Journaling to help ease anxiety. How?
November 27, 2020 3:19 AM   Subscribe

My therapist has suggested I try journaling to help ease anxiety, especially my tendency to get stuck inside my own head and think over the same things again and again. Our session ran out of time before she could explain more though so I'm hoping to get some help here. I'd love to hear from people who journal for mental health reasons. How, exactly do you do it, and does it help?

Pencil and paper? Microsoft Word? An app? And if an app, can you recommend any?
Time of day? What do you write about? Do you destroy or delete it after a bit? Do you read what you've written again or just move on?
posted by Zumbador to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
There are lots of cool apps out there for this but nothing for me (an anxiety sufferer) is as good as pen on paper, first thing in the morning. There is just something about seeing your own handwriting on paper like in grade school, instead of computer letters in an MS font bound for some SQLite database. As recommended in "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron I find it really good for rushing out a stream of stuff, until something surprising shows up.

She talks about kinda clearing out the petty complainy stuff you might be ruminating about, so you can get that out of the way and go deeper. Eventually if you are stuck in a loop you get tired of journaling the same loop over and over again, and then that's where new stuff for me tends to come out.
posted by johngoren at 3:28 AM on November 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

I have kept a journal since I was 9. I don't journal "for" my mental health, but during spells when I don't journal consistently, my mood is definitely worse.

I use good quality lined paper and pen, in a half sheet (A5) bound book. Usually in the evenings for me, particularly after dinner, though can vary. I rarely re-read old entries, but I have all the books on my shelf if I ever care to.

I write free-form, but there are lots of journaling prompts out there.
posted by basalganglia at 3:35 AM on November 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I like to do really simple, basically the same every day prompts when I'm having a tough time (with anxiety, grief, whatever). Right now my go to is some combination of:

- Here's what I got done today
- High point of day/week
- Low point of day/week
- Something I'm grateful for

And sometimes I keep going and write a couple pages about something else, sometimes it's all once sentence blegh.
posted by mskyle at 3:52 AM on November 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think it’s different for everybody, depending on your unique circumstances. I just write in Notepad++, because I work in a software-adjacent position and I pretty much always have Notepad++ open already, with a dozen tabs. When something strikes me or if I feel I need to get something out, I just open a new tab an type it. Sometimes in complete sentences, sometimes not. Then I’ll generally just leave that tab open while going back to whatever tab I was on for work. At some point, I’ll go through my open tabs and find what I wrote again, and if it’s still important I’ll save it or email it to myself. Otherwise, I just close without saving. I have a pretty photographic memory, so even if I don’t save it, I’ll still generally remember if I see it onscreen.

I’ve tried keeping a pen and paper journal a few times, and I don’t like it. I feel a lot of pressure to write something “important”, which is kind of contrary to the purpose. I just dismiss what I’m feeling as not important enough to go on paper, and so I never write anything. Then when I do end up writing something, it’s along the lines of “it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything”. That’s not only counterproductive; it’s not true. I usually have been writing things, just not in my journal. This is how I found that Notepad++ works for me. I’d write things there instead of in my paper journal.

I also don’t like specifying a time, because I find it limiting. I don’t necessarily have something on my mind every day at 8am. If I force myself to write something just for the sake of filling a page, it’s not going to help me. Alternatively, what if something crosses my mind at 8:30? Do I wait until tomorrow’s session? What if I forget before then? This is something personal, though, depending on your reasons for journaling. Maybe you need a ritual to ground you, in which case regularity would be helpful. It’s all trial and error.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:26 AM on November 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

I gave it the old college try several times, but it didn’t help at all. It actually seemed to make things worse.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:27 AM on November 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

It's possible that she is talking about cognitive (behavior) journaling. It's a journal-based way to try and break negative thought loops sometimes associated with anxiety.

It gives you some structure. IANAT so I picked a random link that has some background to explain more:
posted by carter at 4:28 AM on November 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

I definitely use writing for mental health. Just like basalganglia when I fall out of the habit for a bit I can feel something missing in my life.

I go back and forth between handwritten pages and my laptop. I rarely write at my big monitor as it feels less intimate. That's where I do work. This isn't work but something else.

I have liked Julia Cameron's morning pages style. Just sit down and write, first thing in the morning, anything goes. I have also liked 750 words, which is a sort of spinoff of the same idea. Basically, just start writing. Write anything for a defined amount of time or number of words and see what emerges.

I like writing on my laptop best as I can type almost as fast as I think. But when I fall out of the habit I find it easier to get back into it by getting out pen and paper and just starting. It might take a page or two of writing what feels like meaningless dreck but after a bit hidden gems begin to emerge, things you didn't know you were thinking or feeling, a solution to a problem, a distillation of an idea into something you can use in your life in some way.

Years ago I created a template on my Mac, which has the date and the prompt, "Just begin writing" at the top. I open it and do just that, aiming for 1,000 words. It doesn't feel like much sometimes. Often it is just lists and petty complaints, but it usually turns into more. Either way it is helpful. I have used it in place of a therapist and occasionally as an adjunct to structured therapy.

For me free-writing is therapy itself. I have read somewhere that it is the most intimate way to be with yourself. I reflect on that often and find that it is true - It is like meditation, just allowing words and ideas to flow in their own way, not impeding them with expectation, but allowing them gently to arise and find their way to the page, an act of creation that is also an act of self-love and acceptance and hope.
posted by 6thsense at 4:30 AM on November 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

In crisis morning pages have been very helpful for me to break the spiral, but I'm now on nearly a year of positive journalling - a page a day, pen and notebook, mostly in the evening - and it's been great when the anxiety/stress threatened to dip into depression. I focus on recording all the positive things that happened, moments of joy, hopes for the future. Trite, but it does help to keep my thoughts on the positive side, and reinforces the habit of looking for solutions and ways out.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 4:47 AM on November 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

A psychologist named James Pennebaker has done research on the therapeutic effects of journaling. Here's a Wikipedia page that describes his approach. You might just Google his name for more information.
posted by akk2014 at 5:45 AM on November 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

For me personally, if I’ve been stuck ruminating on the same thoughts, writing them down with pen and paper breaks the cycle and lets my brain move on. I’ll write out what I’ve been thinking/feeling, and then go a little farther into “why do I feel that way” and “what could I do about this.” I don’t do it on a regular schedule, just once in a while, and I don’t save it to reread.
posted by songs about trains at 5:46 AM on November 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

I've felt blocked recently from even the most simple journaling. I took a small workshop with Katie Dalebout who's created kits and found that this has helped.
posted by knile at 6:12 AM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

One technique I used was for combatting negative thoughts. You draw a line down the middle of the page. On the left column at top, you write "Negative thought" and on the right column at the top you write "Fair, realistic thought."

First you go through all the anxious, negative thoughts in your head and just dump them all out on the left hand column. Then, one by one for each negative thought, you write an alternate, fair, realistic version of that same negative thought. For example, if my negative thought was "I made a mistake at work and I'm going to get fired,", then the fair, realistic interpretation might be "I made a mistake at work, but overall I'm a good employee, so hopefully it can be a learning experience. Even if I lost my job, I know I could find another one eventually."

It was helpful to me because it made me stop believing the catastrophic thoughts in my head. Even if something negative was happening in my life, it helped to reframe in a fair realistic manner because the anxiety tends to magnify what's negative in a way that's not even connected to reality.
posted by winterportage at 6:16 AM on November 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

I came to recommend The Artists Way also. Some days I need a short cut to the 3 page or 30 minute time allotment and will do three things I was grateful for or proud of from yesterday and three things I am looking forward to today like a to do list but it could be something as simple and low key as taking a walk or making dinner. As far as keeping or destroying I have sometimes found tossing them right into the wood stove cathartic. Poof! Burn your worries! I like using a college composition book for mine and lovely micron pens.
posted by coevals at 7:02 AM on November 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

I use an iOS app called Day One. I journal everyday. Sometimes it's just a picture. Sometimes a few lines of text. I like this app because it allows you to record yourself talking (need premium, but worth it for me). I find I get a lot more out by just rambling out loud. It also has templates and prompts.

I used to use a paper journal and pen. I was processing a lot of trauma stuff. When I finished one journal, I would go to the bookstore (usually) and look through all the journals and find one that spoke to me. I would also type the entries into a Word document. It made searching for themes possible. A number of years ago, I threw them out. Sometimes I regret that.
posted by kathrynm at 7:20 AM on November 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

There is no "right way" to do this. It's kind of like when I asked a personal trainer about what the best exercise program for me would be, and she said "the one that you stick with".

If you find it clunky to work with pen and paper, or you find it frustrating because that's the only thing you use pen and paper for, and so every time you try journaling it's a pain in the butt because you have to keep looking for where you put the damn things, then the computer is fine. Or if you have concerns about "oh shit what if someone finds the journal and reads this if it's down on paper". Conversely, if you start on the computer and you find yourself wishing you could write stuff down but you can't because you're not in front of your computer and you get all anxious, then a small notebook would be the way to go.

Basically, whatever will help you get to the point where you are writing a) most quickly when you need to and b) most intimately, that's what you do. And as for what TO write....well, anything. Any random thought or shit that is running through your head when you feel you need to. I think the reason that journaling has helped ME is that it sort of....forces you to think a tiny bit more practically about what's bothering you. Like, if you're just sitting there thinking about it, you're probably "thinking" in these half-formed thoughts that are driven more by emotion. But for me, the very act of choosing the words to describe my situation when I was writing about it sort of tricked me into thinking just a tiny bit more practically about it. But for me that was a bonus on top of just getting what I had to say OUT.

Other answers, which I apologize for sounding glib about:

Time of day?

When I feel like I need it.

What do you write about?

Whatever I feel like I need to. Sometimes I just make myself write without stopping for several minutes, even if there are patches here and there where I just write "I don't know what to write" a few times over and over. Just keep the pen moving. Eventually something will pop up in your head and you'll start writing about it to keep the momentum and you'll be pouring out the stuff in your head that needed to come out anyway.

Do you destroy or delete it after a bit?

I haven't. If you're really concerned about people finding what you wrote, to the point that you self-censor, then maybe, but I just keep my stuff secure. If you end up really wanting to destroy something because you wrote about how sucky someone was to you and you want to burn it in some kind of ritualistic thing, then that works too.

Do you read what you've written again or just move on?

Maybe I reread like years later, if I come across one of my journals. It can be interesting to look back at some of the concerns I had years ago, and realize that "huh, that actually turned out okay and doesn't matter any more." But I don't make any kind of study of "look back a week ago and reflect upon mine thoughts" or anything.

In short - the right way to do this is whatever way will help you feel comfortable enough to write openly, and get you writing as quickly as possible. Maybe a daily "appointment" would help for the first few days to just get the habit started, but then go to an "as-needed" basis (you don't want to be suddenly struck with a thought at 2 pm but not write about it because "but my journaling is at 7", is what I mean).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:25 AM on November 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

I use the journaling app Day One and I have it on my desktop and phone (iOS). I usually write in the morning, as I sit down to my desk 5 days a week for work anyway so my desktop is right there and easy to access. Having it one my phone means that I don't have an excuse, so I have written entries while standing in line, waiting for medical appointments - pretty much anytime I feel like it.

One of the features that I love is that while the application has some pre-installed templates, you can also create your own. So I have a specific template for day-to-day activities, another one that I designed to use when I'm feeling especially anxious or unhappy that I based on several of the guided mood journal templates out there.

Day One is not inexpensive and the premium subscription is $35.00 a year, but it allows you to attached more photographs, documents and other files to a journal entry which has been very useful.

On preview, what kathrynm said.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 7:31 AM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

From some of the self-help books I've read, when it comes to anxiety, these are some practices you can do to deal with anxiety. Setting aside a specific time of day to "worry" vs. worrying all day (you can even jot down what you want to worry about).

From a writing prompt perspective, these are some prompts I use - props to "The Worry Cure"
1) What are you worried about happening?
2) What are you predicting will happen?
3) Can you really "know" what will happen?
4) What is the worst outcome that could happen? What is the best outcome? What is a likely outcome? What are the probabilities to each (incl. chaining probabilities, e.g., if this happens and this happens and this happens.... )
5) What is a story of how a great outcome can happen?
6) What is the evidence that something really bad is going to happen?
7) How many times have you been wrong in the past about your worries?
8) Why are the things you're worried about not really a problem?
9) What advice would you give a friend?
10) What is the cost vs. benefit of worrying about this?

If you have been doing any Cognitive Behavioral techniques, I find writing that down to be super useful, e.g., what is the distortion, what is the evidence for / against?

For me, there's something about putting words on a page [typing or hand writing], that allows my brain to feel assured that I've taken its worry into serious consideration in a way that can be easily referenced, such that it doesn't have to keep bringing up that damn worry every 5 seconds in the fear that I'll forget it.
posted by ellerhodes at 7:34 AM on November 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

Artist's Way +1
morning, immediately on waking up, 30 min free write (pen can't stop).
posted by j_curiouser at 7:42 AM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I use the Penzu app on my Android phone, I like that it's password protected.
posted by AuroraSky at 7:44 AM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yeah, lot of people swear by handwriting because it slows you down and feels more intimate. But I type SO much faster than I write that it slows me down too much and I often give up in frustration. But if I'm typing, I can get everything out.

I definitely find that once I've written something down--something I'm dwelling on and all the assorted nuances and angles--I can turn my attention elsewhere. It's not that it's gone, it's that the paper is storing it for me so I don't have to keep it on the top of my mind for fear of losing the nuance of my feelings about it. That's just me, though.
posted by gideonfrog at 8:00 AM on November 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'll be watching this thread for ideas for good tools to use. I've just been using a google doc. It's getting long enough now that it takes a few moments to load, which is a little annoying. But, for me there are two equally important parts to getting the mental health benefit, so having it in one doc is important:

1. the actual writing, i.e. organizing my thoughts and dumping out all that shit in black and white, which serves as a pressure valve. this is also where I get to think through "what are the likely ways this could go; what would the solution look like in the worst case scenario" etc which is extremely useful.

2. glancing back over the stuff I wrote before, which serves as a useful reminder that the agita passes, things change, things that loomed so large a while ago are no longer important*

*this included writing down whenever I was scared that I was coming down with covid, at the start of the pandemic. I'd write down "my lungs feel weird! I'm tired and scared!" and that was a very useful thing to see written down (multiple entries of it) the next time I felt that way. Like oh yeah, that happens all the time, means nothing.

anyway I never schedule or make myself write. When I'm moved to do it, I do it. I don't need to sit there and write "ummm dear diary I guess everything's ok & I had turkey for lunch." I only do it when I know I'll feel better for having done it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:06 AM on November 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

As mentioned above, whatever works for you is what’s best for you. I type in a Word document that I don’t save at the end of a 30 minute session. The ephemeral quality of a not-saved document gives me much more freedom to say what I need to without censoring myself. I also type much, much faster than I write and this also allows me to get the thoughts out productively. But writing by hand may be what’s best for you! Just be aware that a lot of the texts that have been written about journaling (like The Artist’s Way) were written by people who came to computer use as adults when it felt clunky and foreign to them, so there is a fair amount of canon about how typing is inauthentic and disconnected from your true self and No True Writer Would Use Anything Other Than a Pen That Speaks to Their Soul...what I am saying is that that’s not true for everyone. Do what works for you.
posted by corey flood at 8:30 AM on November 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

I use the Pennebaker introspective writing exercise:

Pick a topic, set aside 20 minutes a day for 4-5 days in a row. Each 20 minutes, write continuously, stream of consciousness. If you have a moment of writer's block, repeat something you already wrote, or write, "I can't think what else to write." or anything to keep your writing flowing forward. It doesn't matter if you write on paper or screen. Then put it away until the next day.

You can move through a variety of topics this way, or just dive into one.

There's a lot of research support showing this can help people move through topics or issues in their lives that have been sticky or hard to navigate.
posted by spindrifter at 8:34 AM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

There's tons and tons of exercises you can get from googling, and that's exactly what I do when I'm stuck (here's a list of 7 good ones).

Another very useful journaling exercise, when you're struggling with a specific thing or situation or event: write an imaginary AskMe about it. Anticipate the questions and objections we will come back to you with and address them in advance.

Mostly the purpose of this is to perform some kind of interrogation of your thoughts instead of just soaking in them. That's how we process things. As a mechanism, it's similar to having a good talk with a friend or coworker where you find yourself at the end saying "that makes so much more sense now!" as if they gave you the answer when in fact you just advanced your own perspective in the process of talking it through. (Or similar to writing an AskMe and realizing at the end that you don't need an answer anymore, you already know that you should break up/not eat it/go to therapy/say "no, I'm sorry, it's not possible" with no excuses/eat it.

On days when I simply don't know what to say or do, I find that just basic mood-tracking and/or anxiety symptom tracking plus a bullet-point list of 5 things causing me stress can be enough to help keep me mindful of those things and the patterns underneath. There are apps for this, but I think you should try all these exercises on good old paper first (you are allowed one set of fancy pens to start, you can have more later but you do not need to obtain ALL the markers before you can begin).
posted by Lyn Never at 9:43 AM on November 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

I have tried paper and pen, digital apps on my phone or iPad or laptop, prompted guides, free journaling, you name it. I probably try it at least once a year and I struggle to keep the practice up because it actually seems to enhance my anxiety and tendency to ruminate, so then I start avoiding writing. I then feel like a failure because I can't "do" something as seemingly simple as this.

Hopefully your experience is better than mine.
posted by sm1tten at 10:08 AM on November 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have always hated journaling, ever since I was a kid, so when my therapist suggested it I was like "no. I hate writing.". But I've actually found it to be really useful. One thing that's reassuring is that I never have to go back and re-read anything. I don't have to destroy it, but I never have to look at what I've written. On the occasions that I've chosen to, I've surprised myself with how much I've grown, and how much compassion I have for my past self.

I use it whenever I'm anxiety-spiraling, having big emotions that I'm having issues processing, or weird feelings that seemingly come out of nowhere (like grief). I have a notebook and a pen at my nightstand at home, and will open it up and start writing down how I feel. That seems to allow my mind an opening to processing and moving on, like opening up a drain on a whirlpool of big feelings/anxiety.

Good luck!
posted by Sparky Buttons at 10:15 AM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm the same as Sparky Buttons, only started it recently after thinking it wasn't for me for years before. I use Penzu which is on iPhone, Android, and web, and is password protected. I generally do it in the morning as I am more anxious then, but go back to it whenever needed, I use it as a way to get worries out of my head. I don't write in full sentences, don't reread past entries, and find an app/website much easier than writing it by hand. It does relieve the stress I'm holding about whatever is making me anxious at that moment.
posted by ellieBOA at 10:49 AM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've never been much of a diary-writer or journaler, but in the last century I was a big fan of The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense (←several editions currently freely borrow-able online from the Internet Archive at that link, if anyone is curious) and the things I read in it sort of fermented, like fine wine and/or sour grapes, over the decades.

Then in this century, during a brief period when I forced myself to take up journaling on the advice of a therapist, I found it quite useful to very specifically write down descriptions of conversations or interactions I'd had with other people, at the level of what classical education would call rhetoric I think. I'm a rather literal person by nature and I believe this helped me to realize that I often feel anxiety from being pulled in two directions when I'm interacting with others: I feel compelled to only verbally respond to their literal words, while emotionally I'm independently reacting to the underlying sentiment or argument they're expressing, which doesn't always line up.

Handwriting versus typing: I'm a fairly quick typist, but since I constantly hit “delete” and revise “in place” without trace as I type on a computer, I found the mental processes involved in doing lots of handwriting to provide a different and useful perspective. The final output wasn't as neat, but I found that the aspect of setting down ink and committing to the words more firmly, so that you sort of have to sort of swim like a shark and keep moving, so the overall process of translating thoughts into words becomes smoother and less circuitous for me.

I never destroyed anything I wrote. My journals will travel to the afterlife, entombed with me, my riches, and the mummified bodies of my pets and loyal servants.
posted by XMLicious at 1:23 PM on November 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

+1 for 750words. I've been doing it for six months and I prefer it to handwriting a journal. The handwritten journal felt too precious to me - for some reason I was always imagining like, my future granddaughter finding it and reading it, and I was always afraid of writing something stupid in it. Also I don't write that much by hand anymore and my hand would always start cramping up. I can type as fast as I can think and it doesn't hurt to get it all out.

As for what I write about...I'm mostly really invested in keeping up my streak, so I allow myself permission to write absolutely inane and dumb things. Sometimes all I do is record what I wore, what I ate, and what I watched. It's still fun to go back and look at what I've written, which I do every few weeks.
posted by airplant at 2:27 PM on November 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all these amazing answers. So helpful! This is really an amazing place :)
posted by Zumbador at 12:59 AM on November 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

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