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Imagination journal combats anxiety

How to Journal for Anxiety: An Approach that Works

Everyone has anxiety about something. Work, relationships, kids, money—you name it, and somebody has anxiety about it. And, because studies have shown that writing is one of the best things you can do to reduce anxiety, it makes sense that a lot of people want to keep a journal for anxiety.

But how does it work? Is there a particular way you have to journal if you have anxiety? Can you do it wrong?

While it is true that most journaling, if done reflectively, will help with your anxiety, there are things you can do to make journaling for anxiety even more effective.

Therefore, in this article, I am going to give you detailed instructions for how you can use a journal to help you cope with anxiety.

Related: What to Do When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed: Make a List; How to Overcome a Fear of Failure: Start a Journal.

What is Anxiety?

Picture of brain to illustrate that anxiety is a mental process.

In order to understand how journaling can help you cope with anxiety, it is helpful to begin by saying a few words about anxiety itself.

Anxiety can be tricky to pin down, but there are at least three things we can say about it.

1. Anxiety is one of your body’s natural responses to stress.

You can be stressed about any number of things that make you feel anxious:

  • Work
  • Family
  • Health
  • Public speaking
  • A date
  • A vacation
  • Moving
  • Taking an exam

Pretty much anything that causes your stress level to rise—good or bad—can lead to anxiety.

Feeling nervous, worried, or even afraid, before starting a new job or taking a test are meant to give you in a heightened sense of awareness so you’ll be ready for potential threats and unknown situations.

2. Anxiety is not stress.

Even though anxiety can be your body’s response to stress, it’s important to note that anxiety is not the same thing as stress.

There’s a key difference between anxiety and stress: Anxiety is caused by internal responses, while stress is usually your body’s reaction to external events or situations.

So, if you have to visit your mother-in-law tomorrow, that can cause you to feel stress. In turn, you could experience feelings of anxiety. But the anxiety itself is not directly caused by your upcoming visit with your mother-in-law. Instead, it’s caused by the wiring in your brain (more on that below).

Furthermore, stress can produce any number of bodily reactions other than anxiety. And, you can experience anxiety without necessarily experiencing any increase in stress levels.

Just being sad or worried about something does not mean you have anxiety.

Anxiety is specifically a feeling of apprehension, fear, or even dread.

3. Anxiety serves a useful function.

Before you ever experience the effects of anxiety, a complex process has been at work in your brain.

The complex process in your brain goes something like this:

The amygdala, believed to be the communications hub of the brain, sends a warning message to the rest of the brain that a threat is present.

Your fight or flight response then kicks in and your system is flooded with norephinephrine and cortisol, which sends a turbo charge to your perception and reflexes. Your heart rate increases, and you get more blood into your lungs.

The hippocampus then encodes the threatening broadcast into a memory, making it easier and quicker for your brain to turn the turbo charge back on in similar situations in the future.

Now, here’s an essential piece of the puzzle: Your brain remembers the thing—whatever it is—which brings about the anxious feelings by storing your feelings and emotions.

So, if you get anxious when you think about giving a presentation next week in front of your colleagues, your brain connects its anxious response not to the event of public speaking, but to the feeling you get when you think about public speaking.

This means that every time you experience this same feeling about anything, your brain will naturally want to flip the switch and turn into anxiety mode.

This is a useful survival reaction. The problem occurs when this process is triggered too easily, too often, in the wrong situations, or it doesn’t turn off.

That’s when a sense of heightened awareness and an increased heart rate can easily turn into a panic attack.

Note: If you experience intense and debilitating anxiety that doesn’t go away and lasts for more than six months, you might be one of the 40 million adults in the United States who have an anxiety disorder. In this case, I would advise you to seek professional help.

What Your Brain Needs to Cope With Anxiety

In the moments when you feel anxiety coming on, it is helpful to know what your brain needs to be able to cope with it.

Essentially, what your brain needs is a bit of re-wiring.

If your anxiety is being caused by emotional triggers, you need to re-format those triggers.

You need to make it so that when you feel those same emotions again, your brain does not automatically switch into turbo mode.

You can’t use rational arguments to calm yourself down because your brain’s reaction is automatic and based on emotional triggers.

You need to reconfigure how your brain responds to those emotions a different way.

How Journaling Can Help

Picture of someone journaling for anxiety

This is where journaling for anxiety comes in, because keeping a journal specifically targeted at helping you cope with anxiety can help you begin to re-wire your brain.

One of the great challenges when dealing with anxiety is determining what emotions are causing the reaction.

Unfortunately, a lot of people make the mistake of trying to treat anxiety as if it were a reaction to external stimuli.

For example, you might notice that you feel anxious every time you’re around a dog. It makes sense that you’d think the dog must have something to do with it.

But, in reality, seeing the dog might simply produce a similar emotional response as you felt the first time you had anxiety. Your brain is recognizing the emotional trigger. It really has nothing to do with the dog.

The other mistake people often make is thinking that their brain is reacting to their primary emotion. But, in fact, we experience a complex range of emotions almost constantly.

Just because you feel happy when you see a dog doesn’t mean happiness is the trigger. You could also feel regret or a certain kind of fear, even without being fully aware of it.

Your brain could be reacting to any one of those emotions, or even a complex association of more than one emotion.

What makes matters even more complicated is that every time you experience anxiety, your brain incorporates any new emotions you might be feeling into its trigger warning system.

So, to use the dog analogy again, you might experience a particular kind of fear—even subconsciously—which initially triggered the anxiety because it was the same fear you felt when your brain initially established the trigger.

But now, because you also feel a tinge of regret, as well as happiness, your brain says, “Okay, a fight or flight response is appropriate for those emotions, too.”

And that’s how anxiety can snowball and come to be triggered by almost anything.

If you experience a lot of anxiety, it’s not your fault.

Hopefully, everything I have said so far makes it clear that anxiety is the product of a really sophisticated system in your brain.

It’s not that you’re weak or that something is wrong with you.

No, it’s just that your system has trained itself to be triggered by the wrong things.

So, if you want to journal for anxiety successfully, you need to begin by thinking about it the right way: You don’t need to change you; you just need to change the automatic processes that naturally take place in your brain.

Using a journal successfully to deal with anxiety requires you to approach journaling with a probing mindset.

One of the great things about writing about your anxiety in a journal is that it allows you to probe multiple layers over an extended period of time.

But this will only be beneficial for you if you have the right mindset to begin with.

Just as anxiety is the result of a complex process, coping with it requires an equally complex process.

So, when you start a journal to help you cope with anxiety, you need to do so with what I call a probing mindset.

Just writing about the events of your day, or recording your feelings, can have a positive effect on you. But it isn’t even close to the kind of effect journaling can have in your life if you approach journaling with a probing mindset.

Approaching journaling with a probing mindset means three main things.

1. It means that you embrace your anxiety.

Think about your anxiety for a minute. When you feel anxious, what do you want?

  • Do you want it to be over?
  • Do you feel like you want to escape?
  • Do you feel like you want to fight what you’re feeling?

These are all natural responses to anxiety. I mean, who in the world actually likes being anxious? We all want the anxiety to end. That’s why you want to journal for anxiety in the first place.

But, if you want to have success journaling for anxiety, you need to commit yourself to embracing your anxious feelings, at least to some degree.

Recognizing that they are the result of a natural process in your brain (see above) can go a long way to helping you do this.

But, you need to go further. You need to get curious about your anxiety. You need to have the attitude that it’s something you can examine from different angles and explore in different ways.

You need to think about your anxiety as something apart from who you are, and also as something that is interesting.

If you can do that, I can almost guarantee that you can have success journaling for anxiety.

2. It means you write about how you feel.

This means you don’t just write down what happened to you and think about that. You don’t write only about the dog you saw, or the presentation you have to give.

Yes, you can write about those things, if you want. But the focus of your writing from the beginning needs to be on what happens inside your head. You need to focus on your feelings and emotions.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea here. I’m not talking about writing about how the latest episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians made you feel.

What I am talking about is keeping in mind the process I outlined above while you write.

Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  • In moments when I feel the most anxious, what emotions do I feel?
  • In moments when I don’t feel anxious, what emotions do I feel?
  • Can I feel anxiety beginning to come on? If so, what are the emotional indicators that I feel?

If you spend the time writing out your answers to these questions (and I do mean spending time—this can take a long time), you will begin to zero in on some of your anxiety triggers.

3. It means you write to reconstruct your emotions.

Once you know some of your basic emotional triggers, you can begin the work of re-wiring your brain so that those emotions no longer automatically trigger your fight or flight response.

The way to do this is to envision scenarios in which you feel those trigger emotions and build a story around those scenarios where you have a much different response.

Simply write a story about yourself where you experience your trigger emotions in the future, and then shape your response to those emotions in a positive way within your story.

As you do this over and over, you will find that, over time, your brain begins to change the way it handles the trigger emotions.

There are two keys to making this step work: 1) you need to imagine this story as actually happening in your future; 2) you need to do this exercise often and consistently.

The reason it is so important to envision a scenario in the future is because there is a very strong link between the way your brain remembers the past and imagines the future.

Recent research shows us that the exact same areas of the brain are involved when we access our memories and imagine our futures.

In other words, as far as our brains are concerned, the past and the future are connected.

When it comes to journaling for anxiety, this is important because it emphasizes the importance of imagining the future as a way of re-wiring the way our brains store memories.

So, if anxiety is triggered by the way our brains remember past feelings, the strategy here is to change this by focusing on future feelings (since, obviously, we cannot go back and change the past).

Your brain has been wired to trigger your fight or flight response through repetition. So, your re-wiring will require a lot of repetition as well.

It isn’t enough to simply write out an imagined story of yourself in the future and expect that everything has changed.

You need to write out many different future scenarios over time.

You should also review the scenarios you create often.

This will help your brain begin to reverse the pattern that has been established over time.

Conclusion

Starting a journal for anxiety is a very good idea. But, if you’re serious about it, you shouldn’t just write anything.

You need a plan.

And that plan centers on re-wiring the pattern your brain has established.

If you commit to

  • embracing your anxiety
  • writing about how you feel
  • and reconstructing your emotions

you will set yourself up to journal for anxiety in a way that actually works.

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