At least half my life I’ve suffered from some kind of anxiety, meaning I’ve had a lot of time to experiment with journaling as an anxiety management tool. Some ways of journaling I return to over and over again because they’re simple, bare-bones and don’t involve forcing myself to follow prompt lists. (Which I’m horrendously bad at doing.)
I present to you my favourite journaling exercises for anxiety:
Picture the best thing ever
What would an ideal day or scenario look like for you? Try to imagine all the sensations involved: For me it’s the smell of coffee and steam swirling up from the mug, crisp autumn air, a light and free feeling in my mind and body, the clacking sound and feel of typing on a keyboard, my cat purring, a warm, crackling fireplace… I could go on.
Doing this helps me focus on something other than the ten million Super Important Worries™ swirling around in my mind, and I suspect it gets my subconscious thinking about how to get closer to those sensations.
Let loose the cannons
Get it all out: The worries, the problems, the anxieties. Make it a list if that helps. I sometimes do this when things just feel so. much. I write until I honestly can’t think of more stuff in my life to be anxious about, at which point I usually feel a little lighter. Writing anxieties down like this helps me put some of them into perspective. ALL of this stuff is not going to happen. Some of it is insane. Most of it I’d probably be able to handle in some way, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now.
If you feel up to it, find a pen and circle things you have actual control over. Which changes could you make to better the situation? For me this sometimes leads to searching for helpful books or articles or videos because I realise I’ve been having the same limiting thoughts over and over again. It’s an amazing feeling to realise you assumed you were powerless over [insert problem] and then discovering you’re everything but. Pick one thing at a time, though. Or two if they’re small. Trying to make too many changes quickly gets overwhelming.
Related tip: Setting a time to worry each day helped me through a tough time once. Any time I caught myself anxiously worrying, I’d promise myself I could worry about it during the worry time I’d set later in the day. I have no idea how this works, but it does. I still do it from time to time. Usually I never end up using the worry time at all, because once I mentally “zoom out” like that, it never seems worth it.
Write down today’s good things
Anything goes! Ideas:
- Any good thing(s) you did for yourself or others, no matter how small it may seem to you (I love this one because it forces me to see that I don’t “sit around doing nothing all day”.)
- Nice things someone did for you or said to you
- Things that felt good, like your feet brushing against a soft rug or the sun warming your face
- Steps you took towards a goal
- Something beautiful you saw
- Something that interested you and why
- Good food you ate
- Fun you had with someone or something
Doing this practically forces your brain to perceive life a little differently. You can’t think only anxious thoughts when you’re using your attention to look for all the good things in your life. That’s why this is a great thing to do daily – but not in such great detail that it turns into a chore. Pick a number of things to write down each day (3-5 is most common), and only write more when you want to.
I took this is Sweden once. The sky always makes me a little happier…
Get excited about a goal
This one can be so powerful if done right. Depending on how bad I feel, I’ll either make a) a ridiculously small goal and try my hardest to celebrate once I accomplish it, or b) work out a bigger goal to benefit my life at large. One time, it was weight loss. (Nailed it!) Now, it’s running a blog. (Trying it!)
Choosing a goal can be so strengthening for your self-esteem and self-confidence when you see yourself working towards it. Start with writing it down, and work out the rest from there. Three things are particularly important when doing this:
- The goal needs to be realistic
- The goal needs to be specific (i.e. “Lose 10 kgs” instead of “Become thin”)
- The goal needs to be broken down into actionable steps (For instance, “Make a healthy meal plan each week”, “Go running two times a week”, etc.)
Lots of resources will give you detailed information about how to be smart about goal setting, so I won’t get deeper into it now. (Here’s an example of a guide if you’re curious.) Just know that working towards a goal, any achievable goal, is so powerful for your mind!
Yep, seriously. It’s not writing, but it’s damn relaxing, and you can do it in a journal. Mix words and drawings, try to express your anxiety in new and interesting ways, or find a zentangle pattern and zone out. If you get into it you’ll enter a delicious state of flow that will keep anxiety at bay.
I started to really get into doodling when I stumbled across Peter Draws on YouTube many years ago. I’m pretty sure it was this video. Check it out, it really tore down my inner censor when I first watched it, and I’ve produced some cool creations since. Nothing to make a career out of, but it did what I needed it to do: Chilled me out for a while.
A doodle I made once. Making this kept me in a flow state for at least two hours.
These are just a few of many journaling exercises that can help you manage/relieve anxiety. The first encourages visualisation, the second a more balanced perspective, the third a more positive outlook, the fourth positive action and growth, and the fifth a little creativity and healthy expression. That should cover a lot of ground for most of us.
Let me know if you try any of these, and how it went!