Anxious thoughts can be overwhelming, confusing, and honestly – a real jumbled-up mess. Sometimes anxiety feels like a big ball of yarn all tangled up and every time you reach for the end in an effort to identify and navigate the thought process, it slips out of reach and makes the tangle yet more complicated.
One easy way to learn and unpack our anxious thoughts is to write them down on paper. Oftentimes, writing things out will uncover thoughts that you didn’t realize you had swirling around up there, and reviewing your writing over time can help you identify thought patterns, repeated self-talk, or common sources of stress or anxiety. Once you can do this, you can begin practicing coping skills which can be effective in managing or relieving anxiety all on your own.
There are several different styles of journaling for anxiety. All are effective, but one will probably work best for your personality. Don’t overthink it – just dive in. Start today – you might be surprised at how simple and effective journaling for anxiety can be.
This style of writing involves simply setting a timer, grabbing a pen and paper, and writing whatever comes to mind. Write quickly, don’t think about it much, and don’t worry if you get stuck on a word or phrase, just keep writing it out until your brain unsticks. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. This style of journaling is supposed to be messy – it’s a close reflection of what’s going on in your mind.
After you are done (go for 5-10 minutes – long enough to get everything out but not so long that you start ruminating), reread your entry. Look for insights that you didn’t notice before – maybe even add a sentence or two at the end to summarize what you learned. You will probably be surprised at how enlightening this can be.
If you thrive on structure or need a prompt to get you started, try prompted journaling. This style of writing helps you get started by giving a topic or question for you to reflect on. Don’t worry about sticking to the prompt the entire time you are journaling – use it as a jumping-off point and let your brain take it from there.
You can use a different prompt each time you journal depending on what ideas or questions feel inspirational to you, or you can pick one idea and write about that each day. This may help you to track your thoughts and emotions as they change over time. If you are working with a therapist, it might be helpful to ask them for some journal prompt ideas that might help you continue the work you do in therapy with this practice. Finally, there are lots of journals with built-in prompts out there you can purchase if you want a more structured approach. There is no wrong way!
10 ideas for prompted journaling:
For an even more structured approach, try a thought diary, like this one. Or create your own by making headings at the top of the notebook page: 1)Situation 2)Thoughts/What am I telling myself? 3)How anxious do I feel on a scale from 1-10?
Write whenever you feel anxiety coming on and don’t forget to write the date on each entry. Try to pinpoint the moment the anxious feelings began so you can identify the ‘situation’ as accurately as possible. If you aren’t sure what to write in any of the columns, write out a couple of possibilities, “I’m not sure what my thoughts are but I wonder if it has to do with…” The goal is to begin to notice patterns in thoughts and anxiety triggers, and sometimes those thoughts don’t become clear until you look back on them later.
The more you document, the better you will get at identifying patterns and learning how to cope with or avoid anxiety triggers. When you gain consciousness of your thoughts, you gain the power to change them.
While journaling for anxiety is incredibly helpful, for some people it is more effective when paired with counseling. If you are dealing with severe anxiety or an anxiety disorder, we encourage you to seek anxiety counseling with one of our professional counselors.
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