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Journaling for Anxiety

By October 31, 2023November 14th, 2023No Comments
journal used to write about anxiety

By Kristian Bulliner, LSW, Therapist, Relief Mental Health in Orland Park, Ill.

In the 1970s, a Jungian psychologist named Ira Progoff developed a structured approach to journaling he called “the intensive journal.” Although humans have been using the written word to express themselves for thousands of years, this is the first known application of journaling in the context of psychotherapy and mental health treatment.

Progoff believed journaling could aid in the therapeutic process:

“The intensive journal process [can] draw each person’s life toward wholeness at its own tempo. It systematically evokes and strengthens the inner capacities of persons by working from a non-medical vantage point and proceeding without analytic or diagnostic categories.”

Previous research on journaling demonstrated that the act of journaling is itself beneficial because it engages people on several levels at once:

  • Body: The physical act of writing grounds/connects people to the here and now
  • Mind: Expressing/exploring feelings increases emotional literacy and enhances connection to emotions
  • Spirit: Exploring thoughts through words helps create meaning in life, which can improve overall wellbeing

In 1997, another researcher – Dr. James Pennebaker of Southern Methodist University – published a meta-analysis called “Writing About Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process” that outlines an easy-to-use version of Progoff’s intensive journaling process. After a thorough review of all the available research on journaling, Pennebaker found that when patients journaled for at least 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days, they experienced the following benefits:

  • Improved mood
  • Improved wellbeing
  • Reduced emotional distress
  • Reduced emotional reactivity

In addition, Pennebaker found studies that showed journaling had significant physical health benefits, including:

  • Improved immune function
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Reduced electrodermal activity, which is associated with emotional arousal during acutely stressful situations

Finally, Pennebaker’s work showed positive benefits that most of us would not associate with journaling:

  • High school students who journaled about emotions reported improved grades
  • Senior professionals laid off from their jobs and journaled about it found new jobs more quickly than those who didn’t journal about it
  • Employees at a major university who journaled about emotional topics showed lower rates of sick days and missing work, compared to employees who didn’t journal about emotional topics

That’s a brief summary of the evidence base for journaling: it can help improve physical health, mental health, and, according to journaling pioneer Ira Progoff, can help draw a person’s life “toward wholeness.”

Journaling for Anxiety: Six Important Things to Know

1. Overall Benefits of Journaling

There are a lot of great benefits to journaling. Journaling can help in several areas that promote healing and growth:

  • Processing thoughts and emotions
  • Coping with stressors
  • Promoting overall well-being
  • Visualizing emotions
  • Gauging treatment progress

One of the best things about journaling is that it’s different for everyone. As a medium, it’s very personal and can help people in treatment be creative in the ways they choose to express themselves. There are no rules to journaling. There’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal. Written expression gives people the space to be themselves, to be very raw, vulnerable, and open. I should add here that in journaling there may actually be one rule: honesty. When people are honest and open in their journaling, they learn new things about themselves, which can give them hope, courage, and the confidence to keep doing the work.

2. Benefits of Journaling for Anxiety

Journaling is great for individuals with anxiety, specifically, because it gives them a way to organize their thoughts and find new ways of processing life situations and stressors. Anxiety usually stems from worries and fears around different uncertainties in life. Journaling can help with these unwanted thoughts by giving people space to acknowledge what they experience and feel without judgment. In many cases, journaling gives people fresh insight, and the opportunity to discover new ways of thinking about their situation.

Keeping a journal can also be a tool for someone to track their progress over time. This can be extremely encouraging and a great reminder that they are capable of change and of how far they’ve come. For instance, a patient who’s experiencing one or two panic attacks a week may feel like that’s a lot and they should be further along. After I remind them that healing is not always linear, I ask them to go back to their journals from a year ago, when they were having 3-5 panic attacks a week or more, so they can recognize, validate, and feel pride in what they’ve accomplished.

3. What You Need to Get Started

People looking to start journaling should start simple. In the beginning, there’s no need to spend money on a fancy journal with a moleskin cover or a self-help journal filled with prompts that may or may not apply to their circumstances. A plain notebook is a great place to start. You can write freely and can build a habit or routine that works for you. For people who need more guidance, I do suggest a journal that has prompts, checklists, and daily check-ins that promote reflection. Some journals are tailored toward people with anxiety.

While these special journals – known as guided journals – are not necessary to get the benefits of journaling, they can and do help people with anxiety organize their thoughts and express themselves. For instance, if staring at a blank page increases your anxiety, then a guided journal is a great choice and can make all the difference.

4. Guided Journals: Excellent for People Who Crave Structure

The most helpful content in a journal for someone with anxiety is encouraging, empowering, structured, and simple. The purpose of journaling for anxiety is to create a safe space for processing your emotions, not to add another task to the list of a million things you already have to do. Journals that give you daily check-ins, uplifting quotes, and reminders throughout are the most helpful. But of course, everyone should find the journal that works best for them: some people do best with a blank, unlined page where they can write, draw, doodle, or put pen or pencil to paper and express themselves in whatever way feels right in the moment. People experience anxiety differently, so finding what would be the most beneficial for you is the key.

5. Finding the Right Journal for You

While there aren’t any specific journals I would avoid, I would say discover what you’re hoping to gain from journaling. If your goal for journaling is to write about your day or to vent, getting a journal that only has prompts or guided questions may not be the best option for you. Something simple with free, open space to write about what you desire would be a better option.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who feels anxious by not having structure because there are too many options, I suppose those journals could trigger anxiety. People with anxiety have a very deep understanding of the old phrase the tyranny of choice. Therefore, finding a journal that has prompts and guided questions will probably be a better option than a blank journal. But that can change over time, as well. As you learn to manage your anxiety symptoms, you can then try different types of journals to see if you can manage those triggers.

In that way, making the switch from a journal with prompts to a blank journal may be a sign of treatment progress – but if a patient is journaling successfully with prompts, I follow their lead, and avoid pressuring them to change what already works well.

6. Journals I Recommend for People with Anxiety

I love this journal. It’s perfect for people with anxiety who want a guided journaling experience:

Anxiety Journal: Daily Check-In: 60 Days of Reflection Space to Track, Understand, and Manage Your Anxiety

I enjoy this journal because it’s well-structured and organized perfectly for people with anxiety who need help getting started journaling. It’s a 60-day guide that explains what anxiety is, the symptoms, and practices for how to manage anxiety. It gives you the opportunity to become aware of what you’re experiencing every day. It has space to track your symptoms, thoughts, feelings and somatic experiences.

I also think this one is great:

Start With Gratitude: Daily Gratitude Journal

This guided gratitude journal can be a helpful tool to help someone shift their thoughts from negative to positive by helping to practice mindfulness of what is already present in their lives. While the phrase is somewhat cliché, developing an attitude of gratitude is incredibly helpful and powerful for people with anxiety. Identifying and journaling about things for which they’re grateful helps people get out of their own head, gives them perspective, and helps them recognize the positive things in their lives rather than ruminating on the negative, which is a common symptom of anxiety.

For individuals who don’t need an organized, guided journal with structured daily prompts, I suggest something like this one from Amazon:

Black Journaling Notebook

This is a plain journal that you can use for free writing. This gives you autonomy over your journaling journey with no rules or requirements. You can find a journal that is as simple as this one, with an inspiring quote, or your favorite animal, or whatever your heart desires. You can also go even simpler than this one: a journal without lines that’s a genuine tabula rasa upon which you can record your thoughts and feelings with no rules and no restrictions whatsoever.

Final Thoughts: Journaling for Yourself

Journaling is a multifaceted tool you can adapt to meet your needs. You can use it in a variety of ways to improve various aspects of your mental and physical health. It’s possible to use journaling the way you (may have) used a diary when you were young – as a way to work through your thoughts and feelings on the important events in your life. You can also use journals to keep track of your progress on things like hobbies and personal pursuits, too: amateur athletes keep training journals, visual artists keep artists’ journals, and many musicians keep practice logs with ideas and insights about the material they’re working on.

To manage your anxiety, you can record what works and doesn’t work to help you manage your symptoms. You can write down ideas and insights about your anxiety, your treatment journey, and anything helpful you think you might forget.

When you journal for your anxiety, you journal for yourself. Think of journaling as telling the story of yourself, to yourself – and use it to help you grow and thrive in the seasons and years to come.

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