of your emotions. Remember, exercises don’t always work immediately. You might have to do them several times to see progress, but it’s well worth it.
Journal Exercises for Defining Emotions
Jacobs states that naming a feeling encloses it so it can no longer enclose you. When you define emotions, you understand what they are and the power they have. Then, you win the power struggle. You might think you are already aware of your emotions, but you will be surprised by what you discover when you follow Jacobs’ recommendations.
Jacobs recommends two different exercises for defining emotions. First, think of a feeling you are currently experiencing. Then, think of everything that is attached to the feeling. Think of the sensory and physical experiences that come with the feeling. You should also think of the thoughts you have.
Let’s look at how this exercise works. Assume you are feeling anxious. Anxiety can cause sensory overload. Think of those experiences. Are noises louder right now? Are voices racing through your mind? You also experience some physical sensations. These sensations could be a racing heartbeat and sweaty palms. Finally, think of your thought processes. Do you have invasive, constant thoughts that don’t go away? Write them down.
The next exercise has you dig a little bit deeper. You will define different emotions by answering some questions. Let’s go with anxiety again this time. If your anxiety were a color, what would it be? Would it be black? Maybe red? Only you know the answer to the question.
Next, think of anxiety as the weather. What would the forecast look like? Would it be rainy? Would the forecaster warm of storms? Again, there is not a right or wrong answer.
What type of landscape would anxiety be? Maybe it would be rugged, with jagged cliffs. It could be a mountain path, or there could be divots up ahead. Close your eyes and picture the landscape before writing it down.
If anxiety were music, what would it sound like? Or what if it were an object? What object would it be?
This exercise might seem silly, but you’ll be surprised by the results. It will make you more aware of your emotions and their impact on you. Then, you can start to overcome them.
Journaling Exercises for Distancing from Emotions
Do you feel anxious right now? If so, you probably have a hard time understanding it. That is normal, according to Jacobs. She says it’s hard to understand something when you’re in the middle of it. You have to step back to get perspective and then you’ll understand it. Time and perspective allow you to gain distance from your emotions and see things in a different light. Your emotions are still there, but they are not as raw. When you get good at distancing yourself from your emotions, you’ll eventually be able to pull yourself out of an anxious spot. You’ll realize that emotions don’t last forever. Then, you will get your power back.
So, how do you accomplish this with journaling? You need to create an emotional anchor. This anchor will remind you that you will come out on the other side when you experience a negative emotion. Then, you can use the anchor as a reference point whenever you are feeling exceptionally anxious. You can take that anchor out to remind yourself that emotions are fleeting.
Start by writing about something that made you happy in the past. Talk about how you experienced a good feeling. How did it make you feel? Where were you when you felt this? What sensory experiences were attached? What activities were you doing? Write about the weather, people, and anything else you can remember about the situation. Then, write that while you won’t have that same experience again, you will feel that way again. Happiness isn’t elusive. You will have another great experience.
Then, pause your journal writing to think about how you feel when you’re overwhelmed. You might feel a little stressed when you think about that, but then go back to your journal and read what you just wrote. Do this over again until you create the anchor. Over time, your brain will create a pathway that reminds you that when you’re stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious, you will find your way to happiness. Emotions do not last forever, no matter if they are positive or negative.
You can further distance yourself from your emotions by going through a second exercise. This exercise is meant to show you that there are lots of possible reactions to situations. Just because a situation makes you feel anxiety or another emotion, it doesn’t have to be that way. You have the power to look at situations differently and change your emotional response. It does take work, but through journaling, you can accomplish it.
For this exercise, start a new journal entry and write the names of three people. The first person should be someone who knows you really well, such as a significant other, parent, or best friend. Second, write the name of an acquaintance. Third, you need to write the name of someone who you don’t feel comfortable around. This could be a boss, someone you don’t get along with well at work, or even a family member. The key is that you don’t share a level of comfort with this person.
Now, it’s time for the fun part. Under each person’s name, write about the same major life event. Each time, you need to get in that person’s shoes and write from his or her perspective.
For this instance, you could write about something that’s making you anxious right now, such as sheltering in place. Think about how each person would react and write it down. Then, read it back. If you put yourself in these people’s shoes, the experience will be different for each person.
That means that everyone can experience the same thing and see it differently. Everyone can have a different emotional response, and you can, too. You don’t have to live with anxiety, even during a pandemic.
The Therapeutic Journaling Process
Even with writing prompts and exercises, you might wonder how to go about therapeutic journaling. If you’ve never done this before, the very thought of starting could cause anxiety. You can alleviate that anxiety by following a simple process for therapeutic journaling. You’ll quickly realize this isn’t very complicated. It’s straightforward and simple and provides lots of benefits.
Find a Quiet, Private Place
You don’t want any distractions while journaling, so find a quiet and private place. If you have an office in your house, that’s a great spot for journaling. If not, find someplace where you won’t have any distractions. Turn off the television so you won’t be distracted, and sit in front of your computer. Also, put your phone on silent. Even a quiet notification could cause you to go off track.
Choose a Topic or Exercise
If you already have a topic in mind, you can use it. However, if you don’t have one, use a writing prompt or exercise. Search the writing prompts and exercises, looking for something that interests you. You need to choose a single topic for each time you journal.
Set a Timer
You don’t want to write too long, or you will end up ruminating instead of letting go of your problems. Since rumination is similar to depression and anxiety, this will actually hurt instead of helping you. Pennebaker recommends writing about a topic for 15 to 20 minutes three to four days in a row (Phelan, 2018). This is the ideal amount of time you should dedicate to a problem. When the timer goes off, you should stop what you’re doing, even if you’re in the middle of a sentence.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to journal after three or four days. However, you should write about something different. For example, if you’re nervous about grocery stores, you can write about that for three for four days. Then, set that aside and move onto a new topic.
What happens if you miss a day? Go back to your journal as soon as you can. Research has found that writing for consecutive days is more effective than breaking sessions up over the course of several weeks (VHA Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, n.d.).
You should write for the entire time that you set aside for the project. Let the words spill out as quickly as they can, without worrying about spelling or grammar mistakes. If you can’t think of anything else to say, go back over what you’ve already written and think of new ways to say it. The idea is to spend the entire 15-20 minutes journaling.
Write for Yourself
Amelia Nierenberg wrote an in-depth piece in the New York Times detailing the current journaling movement. Titled “The Quarantine Diaries,” this piece gives insight into how journaling helps people sort through emotions during times of despair (Nierenberg, 2020). The journalist interviewed Ady, an 8-year-old who lives in San Francisco. Ady said something very poignant in the article. She’s quoted as saying, “You can say anything you want, no matter what, and nobody can judge you.”
That’s what’s so amazing about journaling. You have the chance to pour out your heart and empty your mind of all your thoughts because you are only writing for yourself. Ady learned this lesson earlier than most, but it’s never too late to embrace that belief that journaling should be for your eyes only. You will be amazed by how much more expressive you are when you are the only person who will see what you write.
Write About What You Can Handle
Anxiety can be overwhelming. There are lots of moving parts, and some of your anxiety might stem from issues you cannot currently handle. It’s OK if you can’t write about everything right now. Begin with what you are capable of handling. Over time, you will discover that you’re ready to tackle some bigger issues. However, don’t move to those bigger issues too soon. This is a process. If you find yourself pushing ahead too quickly, take a step back and reassess.
Reread What You Write
When you finish writing your journal for the day, you can step away. The next day, though, read the previous day’s entry before writing some more. This can actually help you alleviate your anxiety.
When you read through your journal, look for cognitive distortions that might be fueling your anxiety. A cognitive distortion is an irrational or exaggerated thought and can produce anxiety. Essentially, cognitive distortions cause you to believe things that aren’t true. This can lead to anxiety. There are lots of possible cognitive distortions out there, but some are the most common for people who suffer from anxiety. Referred to as “anxiety mind traps,” you need to check your writing for these distortions (Foran, 2019). This is a critical step in overcoming anxiety.
Catastrophizing is one of the most anxiety-producing cognitive distortions, and it is also incredibly common during times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. This refers to jumping to the worst possible conclusion whenever confronted with a situation.
For example, with the COVID-19 pandemic, you might automatically think, “I’m going to get sick and die,” or “The country is going to be shut down forever.” These thoughts produce a great deal of anxiety, so if you notice yourself catastrophizing in your writing, it’s time to overcome that. Keep in mind that the worst-case scenario rarely happens.
If you have anxiety, you likely suffer from personalization from time to time. This happens when you think that everything people say or do is a reaction to you. For example, if a friend is in a bad mood, you might think it’s because of the last time the two of you talked on the phone, even though it’s because she is laid off from her job. Understand that most people aren’t open books. They have lots going on that doesn’t have anything to do with you. While this is always true, it’s even more so now due to the pandemic. People are more stressed than normal, so watch out if you’re prone to taking things personally. That will add to your anxiety.
Filtering is extremely common during a pandemic. This is the process of magnifying the negative details of a situation while removing the positive ones. For example, you might focus solely on the number of people who are dying of COVID-19 without giving any consideration to all of those who have recovered. Filtering makes it impossible to view situations objectively, which means you will continue to feel anxious.
Black-or-white thinking is also common for people who suffer from anxiety. Look for examples of you taking an all-or-nothing approach in your writing. Are things either-or, or only good or bad? If so, you are ignoring the complexity of the situation and that fuels your anxiety.
If you have anxiety, you might suffer from overgeneralization. This occurs if you take a single piece of evidence or one incident and come to a general conclusion based on it. You think that once something bad happens, it will continue to happen. An example of this would be you have a poor review at work one time, so you assume that you will never live up to your boss’s expectations, so you should just quit your job. Remember, there’s a reason that scientists test theories repeatedly. One incident or action doesn’t mean that it will be repeated.
How to Challenge Cognitive Distortions Through Journaling
After you identify cognitive distortions, it’s time to challenge them. This is necessary if you’re going to overcome this way of thinking and manage your anxiety. Fortunately, you can challenge them using a tool that’s already at your disposal — journaling.
Begin by writing down the thought you had that led to the distortion. List your feelings and then write the distortion. Finally, write a rational response to the line of thinking. You will have to do some brainstorming, but when you look at it objectively, you will realize that cognitive distortions aren’t rational and will fall apart.
Don’t be surprised if you have to challenge your cognitive distortions repeatedly when journaling. This way of thinking becomes a habit, and habits take time to break. However, if you go back to your journal over and over, eventually, you will create new habits and thought patterns. Then, it will be easier to manage your anxiety, even during times of crisis.
What to Expect After Journaling
Some people feel instant relief after journaling. For them, it’s like they let those emotions go, never to encounter them again. That doesn’t always happen, though. It is possible to feel just a little worse after journaling when you first start. Sometimes, journaling causes some emotions to come to the surface, and that can make you feel a bit more emotional. Fortunately, this does not last very long. For most people, the extra emotions are gone within the hour and they start to feel better. You should notice improvements shortly after you start journaling.
Mistakes to Avoid When Journaling
It’s easy to do therapeutic journaling the correct way. That’s because there aren’t any hard and fast rules. It’s about expressing what you feel, and as long as you do that, you’re on the right track. Still, there are a few possible mistakes you should consider. These mistakes could derail the process. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid these mistakes. Just know what they are, and then you can avoid them without any problems.
You want to overcome your anxiety, which means you need to let your emotions out. If you ruminate on your emotions, you will have a difficult time. Remember to only spend a maximum of four days journaling about any given topic. Also, don’t write for longer than 20 minutes at a time.
Trying to Make It Perfect
The quote, “Perfectionism is the enemy of progress,” is attributed to Winston Churchill. While Churchill likely didn’t have a journal in his hand when he said that, it is still a good quote to think of when journaling. If you try to make your journal entries perfect, you will fail to benefit from them. You won’t be able to unload your emotions because you will be stuck editing them. Instead of going for perfection, shoot for progress.
Throwing Out Old Journals
You know that you need to read your journal entries the following day. You might think you should throw your entries out after you reread them. However, hanging onto your old journal entries can actually be beneficial. You will notice progress in the pages. That progress can help you the next time you deal with anxiety. Keep those journal entries on hand, so you can read them when needed. You’ll be glad you did.
Thinking You Have to Buy a Notebook Journal
There’s a misconception that journaling is more effective when you write by hand as opposed to using a computer or a mobile device. This is based on an obscure study that says people who write by hand retain more information than those who use a keyboard. While more research needs to be done to see if that’s true, it’s not relevant regarding journaling. You aren’t trying to retain information while journaling. Instead, you’re trying to dive into your emotional state, let out your emotions, and feel better. You can do this on any medium that feels comfortable, including a computer (Occhiogrosso, 2015).
Take Action — Start Therapeutic Journaling
There are lots of steps to follow when journaling to alleviate anxiety, but one is more important than the rest.
This is also the most difficult for some people. If you fall into that group, you think about journaling. You read about the benefits and discover the steps you need to take.
You create a mental game plan, sign up for a service, and get ready to go.
But then, you just wait. You’ll have more time tomorrow.
This stress is sure to go away. You’ll see what happens next week.
You planned to do it, but then the phone rang. You have to answer that call.
It’s easy to put things off, but that won’t benefit you. Instead, if you keep putting it off, you will feel guilty, and that guilt can fuel your anxiety even further.
While it’s easy to put it off, it’s also easy to put in the time. You only need to write for a maximum of 20 minutes a day. If you can’t spare that much time, start with five minutes and work your way up.
Get started so you can begin to handle your emotions. This is a stressful time, but you can let go of your anxiety and regain control by journaling. Start today and follow through. Over time, it will become a habit. Not only that, but you will begin to look forward to it. You will be excited once you start reaping the benefits.
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